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Spa Of The Month: KAI Poroto, Japan

Intrigued by Japan’s hot spring bathing tradition and its indigenous culture, CF contributor Lisa Kjellsson checked in to KAI Poroto – a resort inspired by both.

Mention Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island, and any ski enthusiast will likely light up – it’s a world-class destination for winter sports. What fewer people know is that it is also home to the Ainu, Japans indigenous people. Despite a millennia-old history, the Ainu were virtually unknown to the outside world until recently. 

Now, they and their customs are taking centre stage in the rebranding of Hokkaido as not only a skiersparadise, but also a cultural hotspot and, in 2022, Japanese luxury hotel group Hoshino Resorts opened KAI Poroto. Find this Ainu-inspired hot spring ryokan in the town of Shiraoi, just a few minutes’ walk from the (also relatively new) Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park.  


THE LOWDOWN

Located about 40 minutes by train from New Chitose Airport outside Sapporo, Shiraoi feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere; the quiet residential area doesn’t immediately provide clues as to why a luxury hotel would be built here. But step inside the hotel and you’ll face the tranquil Lake Poroto, where the Ainu once paddled their canoes. The Ainu’s influence is felt everywhere you look, including in the unique design by Hiroshi Nakamura of NAP Architects, the art collection and the cuisine. Books on Ainu culture take pride of place in the hotel library too. This 42-room property is a contemporary take on a traditional Japanese ryokan (hot spring inn), making it an obvious choice for culturally curious wellness seekers.


THE SPA

The Japanese hot spring bathing tradition is famous worldwide, so I was excited to visit KAI Poroto’s indoor and outdoor onsen. Both are supplied with a healing mineral water from a local moor spring, but are otherwise completely different experiences. Sankaku-no-yu, a bathhouse on the lake, features cone-shaped structures, a modern interpretation of Ainu architecture – and it’s surprisingly spacious, with an open-air pool. In contrast, the indoor Maru-no-yu is a cosy, cave-like space; an uncovered hole in the dome ceiling letting natural light through. 

As is the custom in Japan, no swimwear is allowed in the onsen – you bathe completely naked (there are separate sections for women and men). It turned out I quite like bathing in the buff, at least after dark. Late at night I waded into the shallow outdoor pool, with steam rising from the hot water, and initially I couldnt see where it ended and where the lake began. Sat in solitude, I gazed at the starry sky for quite some time, feeling completely at one with my surroundings.

The next day I returned but, for me, the feeling wasn’t the same in broad daylight – I needed the cloak of darkness to help me relax. Instead, I ventured to the indoor bathhouse and, luckily for me, a couple of ladies were leaving so once again, I had the pool to myself.

While the KAI Poroto spa experience revolves around bathing, in-room shiatsu massage treatments are available – and the ideal add-on to a soak in the healing mineral water. Expertly targeting pressure points all over my body, the therapist worked his magic on my muscles while, this time, I remained clothed.


THE ROOMS

All guest rooms face the forest-framed Lake Poroto, offering changing views with each season. I spent many blissful moments reclined on the wall-to-wall window seat, looking across the calm water and Mount Tarumae in the distance; a memory from these moments that remains etched in my mind is spotting a snow-white crane, gracefully sweep the sky.

Ainu design details are cleverly woven into the restful interiors, which blur the line between indoors and outdoors with features such as floor-to-ceiling birch trunks. All four room types have a lounge space furnished with a coffee table designed to resemble the hearth of an Ainu home. Traditional patterns adorn the wallpaper, cushion covers and artwork, including a wall-mounted oar carved by a local craftsman. The comfy beds are western-style, but lie close to the floor so feel quite futon-like, and a few of the rooms come with an outdoor bath, too.


THE DINING

 

Hokkaido is known for fresh produce, seafood, and dairy products – all of which feature in KAI Poroto’s gourmet meals. An eight-course kaiseki dinner included daigo nabe – an aromatic hotpot of stewed horsehair crab and scallops; a pink rice roll soup; shrimp cake, duck rolls; assorted sashimi; steamed rockfish with sake; braised beef with seasonal vegetables; rice porridge with cheese; and lastly a blancmange with lavender and haskap berry sauce. Even the set breakfast menu is a feast fit for an Emperor, but there’s no sign of a croissant or pancake here; instead you’ll be presented with delicious dishes of tofu, rice, seaweed and cod roe, plus a soft-boiled egg.


THE CULTURAL TO-DO LIST

Courtesy of The Foundation for Ainu Culture

Courtesy of The Foundation for Ainu Culture

It’s no coincidence that this particular location was chosen for an Ainu-inspired hotel Lake Poroto has long been considered sacred to Hokkaido’s original settlers. Also located on its shores is Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park, which opened in 2020 as a way of reviving and raising awareness of Ainu culture. Spread across several buildings, the museum features carefully curated exhibitions showcasing the Ainus history and way of life; a cinema showing animated educational films; music and dance performances; workshop spaces; plus shops and restaurants. In the surrounding park, a traditional Ainu village’ has been recreated, with authentically built thatched houses. It’s a must on any Hokkaido trip.

At the hotel, a sunken lounge facing the canoe dock provides a cosy seating area around a fireplace, honouring the Ainu tradition of gathering around the hearth of the home. Here guests can take part in cultural activities, such as an amulet-making workshop using indigenous plants like ikema, cornflower and calendula, said to ward off evil spirits. Take the opportunity for a self-guided hike along the Lake Poroto trail, too. It takes about an hour and a half and with almost no one else around (I passed just one other hiker), it’s a wonderful opportunity to practise the Japanese art of shinrin-yoku – forest bathing.


Lead image credit: KAI Poroto

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