Peering up from the steam of your own private onsen (hot spring bath) at Beniya Mukayu, making out the sunset stained sky from behind the delicate green patterned garden foliage; the neon lights, frenetic streets and gargantuan skyscrapers of Tokyo seem another world away.
As the hot thermal water relaxes your body, even remembering the journey here feels like a dream. You tear through on the Shinkansen high speed bullet train from Tokyo to Marabai, where you change trains to Kaga Onsen, and welcomingly, the pace, to meander (in comparison) through continuously rolling hills covered in velvety green fir and pine forests; villages with traditional pointed roof houses overlooked by peaceful Buddha statues, punctuated by the occasional rice paddy and cherry blossoms appearing like pink firework clusters.
Being both entranced and enchanted by the poetic scenery – the romantic rural Japan you always read about – puts you in just the right frame of mind for the experience you are about to encounter at Beniya Mukayu. It is architecturally, gastronomically, holistically, culturally and hospitalit-ally (I know that’s not a word) sublime.
This ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is wonderfully minimalist, and you can read more about the philosophy of architect Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama in the material in your room – his intention being to ‘to celebrate the power of water, body and soul…the place created to deliver the full memory, power and free flowing nature of this water to your entire body’. It is, in his words, ‘a place that is ‘richness in emptiness’ – the intention being that by cleansing your mind through the simplicity of pure and utter relaxation, your heart and soul will be replenished and become full again.
A tribute to water is manifested in the art sculpture in between the spa and restaurant, in which single drops become entities to themselves and like balls, travel down a white metal chute before spiralling down into a white stone basin and back into the moon-like pool from which they originated. It’s mesmerising to watch this physics defying work of art. To view the video, see my previous post.
Beniya Mukayu has just 17 rooms, all with open air baths from the natural hot spring, and the water exactly at 41 degrees, where you can soak behind the privacy of your own bamboo wall, looking up at the sky as the mineral goodness absorbs into your skin.
Western rooms are available but it seems a shame to opt for this when staying in a Japanese room is all part of the fun. The room is, naturally, open and sparsely decorated, but your futons are rolled out on the tatami mats while you are at dinner, ready for you to relax on your return. It goes without saying that the supply of green tea is neverending, and if your dinner tasting menu isn’t enough, there are surprise new snacks placed in your room every day too.
The traditional Yukata robe, provided in your room, is the attire of choice, with guests both foreign and Japanese all padding round in the gown and slippers, to dinner, breakfast and just generally around the hotel. Here’s me trying mine on for size!
And both of us exploring the garden at Beniya Mukayu, also in our Yukata:
As you can see, we certainly weren’t shy about embracing the Yukata, and you shouldn’t be either. There are even moments where you’d feel out of place not wearing the Yukata, such as at the tea ceremony, which is run by Mr Kazunari Nakamichi, part of the gentle yet outgoing husband and wife team who own and run the hotel. Mr Nakamichi offers these several times a day in the afternoon, in the specially built traditional tea house that the garden centres around. We watch quietly as Mr Nakamichi serenely and expertly stirs, whisks and serves the tea, eating our customary Japanese sweets only when we are told before drinking the frothy tea from a ceramic bowl.
Mr Nakamichi and his wife, Sachiko, are a multi-skilled duo and in fact part of the experience, greeting all guests individually at dinner and personally sending us off at the end of our visit with a mix of genuine sadness and gratitude. Mrs Nakamichi runs the complimentary 7am yoga class and puts us all to shame by being the most flexible of us all. As we do the tree pose, she points out the sacred red pine in the garden that we should do the pose in honour of.
Dinner is included in your stay, and it is not just a meal, but an experience that is both humble and lavish, delivered with obvious expertise, care and pride, as well as artistic flair. In your Yukata, dressing for dinner is easy.
Some dishes are as stunning to look at as they are to taste, like the kegani crab with amber jelly, served in a version of its own shell, reconstructed so it appears like an open oyster shell with a delectable treasure inside.
Or the combination of sashimi nodoguro (black cod) and shrimp, so fresh it’s as if it’s staring out at you from inside the window of its clear fish bowl, hand carved from ice for each guest. As they are brought in swiftly from the kitchen, wait staff swishing along in their sock feet, you can hear each guest murmur in awe and appreciation.
Other favourites were the grilled nodoguru, buttery, soft and smoky, cooked inside bamboo paper that you untie like a present; and the Japanese risotto, laced with silky ribbons of egg.
We even ate things that hadn’t occurred to me I would ever eat. The notorious puffer fish was served innocently in a sweetcorn broth, while the flounder sashimi with sea urchin and edible flounder had me move sea urchin from my list of foods never to eat to one I’d maybe eat again….if served like this, of course. I’m not, however, in a rush to eat the simmered abalone again!
To psyche yourself up for all this food, book yourself in for a Japanese pressure point treatment in the hotel spa. You can experience spa luxury from your room though, with specially created ‘Yakushiyama’ products on offer in your bathroom. Formulated with Dr Yoon Soung Choi, a prominent bio chemist, the products are free from paraben, sodium laurel sulphate, synethetic pigments and contain minerals from the Yamashiro hot spring and other ingredients such as essential oils, nano collagen extracted from tuna skin, natural extracts such as algae, bark and lemon, deep sea shark liver oil…the list of effective ingredients takes up two pages in the booklet.
If all that relaxing, meditating and eating is giving you itchy feet, take the train from Kaga Onsen to Kanazawa to explore its famous garden, castle and Samurai district – and of course the fish market for delicious fresh sushi.
Skin purified, minds refreshed, taste buds inspired, stomachs full, and thoroughly entertained – these are the lasting effects of our stay at Beniya Mukayu.
We flew Virgin Atlantic from London to Tokyo, and took the train from Tokyo to Kyoto, to Kaga Onsen. See the Japan Rail website for more information on trains – and don’t forget to purchase your rail pass before you travel to Japan! Beniya Mukayu offers free shuttles to and from Kaga Onsen station.