23 May 2018 in In immersion
Experience the mighty Northern Japan Alps at a reinvented mountain ryokan.
From Nagano, your shuttle bus winds its way up the gently twisting roads, criss-crossing rivers, tunnelling under mountains and gradually gaining in altitude. The prodigious peaks of the Japanese Alps slowly reveal themselves, their vertiginous glacier-cut slopes clad in thick forests of pines and larches.
In winter, this is deep snow country. Outside winter, it’s a festival of bucolic beauty, all verdant greens, colourful flora and bright yellow foliage, depending on the season.
And when you arrive on the outskirts of the town of Omachi – the first conurbation of any significance since Nagano – you’re just a short distance from some of the mountains’ most spectacular scenery. Hakuba, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics is 30 minutes away, while panoramic viewpoints and hiking trailheads are similarly close-by.
This is the setting for Hoshino Resorts KAI Alps, a stylish, restful ryokan that makes a great base for exploring this region of outstanding natural beauty.
Named after the Alps in Europe because of their similar morphology, the Japanese Alps span much of central Honshu, but are at their most dramatic here in Nagano Prefecture, regularly rising up to 10,000ft.
Hoshino Resorts KAI Alps is set among the particularly breath-taking Northern Alps, easily accessible from Nagano City, which is just 90 minutes by train from Tokyo. If you’re a skier, you’ll be in powder snow heaven.
If you’re a hiker, a mountain lover or just curious to discover a new region, this is a destination to add to your wish-list.
On arrival at Hoshino Resorts KAI Alps, you’ll be struck by the elegant modernity of the ryokan: the whole site was completely renovated and reopened in December 2017.
Dark timber dominates the exterior architecture, while the reception and relaxation areas inside benefit from large windows and touches of warm colour. Adjoining the reception is a sheltered outdoor space with the ryokan’s original irori, a traditional Japanese wood-burning hearth.
Just as in ancient times, the irori remains the focal point for gatherings throughout the day.
You’ll be invited here for a welcome apple juice (a local speciality) and perhaps an oyaki, a dumpling filled with mountain vegetables.
Get up early for fresh rice porridge, made here from 6am. Or group around the fire in the evening over a warm sake.
Room for relaxation
Your room is in another building, across the way from the reception area. It’s a perfect example of how to combine tradition and modernity, with tatami mats lining the floors, a raised platform for your bed and an L-shaped bench and table ideally placed to contemplate the mountain views from your window.
You can opt for a bathroom with your own hot springs tub – which may come with accessories such as small bottles of sake or a basketful of apples: not for a snack, but rather to be added to the water to beautify the skin!
The region’s famed apples are also a regular feature in the public indoor onsen, bobbing in the water to infuse it with nutrients that are said to work wonders on the skin.
For the best views, head to the outdoor baths, where you can look out onto snow-capped mountains laden with larch forests.
After your onsen, cool down in the Yuagari Lounge with a glass of purifying mountain water.
When it comes to dining, you’re in for a treat. The multi-course kaiseki menu is big on local, seasonal ingredients.
Expect mountain vegetables in summer, hearty beans in winter and, of course, fresh seafood all year round. One of the highlights is grating your own fresh wasabi to accompany your sashimi or beef.
The nearby town of Azumino is famed for its exceptional wasabi, thanks to the purity of local snowmelt.
At breakfast, you can expect a hearty miso soup packed with different types of mushroom, as well as local salted squid.
Gateway to grandiose nature
As for sightseeing, you’re spoiled for choice. There are plenty of cultural options, like visiting historic Omachi or heading to a wasabi farm in Azumino.
But the real draw is the mountains. This is a skier’s paradise, with the resort organizing free winter shuttle buses to Hakuba and providing a dry-off room for wet gear.
And when the snow begins to melt, you can explore the full majesty of the Northern Japan Alps on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, which offers spectacular walking.
With Hoshino Resorts KAI Alps as your base, you truly have some of Japan’s most dramatic scenery right on your doorstep.