A unique immersive experience – the new luxury – a report by Cleverdis editor-in-chief Richard Barnes
Imagine bathing in hot springs overlooking a river and waterfall, surrounded by natural forests and taking in the amazing surroundings of one of Japan’s most ancient Ryokans.
In the past few years, an increasing number of surveys have found that discerning travellers are seeking more and more “unique” or “immersive” experiences, plunging into the aura, the culture and the rhythm of a place, and as much as possible, becoming as one with one’s surroundings.
To whit, some months ago, when prompted with a question about what might be the ideal example of such a place, the CEO of Relais & Châteaux, Jean-François Ferret didn’t hesitate in citing the Asaba in Japan, a Ryokan hotel that has been in the same family for 500 years.
I mentioned to Mr Ferret that I would be touring Japan in October and suggested I could pass by and meet the owner, at which point he suggested I should stay a night to get the “full experience” myself. Asaba seeming to fit perfectly with our philosophy “you read about it, we tried it” – that for some exceptional places it is difficult to relate the true story if you have not experienced them. So I accepted.
The regional context
It is said that many centuries ago, the great teacher of Japanese Buddhism, Kobo Daishi, bathed every morning in an onsen near the Katsuragawa River and emerged purified. In 807 AD, the Shuzenji temple was built by Daishi – and was a backdrop over the centuries for struggles among the Genji warrior family – related to the Kamakura Shogun.
500 years ago, this place served as lodging for the monks, and little by little opened its gates to other passers by. Today it is one of Japan’s most revered Ryokan hotels.
Just a few minutes away by foot, and with its own waterway, the hotel Asaba submerges guests in the Japan of legends: even including traditional “Noh” theatre performed by the water. 500 years ago, this place served as lodging for the monks, and little by little opened its gates to other passers by. Today it is one of Japan’s most revered Ryokan hotels.
When I arrived at Asaba by taxi, having come by train to Shuzenji from Gotemba near Fuji, I was warmly welcomed and taken to the lounge. This casual sitting room for guests looks out over a small lake into which tumbles a waterfall.
The light rain tumbling onto the water created a dream-like atmosphere, and the immediate sentiment was one of calm and tranquillity. A factor that is unique here is that the hotel is very much ‘integrated’ into the surrounding nature, so the guest really feels as though he or she is at one with the environment.
Having the honour of being introduced to “the” Mr Kazuhide Asaba, I learned that Asaba has been member of the Relais & Châteaux group for around 30 years: “Originally it was my father who decided to join the group,” said Mr Asaba. “He wanted to ensure that we could have a world standard establishment. While this is a traditional Japanese Ryokan, he wanted to find out what was required to make this place world class. This comes from respecting Relais & Châteaux the ‘five C’s’: courtesy, charm, character, calm and cuisine.”
I learned that Mr Asaba himself decides each day’s menu, and that I would be served in my room that evening. As in most Ryokans it is very important to give the time one wishes to dine well upstream of the event, as preparation and timing are of the essence.
I wondered over the beautiful timber construction on the other side of the little lake, facing the main building. This “stage” area, Mr Asaba told me, used for traditional ‘Noh’ theatre representations and weddings, was in fact from a shrine near Tokyo and was moved to Shuzenji around 130 years ago.
Around 20% of guests come from outside of Japan, primarily from the USA and France, but also from places like Hong Kong and Singapore
Despite being a very traditional Ryokan, it is nevertheless highly welcoming to foreigners. “Around 20% of guests come from outside of Japan, primarily from the USA and France, but also from places like Hong Kong and Singapore”, said Mr Asaba.
Direct bookings are still very common in Japan. In this case, “Half our reservations are online, through the official R&C site, or some Japanese OTAs,” smiled Mr Asaba. “For travel agents from around the world using Galileo, this also goes through the R&C system. Recently, we had a group of 30 American tourists – mainly from New York – who stayed for two nights. They were looking for this ‘Zen’ kind of experience. Around 20 years ago, we had the pleasure of welcoming French President Jacques Chirac, who came here just after a summit meeting in Okinawa.”
Key reasons for coming here are simple: “Kindness, the taste of our cuisine, hospitality… People listen to the waterfall, the stream, read a book. When people come here, they tend to just linger at the hotel.”
Weddings are also growing in importance as a key reason for staying. The Asaba hosts around ten weddings every year. Some are foreigners who love the local culture, and want to be married in traditional Japanese dress.
According to Asaba, bookings are not very seasonal – generally running at around 80% capacity, and there are many repeat Japanese visitors: “Some, living in Tokyo, come back two or three times a year, staying two or three nights.”
Staff must have the ‘Asaba spirit’, says Mr Asaba: “They are all local people, and are trained by our general manager, who has been working here for 50 years. There are 45 staff members for a total of 17 rooms. Ten of them work in the kitchen, which is entirely dedicated to guests.”
The spirit of running such an historic place is very different from the traditional Western attitude of “bigger is better”: “In the Ryokan business, our aim is not to expand… only to constantly improve the quality and standard of our service”, underlines Mr Asaba, explaining that the entire Ryokan is renovated not every three or five years, but indeed every year.
I was escorted to the very far end of the hotel, to the “Hagi” room (each has its own name). This is a “superior garden view” room, with traditional décor and futon bedding, prepared in the evening after one’s dinner, and put away before breakfast.
The view over the babbling stream and natural surroundings was paradise-like, and the sound of the running water was mesmerising. All features were explained in detail, and despite being a traditional establishment, internet connection was very good.
In the afternoon, after touring the picturesque surroundings, I left my Yukata* behind to enjoy the pleasures of an open-air onsen bath filled with steaming hot spring water. The rain continued to sprinkle gently and the air was fresh. Part of the pool is sheltered, but I moved to where the cool drops on my face contrasted with the enveloping warmth of the spring water below. Yes, indeed, this was paradise, I thought to myself.
After resting, it was already time for dinner. Mr Asaba told me that the creation of an exceptional and original menu was part of the unique experience at his establishment, telling me, “We at Asaba prepare meals for guests from fresh local produce, creating unique local flavours.” In this case, no less than twelve small but sumptuous courses, each as original as the other, arrived in a procession of gastronomic bliss, in which my dedicated server, a woman with a great mastery of English, explained each dish in more detail, and in one case, prepared a simple but very delectable fish and mushroom consommé at my table.
Later in the evening, I took back out to the rock pool onsen, in order to be placed into a total state of relaxation before hitting the futon.
Some say they don’t like the hardness of the Japanese futon. I find it particularly comfortable and slept very well.
Waking to a sunny morning, breakfast was brought to my room by the same server as the night before – a very personal touch in terms of making one feel at home.
After touring the village on foot and visiting the Shuzenji temple, it was time to leave… with much regret!
I had asked Mr Asaba to what point it could be difficult for westerners to adapt to this “immersion” in Japanese culture. He admitted that for some it was a little challenging. Personally I did not find this to be the case at all, and indeed found myself truly feeling a part of these dream-like surroundings. It’s like being in a movie in your own mind, with the scenes unravelling minute by minute. This is what more and more people are seeking, and yes, Mr Ferret was right. The Asaba can truly be cited as a perfect case example of profound cultural immersion (in comfort): the new brand of luxury.
* A yukata is a casual kimono-like garment worn while staying at the Ryokan. It’s unlined and usually made of cotton to make the fabric more breathable. Yukata wearing dates back over 1,000 years to when they were worn by the nobility to and from their baths in the days before bath towels were used in Japan.