Amongst all the numerous inns throughout Japan, there is one that stands apart from the pack, recognized as having reached the pinnacle of ryokan (if not define it). Start a conversation about Kagaya, and you are likely to hear it referred to as "that Kagaya" or even "ah, Kagaya...," lending credence to this famous inn's long history and impeccable reputation. Kagaya -- located in Ishikawa Prefecture's hot spring resort of Wakura Onsen -- welcomed its first guests more than a century ago and has been cultivating the hospitality -- omotenashi in Japanese - that made it famous ever since. It comes as no surpise then that in a national ranking of the top 100 hotels and ryokan in Japan, industry professionals have placed Kagaya at the top of the list an incredible 31 years in a row as of the last choosing (2011). According to the inn, it was here at Kagaya that the now standard practice of the Okami, an inn's proprietress, visiting each guest in their rooms was started, among other practices that play a large part in defining the concept of Japanese omotenashi (hospitality) to this day. And it was here on a sunny afternoon in July that I found myself for the night.
I came to Wakura Onsen by JR limited express train from Kanazawa, which took about an hour, and as I stepped off of the train at its terminus and my destination, I was immediately greeted by the crisp, refreshing feeling of the ocean air. Wakura Onsen -- a hot spring town said to have been in use for some 1,200 years -- is located on the Noto Peninsula, jutting into Nanao Bay on the Japan Sea. The calm waters of Nanao Bay are known to be particularly beautiful at sunset.
Making my way out of the station, I was greeted once again; this time it was Kagaya's shuttle service, which was already waiting in time with my train's arrival. It was only a few minutes on the shuttle before the towers of Kagaya rose into view.
Kimono-clad staff lined up to greet me as I arrived, and the front desk staff stood at the ready.
The lounge on the first floor is fitted with massive floor to ceiling windows, providing a view of Nanao Bay and Noto Island. My interest piqued, I inquired and was surprised to be informed that each pane is the size of about eight tatami mats and weighs a hefty two tons.
I was shown to my room in the Noto Nagisatei wing which faces Nanao Bay. The main area consisted of a Japanese-style tatami floor, with a small sitting room with table and chairs by the window and a separate twin bedroom. The room's spaciousness and no lack of accoutrements gave it a refined atmosphere that put me at ease. On top of that, the view of Nanao Bay from my tenth-floor Standard Japanese/Western-style Room was excellent, and I was able to get another taste of the fresh ocean breeze by opening one of the large windows.
(Room features vary depending on the room and wing, with some rooms including private open-air baths. For more information, please contact Customer Support.)
The staff member attending my room was quick to offer me a snack and some tea, and I settled in to take a breather and enjoy them. "Are you about 160 cm?" I was asked as I nibbled on my snack, and after confirming this personal fact, she brought me an appropriately sized yukata (a light kimono).
It was actually a set of two yukata with two different styles of belt. Apparently one was for sleeping, and it was recommended that I use the belt with a bit more give so as not to be uncomfortable in bed. I have to say that I was a bit moved by the sentiment.
I asked that my dinner be served at 6 p.m. and was left to ponder what to do until then. One idea of course was to go straight to the hot springs and then space out in my room. However, with the abundance of things to do both within the halls of Kagaya itself and in the surrounding area, I had a hankering to do a bit of exploring.
Kagaya achieves much of its elegant, dignified interior thanks to the numerous handicrafts and artwork set throughout the ryokan, and there is a tour led by a veteran staff member for those wanting to learn more. The highlight for me were the works of Kutani ware -- a style of Japanese porcelain native to Ishikawa Prefecture -- crafted by an actual living national treasure.
Back in the Edo period, the Noto area fell under the control of the affluent Kaga domain, and it was thanks Kaga's wealth and power that local art forms could flourish and a culture of opulence was created. As it were, Kagaya strives to recreate that sense of opulence with its collection, inviting guests to experience the wealth of culture from ages past during their time here.
After walking around the inn, I was starting to feel a bit peckish, so I decided to visit the nearby museum and cafe, Le Musee de H, which is operated by world-renowned patissier and area native Hironobu Tsujiguchi.
After only a few minutes' walk from Kagaya, I was gazing out at Nanao Bay from the cafe's stylish, modern interior as I nibbled on some delicious cake made from locally produced rice.
The museum, which is free to enter, features exhibits of sugar sculptures made by Tsujiguchi himself, and the connected Isaburo Kado gallery displays Wajima lacquer bowls, a traditional craft of Ishikawa prefecture.
Qi Esthetic is a special spa designed by popular cosmetics brand Shiseido which combines Eastern and Western treatments and techniques to offer a range of unique services.
