The Hiranoya Tea House in Autumn, © Risa Sekiguchi, 2009
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Honke Bankyu Bankyu
Yunishigawa, Japan

If you are looking for a weekend escape from Tokyo, a trip north to Yunishigawa Onsen is highly recommended. The town itself – barely more than a few dozen houses – is not much to see, but there is a 380 year old ryokan hidden deep within one of the valleys that is quite an adventure in and of itself and is worth the extra effort to get to.

Japan’s history contains a few epic tales, and the war between the Heike and Genji clans is one of the most important. The clans’ battles provide the basis for the classic and influential piece of literature, Tales of the Heike, which chronicled the events leading up to an epic battle in the late 12th century. After their defeat, the Heike (known as the more aristocratic and artistic of the clans) dispersed all over Japan, fleeing from their enemies in hidden valleys, and some were able to disappear entirely from sight for hundreds of years. In 1573, it is said that a small group of Heike descendents discovered the onsen waters of Yunishigawa, and have been hiding there ever since. The thermal hot springs helped them cope with the heavy snows of winter, and they subsisted on mountain vegetables and wild game. The Honke Bankyu Bankyu was started by one of these former aristocrats.

Getting there is half the fun (or headache, however you look at it) but one really appreciates the remote location this way. I included the ryokan on a family tour, and the kids really got a kick out of the hair-raising ride on the narrow winding roads, which were large enough for cars, but a tight squeeze for buses. Our two-hour journey from Nikko was more than enough adventure for me, but the kids were thrilled.

The inn is a curious mixture of the rustic and rugged, with a bit of elegance thrown in. The lobby is a dramatic space with a soaring roof. Picture a classic A-frame historic log lodge with a central irori hearth, surrounded by hand-hewn stools. Now picture it in a Kurosawa movie, and you’ll have some idea of the impact.

Rooms in the honke (main building) are more expensive than the new rooms in the annex, and are well worth the added expense. The massive rough-hewn beams are now blackened with age, yet their tongue and groove joinery is still as sturdy as ever. Each room faces the river, and has a different décor, mostly in a grand rustic country style; just dramatic enough to be shy of truly elegant. Our entire group was booked in the old wing.

Dinner was interesting. We donned our yukata robes and outer quilted vests and made our way across a rope bridge stretched across the river. Colorful paper umbrellas were provided for the light rain that fell gently, and our way was lighted by torches. Arriving at the restaurant, we were thrilled to see the massive soaring space, lit with blazing torches and built simply of wood, bamboo and straw, like the set of a Survivor tribal council arena. Placed along the wooden floor were individual irori hearths for each family, where coals were already roasting and ready.

The meal itself was also an adventure, and included wild boar sausage with sansho pepper that was smeared on cedar planks and propped up next to the coals, as well as ayu, a sweet-fleshed trout-like river fish that is reputed to live only in the cleanest waters. These were skewered onto sticks in shapes that mimicked swimming, and coated in sea salt before grilling in the same manner. The huge meal also included deer sashimi (which was too strange for me) and delicious wild mushrooms and mountain vegetables. The meal gave me (as well as perhaps most Japanese people) a bit of culture shock, so I could only imagine what the others in my group felt. As I glanced around, I could see them laughing and taking photos and generally enjoying their adventure.

Lest people think I plan my itineraries blind, they should know that I had sent my American husband to the ryokan to test it with friends the previous spring, and they all simply adored it. Being early spring, the inn was virtually empty and they were given the largest suite, and enjoyed views of snow in the morning. I marveled that they appreciated the strange food, and had renewed respect for them.

There are many baths, all situated along the river, including separate baths for men and women, including rotemburo (outdoor baths). Each bath provides privacy by the way they are built at various angles over the river (except for the unisex outdoor bath, which is in plain view of a pedestrian bridge).

While dinner was a theatrical adventure, I enjoyed the breakfast even more. Served in a modest dining room, buffet style, everything was simply delicious and included mountain cuisine such as: rice with barley, grilled salmon, grated tororo (mountain yam), savory simmered vegetables, freshly made pickles, and too many other items to recall. In fact, I think it was my favorite breakfast out of all the ryokans and hotels I’ve enjoyed over the years.

Service was especially warm, sincere and kind-hearted. The children particularly enjoyed the special attention, and I couldn’t imagine a better place for them, as long as they are adventurous eaters. One unique feature is a room filled with kimono in the aristocratic Heian era (794-1185) style that is available for playing ‘dress up.’ One of the girls looked darling in a loose-fitting, multilayered colorful kimono and long black wig.

Getting there:
Unless you are on a group trip, or have Japanese friends with a car, I would not recommend driving to Honke Bankyu Bankyu. (Actually, I would not recommend that foreigners drive anywhere in Japan, for many reasons.) You can access the inn via train and public bus. Unfortunately, it is not convenient via public transportation from Nikko, as the journey involves multiple changes of trains. Again, kudos to my husband who made it there in one piece, without getting lost!

Lobby at Honke Bankyu Bankyu ryokan, © Kirk Vuillemot, 2009
The soaring lobby surrounds the irori (central hearth) at the elegantly rustic Honke Bankyu Bankyu ryokan.
749 Yunishigawa, Kuriyama-mura,
Shioya gun, Tochigi 321-2601
TEL: 0288-98-0011 FAX: 0288-98-0666