A little more than two hours by train from Kyoto is the beautiful town of Kanazawa. Lying on the Sea of Japan in the Ishikawa prefecture, Kanazawa and it’s neighbouring towns have long been THE destination for native Japanese travelers. Being known as ‘Sho-Kyoto’ – that’s ‘little’ Kyoto to those of us who don’t parley Japanese, the town is home to the incredibly well preserved Higashi-Chaya district, full of geisha hangouts and tea houses. It also has a stunning castle, a samurai neighbourhood, temples, a world-class modern art museum and one of the loveliest public gardens in Japan, if not the world; Kenroku-en. It’s the home of gold leaf (fancy) and is recognised as a UNESCO Creative City, so there’s plenty to see and do, but more on that in another Kanazawa-dedicated post as my focus here is all about Beniya Mukayu, aka the most relaxing ryokan I’ve ever had the privilege to stay in.
Around 20 minutes by train from Kanazawa, Beniya Mukayu is nestled away in glorious gardens of the Yamashiro Onsen. Part of the Relais and Chateaux group (one of only two in Japan, the other being Gora Kadan in Hakone), I knew this place was going to be good before I even set foot inside.
I was lucky enough to visit in autumn, my favourite time of the year in Japan. The gardens were aglow with oranges, reds and golds and even the rain couldn’t dampen the energy radiated by the minimalist white interior. It was bright but relaxing, free from clutter and the perfect place to while away a day or two in the quest to becoming de-stressed.
Beniya Mukayu is beautifully designed around a wild garden of Red pine, Sakura, Maple and Camellia trees. The building is suited perfectly to its surroundings. Each room has a private open air onsen, serene bedrooms and fermented placenta spa products (yep, you read that correctly). The Premier Garden Rooms have a separate tatami seating area overlooking a tranquil terrace space in which you can sling up a hammock and watch the world go by.
The room was set up for taking tea when we arrived, the low table in the middle of the room and not a bedsheet in sight. It was a wonderful blend of traditional materials; bamboo and washi screens blended with harsh concrete and an uber modern bathroom. The open air onsen was secluded yet still managed to feel open and exposed to the natural beauty of the garden. The alkaline waters said to provide natural relief for neuralgia, rheumatism and ‘female disorder’, so jump on in if you’re feeling a hot flush or bout of nagging coming on.
There was a pillow menu to peruse; feather, memory foam or traditional Japanese buckwheat. I opted for one of each to test their comfort levels. I was surprisingly taken with the buckwheat, it was firm but not hard and the grains felt almost like a neck massage when I turned my head.
The restaurant, Kaiseki Horin, couldn’t have been nicer. Sticking to the minimalist theme, but here in contrast to the white interiors of the lobby it was all dark wood, black chairs and little lanterns lighting the room. The staff were attentive and knowledgeable and explained each course in detail. We arrived in the height of snow crab season and our waitress expertly grilled said crustaceans table-side which provided a lovely theatrical element to the meal whilst making the service yet more personal by cooking each dish exactly to our individual liking. Every course harmoniously cumulated into a dream meal, enhancing the previous plate and making it nigh on impossible to pick a favourite point, but if I absolutely had to choose, the highlight for me was the crab with amber jelly and the broth with shiitake, spinach and duck.
Another highlight of Beniya Mukayu was the spa. Public onsen baths complemented the individual treatment rooms where you can choose anything from shiatsu massage, aromatherapy massage and reflexology to the signature Yakushiyama facials and body treatments, rich in placenta extracts to aid anti-ageing properties and skin rejuvenation. I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first but the products have been done beautifully, they smell fresh and citrusy and my skin was left softer and smoother after using them. Perhaps though it was all psychological, a way to justify the use of placenta on my face… Either way, I’d definitely partake in round two. The treatments are also based on ancient Chinese herbal medicine, practiced and honed by the monks of the area, so that before each signature treatment, therapists prepare a custom herbal blend that is personalized to the needs of each client, a wonderful touch to finish off a beyond five star trip.