One thing that Will and I definitely wanted to experience while in Japan was a stay at a genuine ryokan. After combing the internet for a while, we settled on Kamesei Ryokan. It’s certainly out of the way, all the way in Nagano, but the hospitality and getting out of the city is well worth the bullet-train ride.
Kamesei Ryokan is located in the city of Chikuma in Nagano, Japan. It’s up north, so the weather was more chilly than it was in Tokyo, but that was okay because it made the steaming, warm, onsen all the more satisfying. The main reason we picked this ryokan was because its proprietors were fluent in English. This made it extremely easy to communicate Will’s dietary restrictions and they were incredibly accommodating with all of it.
The first thing I saw when I stepped out of the train station was a lush mountainside and an arched sign welcoming us into the little onsen town. The air was cold and crisp, the parking lot had only a handful of people, and best of all, it was quiet — a nice departure from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, which we left an hour behind.
One of the proprietresses of the ryokan was nice enough to meet us at the train station with a mini-van and drove us to their family-owned ryokan. We were greeted with our names written with chalk on the sign in front of the lobby area (they got the wrong character for my name, but hey, it’s the thought that counts).
As mentioned before, Kamesei Ryokan is of the more traditional variety. You take off your shoes off in the lobby, put on the provided slippers, and walk over the tatami to your own room. Tyler, the American son-in-law of the proprietress met up with us while we were getting settled in and graciously explained the ryokan to us and answered our questions. He’s also the guy who’ll come into your room and lay out the futons/put them away when the time comes.
While there is a private restroom in each room containing a sink and toilet, there’s no shower or bathtub. That’s because the onsen is the main attraction. Why sit in a small tub in your own room when you can soak in a large one with other naked people? The ryokan has separate male and female onsens which switch location every night, so pay attention to the signs! Each onsen room has its own shower area and indoor tub large enough for at least 10 adults to stretch out. One of the rooms also has an outdoor tub that seats about 4 or 5. Definitely take advantage of the outdoor one if you get the chance. It’s a great sensation to be immersed up to your chin in hot, mineral-rich water while sitting outside in chilly weather.
Another main attraction of a ryokan is the food. Because we communicated Will’s vegetarian diet beforehand, the chef specially prepared a mostly vegan spread. The only thing that wasn’t vegan was the tempura, which unfortunately for him had egg in the batter. His loss is my crisply fried gain! The dinner spread featured a number of small dishes that highlighted the local specialties. Most notable was the delicate, soft, fresh made yuba and the sweet and savory bean paste which was a cross between nato and miso paste spread over a broiled bamboo shoot. I was also excited to see mini, personal-sized okonomiyaki’s!
When Tyler found out that I wasn’t vegetarian, he offered to have the chef make up a small sashimi sampler platter as well as a plate of their local fish, which I enthusiastically agreed to. The sashimi had a fresh, unadulterated flavor, and the little local fish was tastefully plated.
Just when I thought I couldn’t eat any more, I stopped to save room for dessert. I always complain about desserts being too sweet, but this plate of sweet bites was just right.
Breakfast had fewer dishes than dinner, but was no less delicious. It started with some crisp, pickled vegetables, salty mountain vegetables, that wonderful natto-miso paste, and a delicate soup of simmering tofu, mushrooms, and mizuna. I wish I could eat like this every day.
Out of my handful of days in Japan, I’d have to say that the ones spent at Kamesei ryokan were the most memorable. The people who live in this rural town look more healthy, are more friendly, and just seem to have more fun in life than their Tokyo-based counterparts. Tyler was enough nice enough to invite us along to his weekly music group to watch them practice lion dancing! I think I spoke more broken Japanese to the people of the group than I did in all the rest of my days in Tokyo.
It’s true that Kamesei Ryokan is out of the way for people who just want to visit Tokyo, but it’s a wonderful breath of fresh air from crowded subway trains and busy streets. I’m only afraid that I won’t be able to keep myself from going back next time I’m in Japan.
Address: 2-15-1 Kamiyamada Onsen,
Chikuma City, Nagano Pref. 389-0821 Japan
*Facsimile: (026)276-1032 (24 hours)