Japan’s hot springs are a wellness seekers’ paradise – time spent in their waters is supported by centuries of tales about their ability to cure specific ailments and relieve stress.
Jules Pearson experienced the traditional Japanese ryokan at Kai Sengokuhara to discover, first-hand, how healing Japan’s hot springs can be. Read on to discover why it’s earned its place as our Spa of the Month this June.
THE PACKING EDIT
Surrounded by forests, lakes, and the iconic Mount Fuji, the little village of Sengokuhara is a world away from the bright lights and bustle of Tokyo – yet it’s within easy reach of the city, taking only around one and half hours by train. This makes Sengokuhara and the surrounding area of Hakone a hugely popular weekend getaway from Tokyo for those looking to hike, relax and recuperate in the great outdoors. KAI Sengokuhara is one of the area’s best hotels to do just that, offering a contemporary take on a traditional Japanese ryokan, complete with its own hot spring spa.
Japan’s hot springs are not your classic spas – although there are in-room massages, you won’t find an extensive range of beauty treatments on offer here. Instead, a stay at KAI is the chance to indulge in the traditional healing powers of hot springs, which the Japanese have practiced for centuries.
Hot spring healing is a form of spa therapy where you spend an extended amount of time bathing in hot spring water with the goal of curing specific ailments or, more commonly in modern times, simply to restore the body from the life’s daily stresses. At KAI, the hot spring spa is located on the ground floor of the hotel and comprises a communal relaxation area (where your experience will begin and end) and separate female and male bathing facilities. You are invited to relax on the comfy day beds while staff explain the principles of hot spring bathing to start, and at the end you are invited back to the communal space to rehydrate with iced tea and even an ice lolly which you can help yourself to from the freezer.
Each hot spring area has two indoor baths and one outdoor bath, set at varying temperatures so you can choose the right one for you. The ideal temperature for relaxing the body and raising your body temperature by just one degree is 40C, helping to boost your immune system and raise your metabolism. A pleasingly ritualistic ceremony: first you shower and scrub yourself clean before sinking yourself halfway into one of the baths. Then you douse yourself 20 times with hot water to acclimatise the rest of your body before slowly immersing your whole body into the pool. It’s instantly soothing and relaxing. The water is key too and the milky-white hot spring waters used in the baths at KAI Sengokuhara are sourced from the Owakudani volcanic valley, known for their antibacterial qualities. Its instance effect is sensational, immediately noticing your skin is smoother after a bathing session.
As a modern hot spring brand, KAI has produced a lovely illustrated guide to help guests get the most out of using the springs, detailing everything from breathing techniques to post bathing stretches to assist with relaxation. One of the best ways to follow up a hot spring session is with a massage, and KAI offers traditional Japanese shiatsu massages directly in the guest rooms – the perfect way to relax before bed.
KAI Sengokuhara does not limit your hot spring experience to the main spa – each of the 16 rooms has its own private hot spring bath on an outdoor terrace. Take an evening soak looking out on to the surrounding countryside from the privacy of your own room. The rooms are designed using traditional ryokan principles, with tatami matt floors and futon-style beds, all given a modern five-star spin. Natural woods and muted colour schemes create a calming atmosphere, while modern artworks created especially for the hotel add personality and colour. Although rooms are designed in minimalist, pared-back style, the quality of the materials give them a totally luxurious feel. There’s no skimping on mod-cons either – USB chargers, coffee machines, and large-screen TV are all in place if that’s your chosen relaxation method.
The hotel’s restaurant is made up entirely of a series of semi-private dining rooms, creating a lovely secluded and exclusive experience. A traditional multi-course kaiseki meal is on offer for dinner, exquisitely presented, showcasing a celebration of the local seasonal produce found in the surrounding area. There’s a dizzying array of dishes, from fresh sashimi and steamed pea cake to seasonal vegetable tempura and a traditional rice clay pot with red bream – an absolute feast. To drink, there’s a selection of sakes from local breweries, or opt for a tasting flight of three different types with committing to a whole bottle.
Before heading to the rather indulgent Japanese breakfast the following morning, a morning dip in your private hot spring bath is advised to get that metabolism going.
KAI Sengokuhara offers a free ‘Cultural Discovery’ programme, a daily line-up of activities designed to introduce guests to Japan’s regional cultures. A tenugi workshop involves you in colouring your very own traditional Japanese handkerchief – a surprisingly satisfying and relaxing experience. Outside the hotel there are beautiful hikes around nearby Lake Ashi, as well as more strenuous climbs up Mount Kintoki, where you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of Mount Fuji. While steep in places, there’s always the warm embrace of the hot springs back in your room to soothe your aching muscles.
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