Top ryokans for the ultimate retreat

PHOTO: Kifu no Sato Ryokan

For the longest time, Japan's tourism could be summed up thus: a case of more foreigners wanting to experience a distinctive culture than there were Japanese willing to share it with them.

That imbalance is less obvious now, as Japan opens its doors wider to an eager influx of tourists hungry for both its food and omotenashi - the "spirit" of Japanese hospitality and service.

If you're an onsen fan who has long shed your inhibitions about soaking in a public hot spring bath with naked strangers, there's no better way to experience omotenashi than in a traditional ryokan where personalised service is at a level not seen in any other commercial accommodation.

Usually family-run with a hospitable okami-san at the helm, your every need is taken care of - from the moment you step in and a pair of slippers magically appears, right down to the meticulously prepared kaiseki dinners made with locally sourced produce.

But finding such a ryokan has never been easy in the past. Most - if not all - catered to the domestic market and with their language and cultural barriers, few thought to explore the idea of opening up to the foreign market.

It was a gap that ex-hotelier Hiroki Fukunaga sought to fill 12 years ago when he launched The Ryokan Collection - a marketing consortium of exclusive, family-run ryokans that have been in the business for over a century.

It was also the go-to guide for ryokan-seekers looking for information in English, which even now is still hard to come by, especially when you're looking for something off the beaten track.

The collection now counts 32 members, and are generally the cream of the crop of ryokans across the country - most are either luxury properties or fulfil the criteria of exclusivity and service that the guide sets out. Every year, each ryokan undergoes a discreet but thorough evaluation in order to stay on the list.

If there are any lapses or if there are too many guest complaints, the property is dropped from the list. Most are ryokans with onsen facilities unless they are located in areas such as Kyoto or Osaka which are not hot spring territory.

The Ryokan Collection was created to "promote omotenashi to foreign markets with pride", says Mr Fukunaga, who was in Singapore this week on a roadshow with the owners of four properties in the collection: Ryokan Kurashiki (Kurashiki, Okayama), L'hotel Du Lac (Nagahama, Shiga), Kifu no Sato (Yunogo, Okayama) and Nakanobo Zuien (Arima, Hyogo).

Photo: Kifu no Sato Ryokan

Another reason for the ryokans' current "coming out" has much to do with the new generation owners of these properties who are more global-minded.

"Many of them have been educated overseas, can speak English and they want to showcase their product which their families have preserved over the last century. So they are looking to expand beyond the domestic market."

Which is all the better for travellers looking for the ultimate retreat, and as the guide keeps adding new properties to its list, the options are growing as well. The guide recently added another six to their portfolio, including Hakone Suishoen and the ocean-facing Atami Sekaie in Shizuoka.

At the same time, the guide is stepping up its range of services to make a visit to its ryokans an overall travel experience. It will launch an "Experience Programme" by the end of this year that takes all the hassle of planning an itinerary off your hands. So depending on whether you want to eat your way through a region, or indulge in the exquisite art and craft of another, bespoke itineraries can be created around one's stay.

You get VVIP privileges all the way: exclusive access to private art galleries where you get to meet local artists who would otherwise require formal introductions before meeting anyone; personalised tours of sake breweries in the vicinity of your ryokan; kaiseki dinners in the ryokan or even within a temple's grounds, served on exquisite crockery handmade by local craftsmen; or any kind of experience you require.

On top of that, guests who stay in any of the properties automatically qualify for a new loyalty programme which gets you a complimentary one-night stay for every 10 nights you chalk up at three or more ryokans over a two-year period.

Since Mr Fukunaga launched the Ryokan Collection 12 years ago, some 22,000 guests have stayed in its member properties. He's also set himself an ambitious goal - to hit 100,000 guests by 2020, in time for the Tokyo Olympics. It may seem a lofty goal but Singaporeans will no doubt do their bit to add to the numbers.

Yes, it won't be long before echoes of "wah, very hot ah" rise above the steam of the next onsen you find yourself in.

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This article was first published on Oct 3, 2015.
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