Japan

Nishiyama – The Third Onsen

Minobu Station 身延駅 was in a very quiet part of town, so quiet we did not see one single person on its streets in the 40 minutes we spent roaming around it. The only sound we heard – our own voices.

We had arrived from Kofu Station and were waiting for the ryokan bus. Our big boss told us we would be going to a secret onsen. We were 100% anticipation but 0% expectation.

Meanwhile, those roaming feet brought us to Eishodo 栄昇堂, a Japanese Confectionary shop/cafe that was known for its Minobu Manju (sweet buns filled with red bean).

Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan 西山温泉慶雲館

Keiunkan 慶雲館 is the world’s oldest hotel. It was established in AD705 which made it 1305 years old at the time of our visit in 2010 (we only knew this years later!). Though ignorant of its historical importance, we were impressed by its facilities; it definitely felt different from Yanagiya. For a long time, Keiunkan remained one of my more memorable onsen experiences.

Keiunkan is located in Hayakawa-cho 早川町, also known as the least populated town in Japan with a density of only 2.8 persons per km2. The town took its name from the Hayakawa river 早川 which runs through it and is helmed in by mountains all around ie the Southern Alps 南アルプス in the north and west, Mt. Kushigata 櫛形山 to the east, and Mt Minobu 身延山 in the south.

Keiunkan was built along the slope of the Hayakawa River, intentionally assimilating into the surroundings. The ryokan underwent a major renovation in 1997 but kept its traditional architecture.

Keiunkan was founded after Fujiwara Masato 藤原真人discovered hot spring water spouting exuberantly from between the rocks by the Yukawa river 湯川 during a hunt. Fujiwara was an ordained monk, going by his monastic name Jōe (pronounced Jo-eh). Jōe was also the eldest son of the founding father of the powerful Fujiwara clan and had travelled with the Tang envoy to China to study the buddhist scripture under a disciple of Xuan Zang‘s.

Jōe bathed in the waters and was overjoyed to find his spirit refreshed, his limbs lightened and his body energised. To facilitate better access to the precious waters, he constructed a road, cutting through the treacherous mountainous terrain, built a spa on the site and named it Keiunkan after the Keiun era. This was said to be the beginnings of the Nishiyama Onsen as well.

Gradually, people heard about Keiunkan and its hot springs and began to arrive and Keiunkan became well-known.

First Impressions

Keiunkan was so deep in the woods it took the ryokan bus 80 minutes to get us there on the Minami Alps Highway. We arrived to a very spacious lobby on the 3rd floor. From the lobby, we got a peek of the rustic scenery outside.

The front office manager was intrigued by this large group of foreigners who came on their own (presumbably Keiunkan hadn’t done much promotion to foreigners yet) and enquired how we came to know Keiunkan. Our big boss: from the internet!

Our rooms were traditional Japanese styled ones; each had a verandah that overlooked the Hayakawa river. An excellent spot to chill, literally!

Once we’d settled in, we changed into our yukatas and headed straight to the onsens. For 2 hours, we explored all the baths in the ryokan, starting with the one on the top floor (4th), Boukei no yu 望渓の湯 which offered a panoramic view of the river below and valley beyond.

Next we went to the private onsens Kawane 川音 and Seoto 瀬音 (booking required). They were cosy pictureque, rock-tiled onsens where one could soak and get close-up views of the river.

Kawane and Seoto were my favourites. I remember it snowed, albeit lightly, while we were in the bath (pictures below: Seoto).

Then we tried Hakuho no yu 白鳳の湯, a bigger rotenburo 露天風呂 (outdoor bath) which was perfect for group bath-gatherings.

We went to the indoor ones last. Hikou no yu 桧香の湯 and Sekifu no yu 石風の湯 were considered 大浴場 (daiyokujou) ie public baths where bathers usually scrub themselves down first before dipping into the onsens.

The ryokan received supply directly from 2 hot spring sources: a whopping 400 litres and 1,650 litres of waters per minute. We were truly spoilt for choice, with so many different types of baths to choose from, each offering a unique bath experience.

The Real Kaiseki

Dinner was a rather formal affair. We went clad in our post-bath yukatas to the banquet room (Tsubaki 椿), there the staff were already waiting by the entrance waiting to greet us.

At the side of each table was the night’s menu, printed on textured washi paper detailing the courses that would be presented through the night and was signed off by the chef de cuisine (a Mr Shinji Sato). Ours was the Black Mountain Banquet course.

Here’s the first 3 courses: the amuse-boche, suimono 吸い物 (broth) and the entrée.

Next, we had the お造り otsukuri (sashimi, smoked brinjal with miso, chilled soba that came adorned with a bright yellow flower etc).

These were followed by nimono 煮物 (simmered vegetables), yakimono (smoked fish), dai-no-mono 台の物 (duck in broth).

We also had sunomono-kawari 酢の物替り (vinegared vegetables with smoked salmon etc), tome-wan止め椀 (miso soup), kō-no-mono 香の物 (pickled vegetables).

Lastly we rounded the meal off with gohan 御飯 (very delicious rice served in a cute little bin) and finally dessert (milk pudding with fresh fruits and cream).

The presentations were flawless – each dish was served in beautiful, custom-made tableware – the service was perfect and the food was plate-licking good!

We enjoyed dinner so much, we decided to stay back and do some post-dinner fun photoshoots. Happiness was when you had a very good meal with good friends.

Breakfast

Breakfast was in the same banquet room. The dishes were simpler but laid out in individual plates so guests could take their time to savour each of them. It was a substantial spread nevertheless.

We’ve never eaten so much for breakfast but we finished everything on the table. It helped that we did some onsen hopping in the morning.

Around Keiunkan

After breakfast, we did some walking around the neighbourhood to burn off all those calories we just ingested. It was a beautiful morning, the sun was out and the sky was a radiant shade of blue.

We walked along the river and climbed up the suspension bridge nearby from which we could get panoramic views of the Hayakawa river stretching beyond into the valley.

I could already imagine this area would look gorgeous in autumn.

But it was time to bid farewell to Keiunkan.

Hello Tokyo

Back at Minobu, it was all bright and sunny but still as quiet. We shared cup noodles for lunch (amazed we actually still had space in the stomach or maybe we just wanted to try to cup noodles there?).

At Kofu we bought bus tickets to Shinjuku. The bus seats were designed for petite Japanese people so they were rather cramped for us but we endured. 2 hours and 15 minutes later, we arrived at Shinjuku.

With less than 20 hours in Tokyo before our flight back home, we manged to cover all the main sightseeing/shopping spots: Akihabara, Roppongi Hills, Meiji Shrine, Harjuku. Kudos to our big boss (and our energy); it’s a feat I can’t replicate anymore.

It was an awesome 9-day trip made possible because of our big boss’s flawless planning. Thank you Ai Leng! for being the chief planner, our interpreter and tour guide. We had such a wonderful time.

For other posts about this trip, here are the links: Marathon, Chichibu, Yumura.

Stayed 1 night, 4 March 2010
References: Inside the world’s oldest hotel, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, Hiking in the Minobu Mountains

Categories: Japan, Onsens, Throwback

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