I love onsen. It’s maybe one of my favourite aspects of Japanese culture. So naturally, for our wedding anniversary this year, I decided to book my husband and I in for some much needed onsen indulgence at Sumiya Kiho-an, a dreamy ryokan in the mountains to the west of Kyoto.
We headed to Sumiya, first by JR train to Kameoka station nestled amongst rice paddies in the mountains around 30 minutes from central Kyoto. From Kameoka we were picked up by a driver sent from the hotel who happily greeted us (in English) and conversed with us on everything from the history of Kameoka, to what we were doing in Japan. It was a lovely start to our day and the perfect introduction to what we soon realised was a really wonderful ryokan.
Set just off a winding road, pulling in to Sumiya you have no clue as to the beautiful building, baths and grounds behind it’s facade. Pulling into the car park you could be fooled into thinking that it’s just another three star establishment with sub-standard facilities rather than the elegant hotel that once regularly welcomed John Lennon and Yoko Ono as guests. First impressions can be wrong. Passing through the quaint little entryway and on into the main building, my faith in finding the luxury onsen experience that I was expecting was starting to be restored.
It was when we were shown to Sumiya’s restaurant and library room that my faith was fully returned. The chic decor, a beautiful modern take on traditional Japanese design with dark wood panels and off white walls, interspersed with stunning ikebana creations was exactly what I was hoping to find.
Our Kyo-kaiseki lunch was served to our private dining area with floor to ceiling windows, overlooking a picture-perfect mountain stream in the grounds below. The food was a multi-course masterpiece wherein everything was seasonal and treated with the utmost care and attention. Kyoto yuba (tofu skin), the freshest sashimi and mountain vegetable tempura came first. Then chicken cooked in miso and simmered wild boar with rice. Each dish more delicious than the last and timed to arrive at our table exactly when we needed it. The view, the ambience, the flavours and smells; every aspect of the dining experience was so well done that it culminated in perhaps one of the best meals I’ve eaten in Japan, or anywhere.
The day was already spectacular and we hadn’t even seen the onsen. Japanese onsen are so much more than just relaxing in a bath. There’s a real art to the kind of ritualistic water-worshiping that is as much a part of daily life as slurping up a bowl of ramen. That’s because the Japanese have long known of the benefits the act of bathing can bestow upon the body and mind. Different onsen have different healing powers depending on the minerals in its water; sulphur maintains a healthy blood pressure and arterial flow, hydrogen carbonate softens the skin and iron-rich springs ease the aches of painful joints. At Sumiya the pools are radium rich and believed to relieve neuralgia and arthritis, soothe chronic digestive diseases, fatigue and even alleviate gout. I’m not sure how much, if any, of these minerals are actually absorbed by the body, but the age old art of onsen-immersion definitely stands as testament to the experiential benefits of the tradition and I for one was certainly prepared to jump in and give it a damn good go!
Onsen in Japan are very rarely mixed-sex bathing. You must bathe nude and as such springs are separated into male and female baths to preserve ones modesty and get the full enjoyment from the experience. At Sumiya there’s a secret mountain onsen ‘Yama-no-Kakure-Yu’ that can be hired privately for families or couples to enjoy mixed bathing. Hidden in the mountains surrounded by lush greenery, it’s not only enticing but totally relaxing and in tune with the natural world that surrounds you. It’s this that I love so much about onsen and what Sumiya has captured so flawlessly. Not bathing to get clean (rules are that you wash yourself before entering an onsen), but sitting and soaking with no other agenda means your mind is free to take time to reflect and meditate, all eased along by the gentle lapping of the warm, mineral-rich water around you.