Exploring beyond the big cities of Japan may seem daunting, but Nikko is a destination so compelling and convenient to Tokyo that foreign travelers have been making the trip for over a century.
Nikko, located in Tochigi Prefecture, is today an easy two hours from Tokyo by train, and offers world-class accommodations in which to luxuriate, breathe in the verdant mountain air, and explore the shrines and temples that comprise Nikko’s UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Navigate the curving mountain roads from Nikko Station to the secluded surrounds of Lake Chuzenji, and there, lakeside, you’ll find The Ritz Carlton’s newest luxury resort in Japan, and the first Ritz Carlton in the world that offers a true onsen (natural hot springs) spa.
The Ritz Carlton, Nikko, opened in 2020, beautifully melds Japanese elements with Western ones, like a bamboo basket lined with a French linen cloth. The structure’s clean minimalistic exterior is clad in sheets of locally mined copper, patinaed to resemble wood. The interior is lit by gorgeous Zen-influenced garden courtyards at every turn, and the generous lounging spaces are arranged with soft furniture inviting guests to sink into comfort.
The 94 spacious and airy guest rooms, including 10 suite rooms, boast breathtaking views of Lake Chuzenji or Mount Nantai (some look out on both!) and showcase details that celebrate Japanese traditions, such as locally inspired wood lattice work. A hand thrown pottery tea set, and a traditional engawa (moon-viewing veranda) lit by a modern glass lantern, set the scene for admiring the mini Zen rock garden. Each room also has a spacious en suite bathroom, with rain shower and a stone soaking tub, and the hotel provides pajamas and a chic yukata in soft linen for visiting the spa. A complimentary tiered box of dried fruits and candied pecans, and turn-down service, adds the classy touches The Ritz Carlton guests appreciate.
Not only does the resort celebrate Japanese design but it also pays thoughtful tribute to history. When The Ritz Carlton, Nikko was constructed, it was built on the site of a much-loved 120-year-old establishment, the Nikko Lakeside Hotel. Before the old hotel was torn down, paintings that adorned the doors of guestrooms in the old hotel were carefully removed, and today, they grace The Ritz Carlton’s entrance lobby, where guests can admire the nuanced paintings, sprinkled with gold leaf and depicting various processions of nobles, vassals, and horses from the Edo Period. Additionally, one of the restaurants in The Ritz Carlton, Nikko, a secluded lakeside retreat with real a real, crackling fireplace, celebrates the former hotel in its name: Lakehouse.
The Ritz Carlton, Nikko reflects the world’s growing attention toward environmental responsibility. The first thing guests might remark upon are the resort’s eco-friendly wooden key cards, and minimalist souvenir gift “shop,” a tiny wall alcove of select items, rather than racks and racks of goods. General Manager Alexander McBride explains that the hotel’s two restaurants also serve predominantly fresh local products, including eggs, dairy, vegetables and meats, and that chefs have concocted menus which cater to vegetarians and vegans. Furthermore, the hotel has begun to design unique packages to help guests get a wholistic experience of the local area through the hotel’s “pillar ideals” of nature, culture, and spirituality.
Currently, guests can join early morning Zen meditation sessions led by a resident monk, sip superb Japanese whiskeys (think Hibiki Harmony) at the gorgeously atmospheric hotel bar, or indulge in a wide variety of onsite spa treatments, focused on refreshing and tension-relieving natural treatments.
The most remarked-upon aspect of The Ritz Carlton, Nikko is the excellence of service. Unobtrusive, yet suddenly in the right place at the right moment, the staff are gracefully efficient. It’s a tradition at the hotel to ring a large bell when each guest leaves. This simple action, full warmth and consideration, epitomizes The Ritz Carlton, Nikko’s personalized attention.
The KAI Kinugawa resort, run by the Hoshino Resorts group, is another unique place to bask in the luxury of exclusive surroundings, curated interiors, and utter relaxation in the heart of nature.
The Hoshino Resorts have been offering premium destination lodgings since 1914, and in the past 9 years have garnered 41 awards from places such as Condé Nast Traveler, Michelin Guides, and National Geographic Traveler Hotel Awards. Their 22 KAI properties are dubbed “Japanese auberges,” and combine high quality natural hot spring baths with deep local cultural explorations.
Located a five-minute taxi ride from Kinugawa Onsen Station, one pulls up to KAI Kinugawa base reception, a subtle one-story structure, which immediately reflects the hotel’s connection to its surroundings. Both exterior and interiors of the reception building are of Oya stone, a soft igneous rock formed of volcanic ash and lava, only found and quarried in Tochigi’s nearby Utsunomiya area. Draped from the roof, running curtains of locally made indigo resist-dyed cloth gives motion and a splash of light blue color to the entryway.
Guests are then guided into a chic little monorail car, which climbs up through a forest to reach the entrance to the ryokan proper. The short uphill ride effectively separates KAI Kinugawa from the rest of the world, offering a unique feeling of privacy.
The main lobby, lounge, and restaurant building features long tables covered in samples of Mashiko pottery, made world-famous by brilliant potters such as Shoji Hamada. Mashiko, about an hour east of the resort, is arguably Tochigi’s most visited craft center, and KAI Kinugawa hosts introductory lectures, and excursions to help guests hone an appreciation for the rich glazes and varieties of styles. Several crafts, in fact, are represented in the gift shop, including kumiko lattice work and lovely indigo fabrics stretched on bamboo fans.
At the center of KAI Kinugawa’s 48 guest rooms, hot spring baths, one café, and kaiseki cuisine restaurant is a lush Japanese garden full of trees. The hotel itself is so subtly designed, with floor to ceiling glass doors, that it reflects and visually almost disappears into the landscape.
All of KAI Kinugawa’s rooms face outward, however, away from the garden courtyard, and offer views of untamed nature. Comfy beds, a small separate living area, and a bath setup with shower and outdoor bathing tub keep things simple, but simply beautiful. Local pottery, stoneware, and indigo cloth decorations in each room echo the resort’s commitment to artisan creations, and local senbei (rice crackers) treats are meant to accompany the complimentary tea service.
One of the highlights of KAI Kinugawa is its indoor and outdoor hot spring onsen waters, touted as having multiple remedial properties as well as a relaxing effect on one’s mind and muscles. The bathes, made from turquoise Towada stone, shimmer with reflections from nearby trees, and a large lounge outside the baths provides the perfect place to cool down and chat with friends.
For activities, the KAI Kinugawa arranges visits with local artisans, books professional masseuses, and creates personalized itineraries to help guests get the most out of Nikko. For the independent explorer, the resort even offers 15% discounts on Times Car Rentals, if a stay is booked through the KAI Kinugawa’s website.
Written by Kit Pancoast Nagamura
The Ritz Carlton, Nikko
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Adventure/Eco/Nature, Culture, Spa & Wellness