One of the highlights of this trip (or any of the other Japanese trips I’ve taken) was an overnight stay at an amazing onsen near Mount Fuji called Kozantei Ubuya, some 80 miles southwest of Tokyo. This was another pre-trip research find, and online I saw a beautiful, classically-designed ryokan (inn) on the shores of a beautiful lake. Best, Mount Fuji loomed majestically in the background … SOLD!
For those of you not familiar with the concept of an onsen, it’s a term for natural hot springs, though it is often used to describe the bathing facilities and ryokans around the hot springs. Onsens are very popular in Japan for their rejuvenating effects and natural hot springs are numerous. Every region of the country has its share of hot springs and resort towns.
From a well-being perspective, the different minerals from the natural hot springs provide many health benefits, and all hot springs have the obvious relaxing effect on your body and mind. Believe me, your first dip in a perfectly hot, mineral spring bath and you instantly feel the outside world melt away. And from the moment you enter Kozantei Ubuya everything from the classic Japanese ambience to the soothing baths all help to deliver not only an intensely relaxing experience, but a uniquely Japanese one as well.
So on a cloudy Wednesday we boarded a bus in Shinjuku bound for the little town of Kawaguchico where Kozantei Ubuya is located. It started raining hard about halfway thru the 2-hour bus ride from Tokyo, and judging by mist in the hills, the prospect of actually seeing Mount Fuji was looking increasingly dim. DOH! Three visits to japan and I’ve yet to see Mount Fuji.
After arriving at the bus station at Kawaguchiko Station we decided to forgo the free shuttle to the inn and take the thirty-minute walk along Lake Kawaguchi to the ryokan, even though it was still raining hard. But the walk along the lake is beautiful, and being from drought-ravaged California, where the last significant rainfall was December 2014, we really appreciated walking in a heavy rainfall. Still, by the time we got to the ryokan (below), we were a little wet and tired after the long bus ride.
But from the moment we entered the lobby, shaking out umbrellas as we went, we felt at home, like we had arrived. Low but rich lighting, wood elements, classic Japanese interior design and architecture combined with the constantly falling rain to create an quiet ambience of relaxation. The interior of the inn was a celebration of simple and elegant design, with splashes of color and always interesting Japanese aesthetics interspersed with the wood finishes. The staff, of course, was friendly, polite and helpful.
Speaking of rooms, mine was really beyond what I had imagined, and world’s above what I had seen online. Again, maximum Japanese simplicity. The room was much larger than I had imagined with a big deck overlooking the lake and a private onsen in the corner of the deck. A traditional table, cushion chairs and tatami mats made up part of the living area, the other part was dominated by a giant, intensely comfy couch lined with thick pillows.
The living area with its massive couch and multitude of comfy pillows. You can’t see it, but there’s a big screen TV on the left hand side of the living area. The TV got some use late at night, because watching Japanese game shows without knowing the language is a hoot!
Best of all, a private onsen on the deck, overlooking the lake. Unfortunately, I cannot share pics of the public onsen because it was the only part of the ryukan where photography was prohibited but having a private bath on the deck of the room was just as good.
In the pic above I’m wearing the traditional samue, or Japanese casual room wear, which was standard issue dress code at the inn. Most men and women wore the samue when around the inn, whether at dinner, relaxing in the lounge, or making your way to the public onsen … maybe because they’re so darn comfy! You also have the choice of wearing a one-piece, ankle-length bathrobe type of garment called a yukuta, but I preferred the samue, because it looked really cool!
The evening brought dinner, which is so amazing, it will have it’s own post. Here’s a tease:
The onsen got plenty of use, especially at night when the cool winds and mist blew down from the mountains. The onsen was illuminated at night, and the colors would subtly change from red to green to blue to yellow.
The center tatami mat area at night. Thanks to the traditional sliding wooden panel doors, the rooms could be configured for size, light or privacy. At night, thick panels could be slid out to cover the deck door and window, making the entire space nearly pitch black, which made going to the bathroom in the middle of the night something of a challenge. Speaking of which, the bathroom always smelled of a light incense.
Misty morning on Lake Kawaguchi. This pic was taken at 6 a.m., because when you’re in the lap of luxury, you don’t want to spend any more time sleeping than you have to. There’s nothing like sipping coffee while soaking in a hot mineral water onsen to start your day!
The rain began to taper off as the morning progressed and had pretty much stopped by the 11 o’clock a.m. check out time. So after a traditional Japanese breakfast (above) and a last soak in the onsen, we once again walked back to the bus station in nearby Kawaguchiko, and there was plenty to see along the way.
Thanks to the rain, mist and heavy clouds I never did get to see Mount Fuji, but after completely immersing myself in the entire wonderful ryokan experience, not seeing the mountain hardly seemed to matter at all. That will have to wait until a return visit, because I’m definitely coming back, only not in July and the summer rainy season.
Which seems like a great time to mention costs. Suffice to say that the deluxe overnight package I bought was not cheap … $750.00 U.S. dollars (¥8990) for an overnight stay that included the big room with private onsen, traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast in a private room, and all of the other amenities of the ryokan, including full use of the public onsens.
Fun fact: The presence of an onsen is often indicated on signs and maps by the symbol ♨ or the kanji, 湯 (yu, meaning “hot water”)
I’m not usually that big of a spender, but after ten months of working as a contractor, in April my work converted me to full time employee. So this visit was my reward to myself for the achievement of a major goal, the type of indulgence a guy can make when his financial future is finally set. And to me, the experience was worth every penny.
But don’t let that put you off. Kozantei Ubuya has a number of other packages at varying cheaper prices, depending on the amenities you choose for your visit. Be aware that a Mount Fuji view will be on the pricier side. Also, the area along Lake Kawaguchi is rimmed with many ryokan that offer similar packages at more budget-friendly prices.
Round trip bus tickets from Shinjuku Bus Station to Kawaguchiko run about $40 U.S. dollars (that’s ¥4960) per person. It’s best to reserve a few days in advance. The map below points out the Shinjuku bus station.
Bottom line: highly recommended. I intend on doing it all over again in my next visit to Japan, which will probably be next spring. Only next time, I hope to get clear weather so I can finally see Mount Fuji!