Nothing beats retreating to a ryokan

TRANQUIL SETTING: A communal onsen at Beniya Mukayu.
Nothing beats retreating to a ryokan

SEASONAL TREATS: A Japanese-style breakfast at the ryokan.
Nothing beats retreating to a ryokan

WATER DELIGHT: One of the exhibits at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is Argentinian artist Erlich's The Swimming Pool.


    Jul 30, 2014

    Nothing beats retreating to a ryokan

    THE buzz in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto is hard to resist but, sometimes, packed trains, the fast pace of life and crowds can get a little much. Retreat, as I did in the midst of a holiday in Tokyo, and head to Ishikawa Prefecture, to a ryokan in Yamashiro Onsen. Its tranquillity is the perfect antidote to big-city living.


    The welcome from Beniya Mukayu starts even before I leave Singapore.

    Right after booking a room there online, I receive an e-mail asking if I would need transport to the ryokan and back to the airport.

    I mention in the e-mail the names of the restaurants I am lunching at before checking in and after checking out and, without prompting, a staff member makes bookings for me. She also gives detailed instructions on almost everything I will need to get there in one piece.

    The ultimate luxury, I have found, is to have someone do all the worrying for you.

    All there is to do after checking into this 17-room ryokan, part of the Relais & Chateaux collection since 2009, is to simply enjoy myself. The staff of 50 make sure I do.

    The ryokan dates back to 1928, and was refurbished in 2006. It is one of 19 ryokan in Yamashiro Onsen Town, and is run by the Nakamichi family. Mr Kazunari Nakamichi, 60, who runs the place with his wife Sachiko, 54, is from the third generation.

    Their resort has beautiful grounds to explore, a library for some quiet reading, a spa and a shop which sells excellent Yakushiyama toiletries that guests enjoy, among other things.

    After a little exploring, I head to my spacious Japanese Premier Tatami Garden View room, which looks out onto a grove of trees. A feeling of calm washes over me.

    Although the ryokan has communal baths for both men and women, I appreciate the private one on the terrace of my room. I am not one to take selfies, but I imagine I must look like one of those onsen monkeys of Nagano, blissed out as snow falls on their heads while they soak in hot spring water.

    There is time to appreciate the sunset, to enjoy being absolutely still.

    After dinner, I return to my room, and the bed, set on tatami, has been made up. It is too early to sleep, so I have another, shorter soak.

    I repair to a rattan chair in the little sitting room, a pot of tea by my side, together with delicious Japanese rice crackers and some kanpyo maki.

    The sound of wind whooshing through leaves is calming for a city slicker like me. For the first time in a long time, I feel no urge to look at my mobile phone, to update or check Facebook, to reply to e-mail, to do anything except sit there and be in the present.

    Later, sleep comes easily on the comfortable futon.

    As I drift off to la-la land, I think, not for the first time, that I need to do this more often.


    One of the highlights of any ryokan stay is the food. Dinner and breakfast are provided, and at Beniya Mukayu, meals are served in a spacious dining room with high ceilings.

    Guests pad about in slippers, wearing comfortable cotton yukata.

    The meal unfolds in leisurely fashion, showcasing seasonal produce. A dressed female snow crab takes the angst out of shelling the creature, so I can enjoy its delicate sweetness.

    There is no stopping after that. Lotus root and turnip soup arrives, then sashimi and sushi, followed by grilled nodoguro (black-throat sea perch). Duck meat fashioned into balls bobbing in a hotpot is warming on a chilly night.

    My friends and I also order from the a la carte menu: smoky slices of grilled karasumi (dried mullet roe) with umami in spades, rib-sticking beef stew and thick chunks of abalone in arrowroot sauce.

    At breakfast the next day, I opt for Japanese over Western, of course.

    Steamed pumpkin, daikon, leek, carrot and broccoli form one dish, and there is no adornment needed because they taste pure and sweet. There is grilled fish, spicy pollack roe or mentaiko, and pickles to go with rice.

    Before we leave the area, however, we head to Sushidokoro Mekumi in Nonoichi for lunch. There, I have one of the best sushi meals I have ever had, a worthwhile detour.

    Sushi chef Takayoshi Yamaguchi, 42, named the restaurant after his wife, and the two of them run the whole show in their seven-seat sushi-ya.

    Here, I have the most sublime awabi, abalone steamed in its own juices for eight hours. The slices are juicy, the texture springy. We have them on their own and in a nigiri sushi. Without doubt, they are better without rice.

    Other delights follow, shirako or cod milt, baby tuna, huge botan ebi, grilled nodoguro, murasaki uni and otoro, among others. Every piece of sushi or sashimi is refined and delicious beyond belief.

    Yes, it is in the middle of nowhere, but I am already planning to return.


    To get to the ryokan, you have to go through Kanazawa, so it makes sense to stop at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, a round building in a park-like setting.

    Some permanent exhibits include Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich's The Swimming Pool, a clever trompe l'oeil installation. Look into the pool on the ground level and it seems like there are people walking in the water. Go downstairs, look up and wave at the people peering in.

    During my visit there, I also catch an exhibition of Turner Prize-winning British artist Grayson Perry's ceramic works and a fascinating one by Berlin-based artist Shimabuku, on the making of dried sea cucumber ovaries. They are called kuchiko and are made in Noto Peninsula on the coast of the prefecture, where much of the fish for sashimi served in the area comes from.

    To then eat the bright orange triangles later that night at dinner seems quite poetic. They are a little salty but it is all a textural experience; silky if you are a fan, slimy if you are not.

    It is hard, once you get to the ryokan, to tear yourself away, but the nearby Yamashiro Onsen Town, with a history that spans 1,300 years, is worth exploring after breakfast.

    Smack in the centre is a beautiful public bathhouse or Kosoyu, which dates back to the Edo period (1603-1867).

    There are pretty gardens dotted here and there, and small shops selling handmade bags and toys, and fine Kutani-yaki porcelain.

    Stop by Yamato for soya sauce, including one specially made for drizzling over ice cream; yuzu ponzu sauce and organic miso paste.