HOSHINOYA Karuizawa: A Modern Ryokan Experience | CoolJapan

Resort at twilight

Karuizawa (軽井沢) is an upmarket Japanese Alpine town at the foot of the active Mount Asama volcano in Nagano Prefecture, long-favoured as a mountain retreat by Western residents of Japan since the late 1800s, second home to many wealthy urbanites, and frequented by royalties and celebrities alike, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono when they had a summer home there.

We were looking forward to our media visit to HOSHINOYA Karuizawa, an exclusive modern ryokan under the Hoshino Resorts Group, the crown jewel of the town. A little over an hour by bullet train from Tokyo, we arrived at the smallish Karuizawa train station to be surprised by the total absence of snow anywhere, except on the ski runs in the mountains framing the town, despite it being late February winter season.

Hoshinoya Resort VillasResort villas

Sprawled over 78,000 square metres, this luxury resort village borders the Karuizawa National Wild Bird Sanctuary Forest located in the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park and the Asama Wildlife Protection Area. Although founded in 2005, the history of HOSHINOYA Karuizawa can be traced back to 1914 when the current founder's great grandfather opened the Hoshino Hot Spring Inn at the very same spot as the resort.

The design aesthetic of this eco-friendly flagship property of the Hoshino Resorts Group is based on the concept of how Japan may have evolved out of its past, but without overly relying on Western influences. Balancing the needs of a resort village while preserving the natural environment, it was developed around fir trees where flying squirrels rest and that have existed for generations — the entire estate is zero-emission, powered by hydroelectricity fueled by the Yukawa river flowing through the premises and geothermal energy.

Hoshinoya resort roomOne of the rooms in the resort. Photo from: HOSHINOYA Karuizawa

Boasting 77 villas, each one a standalone building to provide the look and feel of a private vacation home. The rooms incorporate Japanese architectural elements such as plastered walls and hand-woven washi wallpaper, centred on a raised platform that resembles tatami matting on which sit futon-like beds that’s firm yet enveloping. The bedroom leads to a cosy living space strewn with colourful cushions that open up to a balcony with sweeping views of the surrounds. Resembling a traditional ryokan, the absence of western influences is noticeable; we were perturbed when we couldn't find the luggage rack before finally realising that you’re supposed to pack your stuff into the cupboards as one would at such traditional Japanese inns. In winter, the floor of the room is warmed by the hot spring water, while in summer, there’s a mechanical arm that cranks open the rooftop shutter to let in the natural breeze.

(Left) Rice terrace deck. (Right) Resort surroundings.

The picturesque resort features tiered pavilions on a terraced hill, rivulets cascading down stone walls, connected by tiny bridges and footpaths beneath tree canopies that wind through the surrounding lake that’s mesmerisingly lit in the evening. Designed to captivate, you are encouraged to read at the library while sipping complimentary sparkling wine or sit at an alfresco deck overlooking a rice terrace while savouring mochi grilled over charcoal fire.

(Left) Eco-tours by Picchio. (Right) Ice-skating rink. Photos from: HOSHINOYA Karuizawa.

Available on-ground activities are tours on the tracking and preservation of Asian black bears and local wildlife, and flying squirrel-watching led by Picchio, the eco-tourism arm of the group. In winter, there’s a natural ice-skating rink formed by the frozen pond on the premises.

Kasuke RestaurantKasuke Restaurant

Cuisine-wise, there’s Kasuke Restaurant that offers "alpine kaiseki" in an unusual seating area that runs parallel to the terraced hill which is visible from the floor-to-ceiling windows, bordered on the other side by tall granite walls symbolising a traditional rural landscape: the hill representing rice fields, the corridor and seating area, the river and its bed, and the walls resembling distant mountains.

Sonmin-Shokudo RestaurantSonmin-Shokudo Restaurant

Another lovely place to dine is at Sonmin-Shokudo, the resort’s casual Japanese restaurant a short walk away. We demolished the fresh Sashimi with a zesty soy sauce, crunchy Asparagus sautéed in butter and the crisp Tonkatsu Pork Cutlet and Vegetables Tempura, accompanied by a sweet but rich-tasting Miyasaka sake from Nagano.

(Centre) Kawakami-an Soba. (Right) Harunire.

To keep you entertained is Harunire terrace, a nearby promenade sited on a riverbank lined by a boardwalk populated with Chinese, Italian, French and casual Japanese dining featuring the local ingredients of Karuizawa. Our favourite spot is Kawakami-an that serves firm, textured Nihachi-style soba noodles with tempura made with seasonal ingredients. There are also speciality stores selling gourmet food and wines, fashion and jewellery, and artisan souvenirs. We were lost in time browsing Garando, a handicraft store selling quaint Japanese and European wooden toys and utensils.

(Left) Tombo noyu bath. (Right) Outdoor onsen, Photo from: HOSHINOYA Karuizawa.

No Japanese stay is complete without partaking of hot spring baths. HOSHINOYA Karuizawa offers two bathing options: a Meditation Bath exclusive to the resort's guests that has a temperature preserved at 39-40°C — ideal for long soaks — where one can enter a somewhat eerie space completely devoid of light, after which you retreat to a modern lounge to enjoy a cup of hot yuzu tea. The star of the resort is the Tombo no yu bath, evolved from an onsen dug over a century ago by founder Kunitsugu Hoshino, fed by the soothing waters from the Kusatsu hot springs famous for their acidity, centred around a stunning large outdoor pool ringed by lush forests.

Overall, HOSHINOYA Karuizawa is a zen luxury resort that makes for a great weekend respite from the bustling Tokyo metropolis, pampering guests with a good dose of authentic Japanese hospitality that harmoniously marries traditions with modern comforts; a grand dame who’s so foreign yet so familiar and welcoming at first sight. All this just a short ride from the capital city by the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen — a one-way journey costing about JPY5,500/~USD52 and fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass, JR Tokyo Wide Pass and several other JR passes.

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