Building on a tradition of hot spring hotels in Japan, Hoshinoya goes significantly further in imbuing the spa experience with all the trappings of calm, meditative luxury.
Only an hour from Tokyo, the Hoshinoya ryokan is a world away in culture and contemplation, elevating the traditional hot springs hotel to the level of luxury escapism.
Due to its position on the so-called Ring of Fire – the line of volcanic activity bordering the Pacific Ocean – the islands that make up Japan have been endowed with a large number of naturally occurring hot springs or onsen. In a culture loaded with traditions governing everything from tea-making to costume, bathing also plays a large part in Japanese life. Thus, as part of the location-specific practices, the entities that have grown up around the onsen include the onsen ryokan, historically an inn where travelers could stop off for a night's rest and enjoy the natural springs' health-giving properties.
Today the onsen ryokan has moved on. While some still operate as one-night stop offs, others have upped the ante and transformed themselves into luxury hostelries, building on the unique base of their nature-given bounty.
One of the most luxurious and beautiful is Hoshinoya in Karuizawa. It's setting, among tree-covered hills and surrounded by verdant terraces and man-made canals and fountains, belies the fact that it's only an hour's train ride from the noise and stress of Tokyo. In fact, part of this onsen hotel's strength lies in its acknowledgement of the outside world: check-in and check-out times are incredibly flexible, the fresh delicacies in the ryokan restaurants and 24-hour room service respect modern eating patterns. And yet all this manages to happen in an establishment which has taken great pains to reintroduce visitors to a calmer, older form of Japanese living and community.
The guesthouses that seem to float atop a calm, leaf-dappled stream are just part of the bewitching ambience that this magical place is imbued with. A ryokan has stood here for over 100 years but the ryokan as it stands today, designed by architect Rie Azuma, was only opened in 2005. The hot springs come with the renowned Meditation Room, a new experience in Japanese spa service, and about 70-percent of Hoshinoya's energy is created on-site through hydropower and the heat coming from the earth.
That very closeness to the earth and to nature is what makes Hoshinoya such a captivating place to go, either to recharge ones batteries or simply to relax and let go of all ones worldly worries. We spoke to Takeoki Kondo, Hoshinoya general manager, about what makes this ryokan so special.
What was your motivation in creating the Hoshinoya ryokan?
The onsen ryokan is part of the Japanese culture, and ryokan-style resorts are still one of the most popular leisure destinations. At the same time, the schedule based on the traditional ryokan system is still used but the thought of making onsen ryokan without time restrictions was always on my mind. Also, the style of traveling shifted from group package travel to personal traveling and the personal travelers' needs have changed. As onsen ryokan were not so strong in this area, changing the system was a way to make ryokan the Japanese hotel that would be recognized worldwide.
For those people who don't know, what is the purpose of a ryokan and what does one do there?
The ryokan system has developed from a place to stay when traveling and a place to stay to cure sickness and diseases. Nowadays, it's a popular place to stay for relaxation. It is also a place where Japanese culture practices, like sitting on tatami, bathing with many people, and eating with chopsticks, is maintained.
How does the landscape and the region influence the design of the ryokan and its surrounds?
Hoshinoya is located in the valley between Notori forest and Hoshino hill. It's separated from the outside world and we thought the felling of being "surrounded" is part of the charm. Therefore private spaces were emphasized, the design imaged hidden space and became the "valley community".
What criteria did you put in place for Rie Azuma when it came to designing Hoshinoya?
The brief for Hoshinoya Karuizawa was "valley community". This is a landscape where you can feel both a comforting sense of old and a new Japan at the same time. This was the starting point and the basis for the hotel's creation.
What is so special about the Meditation Bath?
We have taken the concept of "meditation bath" and made an onsen where you could relax and meditate. When you move through the bath to the "room of light", two walls magically light up and reflect on the water, where you set yourself in the warm bath. When you go to the "dark room", quiet healing music and the very minimum light will let you forget the flow of time. This came from the concept of enjoying the onsen with the five senses.
Visitors have mentioned the unusually high cathedral ceilings. Was there a specific reason you created such soaring room spaces?
This refers to the gathering mansion which is built surrounding the stepped fields. It was built so that the scenery and the seasons could be enjoyed from the inside.
Hoshinoya was opened in 2005. Would you tell us about your primarily customers, what do you think was their point in choosing Hoshinoya?
70% of our customers are in their 30s and 40s. Starting with doctors and lawyers, there seem to be more self-employed business people. Many have experienced overseas resorts and the non-restricted style of stay with our onsen and the individuality of our offering seems to be their reason for choosing us and returning.
Can you explain the significance of the ryokan in Japanese culture.
Traveling in Japan, onsen have always been top ranked. As I mentioned earlier, the onsen ryokan is a concentration of Japanese culture, it is a place where even the Japanese can experience a taste of Japan. At the same time, it would prove to be a very attractive experience for foreigners too. It will probably have a big impact for the inbound market. There are many variations of ryokan types. To develop and build upon each ryokan's specialty is probably the goal from now on.