The interior was designed around the concept of zen, creating a peaceful, relaxing atmosphere crafted from local lumber.
It is common for ryokan to rent out space to accept an outside spa as a tenant and leave the running of it up to them, but Kagaya employs their own dedicated staff who received training direclty from Shiseido.
Wakura Onsen is said to have been discovered when, some 1,200 years ago, local fishermen glimpsed a white heron resting in the ocean with steam rising around it (though accounts vary).
Kagaya's spacious hot spring spas (indoor and outdoor) all face the bay, so you can melt away your troubles while gazing out at the beautiful ocean. I especially recommend watching the sunset as well as the fresh morning sea as your rejuvenate you body and mind in the soothing hot springs.
In the large communal spa, I noticed a 100%, straight-from-the-source hot spring drinking fountain. The sign said that the water was a balmy 70 degrees Celsius, so after giving it a couple blows I carefully took a sip. It was a tad salty with the mild flavor of the sea; definitely worth a try.
In traditional ryokan fashion, dinner at Kagaya is served in your guest room. As I made a lazy, relaxed retreat from the hot springs to my room, I was delighted to find the first smatterings of the feast to come waiting for me on the table. Underneath a small cage on the tray I found some colorful hors d'oeuvres arranged in an autumn motif. My stay was in September, and the lingering summer heat had made me forgotten that it was in fact the start of autumn; luckily Kagaya, ever conscious of the seasons, had prepared a tasty reminder.
There were also a couple other delicacies including fried vegetables and sea cucumber.
With the collection of delicacies that was hence laid out in front of me -- each dish painstakingly prepared with high-grade, seasonal ingredients and delicate flavoring -- my chopsticks found themselves rather occupied.
Kagaya's hospitality doesn't end after dinner. The ryokan is a destination in and of itself and provides its guests plenty of activities without having to leave the grounds. The indoor arcades of Kagaya are lined with souvenir shops, theaters, karaoke facilities, bars, restaurants and more, and the yukata-clad guests make the rounds after dinner every night. The ryokan even has its own opera truope, called the Setsugekka Opera Company, performing daily at the Hanafubuki theater club.
After a very good night's sleep, I awoke and headed straight for the hot springs again. After a nice wake-up soak, I returned to my room to find a fantastic breakfast spread just begging to be devoured. With a variety of pickled and steamed morsels arranged on small plates, I was able to enjoy a range of flavors to start off my day. It even included dried fillets of flounder which I grilled myself, sending a fragrant aroma wafting through my room. In the end, breakfast concluded much the same as the previous night's dinner: not a crumb left.
After breakfast, there was one more thing left on my agenda before checking out. Can't forget to pick up some souvenirs! The shops -- selling local specialties and crafts, seafood, and more -- open early at 6:00 a.m. and the indoor arcade quickly becomes a lively morning market. You can even pick up some of the items you enjoyed for breakfast.
When I returned to my room in the morning after visiting the hot springs, I was once again surprised by Kagaya's attention to detail: there were fresh flowers in room, different from those of the previous day. It really made me wonder what small things I might have missed during my stay...but alas, my time at the famous ryokan had come to an end...for now.
After checking out and being seen off by the staff who attended my room, I went for a drive around the Noto Peninsula.
Kagaya is also available as part of our Train & Hotel Packages including round-trip transportation from Osaka or Kyoto.
I decided to go for a drive by rental car around Noto Peninsula after my stay and was blessed with a splendidly sunny day. I had several places to visit before returning to Tokyo from Noto Airport in the evening. (Note: pictures below should be viewed starting in the upper right.)
[2-3] The locally popular Egara Manju snacks get their vivid yellow color from dye made from cape jasmine and are filled with a simple sweet bean paste.
 Shellfish pulled right out of nearby Nanao Bay come highly recommended.
 The manhole covers feature a grinning morning market granny!
 You can take a tour of a shop that makes traditional Wajima lacquer goods, too.
 Waves crash on the worn rocks of the Kamogaura Inlet. Apparently, if you happen to fall into the water here, the likelyhood of making it back out is slim, even if you were as agile as a cat. Because of this, the inlet is also referred to as "Cat Hell" colloquially. In the winter you can see "wave flowers" here when waves rich with sea foam crash against the rocks and send their fluffy, white cargo skyward.
Along Route 249 between Wajima and Sosogi is a collection of some 1,004 small rice paddies arranged facing the ocean. This beautiful landscape mixing the natural and man-made is a symbol of Noto, and in June 2011, the area was recognized as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS).