In Travel

Stay In A Japanese Inn Where Samurai Warriors Once Bathed

I’m asked my name then directed to a pair of slippers with a tag printed: “Jennifer”.

As I remove my shoes and change into my slippers, I admire my name tag written in both Japanese and English. Thinking the paper name tag is a neat souvenir, I pick it up and wander inside.

But I’m chased by one of the hotel employees who, bowing profusely points to the slip of paper in my hand. I’ve upset their system. Apparently, the paper tag is required to return shoes to their rightful owner on departure. I dutifully hand it over. I’ve been in Japan long enough to know they value order.

My 21-year-old son and I are at Keiunkan, a hot-spring hotel 133 kilometres west of Tokyo. Located in the Yamanashi Prefecture, Keiunkan nestles comfortably into the Yukawa ravine and is surrounded by the south Japanese Alps. Also referred to as Koshu Nishiyama Onsen (there are six onsen baths), the hotel proudly proclaims their status as the world’s longest-standing inn.

Founded in 705 AD by Fujiwara Mahito, the inn has remained in the same family for an incredible 52 generations. They’re certified by the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘oldest hotel in the world’.

The continuously flowing hot springs have provided relaxation for guests ranging from local townsfolk to samurai warriors and royalty. The founder of the dynasty that ruled Japan from 1600 – 1868, Tokugawa Ieyasu is said to have visited Keiunkan twice.

Over the 1,300 plus years of operation, the inn has undergone significant modification. And today, Keiunkan provides a five-star experience.

Image: Jennifer Johnston

Following the name tag episode, we’re beckoned to sit down on one of the chairs in the hotel lobby. Chikako Harbour, a front desk associate, who speaks very good English, offers a warm refresher towel and a drink. With a hotel map, she runs through what we can do over the afternoon, evening and next morning before we take the complimentary transfer bus back to Minobu station.

“You must try the outdoor onsen,” suggests Chikako smiling. Of the six onsens, four are open-air baths and two are indoor. “I like Boukei no Yu the best,” she says pointing to it on the map. “You can gaze up at the stars as you rest your head on the edge of the bath.”

Chikako recommends we book our complimentary private outdoor onsen. “Book it now or you may miss out,” she says. We agree and with typical Japanese efficiency, Chikako organises dinner for 6pm, breakfast at 8:30am and a 40-minute private ‘session’ in Seoto – an open-air bath.

Chikako escorts us to our room. We take the lift down to the first floor and step into a long hallway. I wonder how we’ll find room #108 as they look similar, but an A4 sized sign outside our door has my name in English and Japanese. Will I be allowed to keep this one tomorrow, I wonder.

Keiunkan

Our standard room with a view of the Hayakawa River has tatami floors, sliding doors, a low table and low chairs, a bathroom with shower and bath, a separate toilet and an entranceway to leave your internal shoes. Different slippers are required for walking on tatami (a traditional Japanese mat). Chikako ushers us inside and we sit in chairs at the low table, while Chikako kneeling, prepares tea using a kettle and cups from the corner of the room.

I’m looking forward to Seoto and bathing outside in the fresh January afternoon air. But as a pre-cursor to any onsen experience, one must shower first. By utilising the change room and with a little co-ordination, my son and I manage to shower outside and slip beneath the hot spring water without feeling embarrassed.

Steam rises from the mineral-filled water piped directly out of underground volcanic springs. The water temperature is around 40 degrees Celsius. I wonder if the samurai warriors were also able to relax this easily.

Dressed in our cotton yukata (casual Japanese kimono) we arrive at dinner on time. A smiling Japanese lady shows us to our table. The menu is printed on beautiful parchment paper, again with my name.

Keiunkan

I’m not sure what we’ll be eating as I can’t read the Japanese menu and our hostess speaks minimal English. But with my son’s conversational Japanese and our hostess’s animated explanations, we enjoy the various dishes from the Mountain Kaiseki Banquet. Each course made from fresh, local ingredients is presented on beautiful dinnerware.

Using cooking chopsticks, we barbecue the raw thinly sliced Koshu beef and vegetables on individual clay grills, cooking the pieces of mouth-watering beef to perfection.

The bedmaking fairies have visited and two plump futons are set up on the floor of our tatami room. Time for one more onsen experience in the segregated (women and men) baths before retiring.

Breakfast is rushed. My son is keen for another onsen and I want to explore outside. Chikako recommends the swinging bridge, a three-minute stroll from the hotel entrance. The forest at the end of the bridge beckons, but I cannot explore further as the bus is leaving soon on a strict 9:50am departure time.

After checking out, I find my shoes sitting next to the monogrammed piece of paper. I scoop it up knowing this time I can keep it, without causing a fuss. 

(All images: Keiunkan unless specified / supplied)

Published 26 February, 2020