A mere mention of the name "Kagaya" to a Japanese person will initiate a reaction of knowing awe. This long-standing establishment has consistently held the accolade of being the nation's number one Japanese inn for over 30 years. The institution of Kagaya has been catering to hot spring travellers for over 100 years, while the hot spring area of Wakura Onsen is said to have been drawing worshippers of the long hot Japanese bath for around 1,200 years. Situated by Nanao Bay on the Noto peninsula of Ishikawa Prefecture, Kagaya encapsulates the refined opulence and grandeur of art and craftsmanship that the area has been historically renowned for.
However, the true reason for Kagaya's fame is due to its reputation of the unsurpassed hospitality provided to its guests. In Japanese, the word for hospitality is omotenashi, and Kagaya prides itself on possessing omotenashi in spades.
Arriving at Kagaya made me feel as if I were arriving at some kind of prestigious award ceremony. The female attendants, or nakai-san, stand at the entranceway in lines and wait patiently for the guests to arrive. As guests file off buses and into the building, they are greeted with a bow and the familiar cry of irasshaimase! (welcome!). Guests' luggage is collected and taken care of, while they check in and are shown to their rooms to relax after long journeys.
Meanwhile, the nakai-san assemble in the entranceway and have a brief meeting to discuss any important issues. For those wishing to witness this greeting ceremony, it would be advisable to check beforehand with the ryokan to find out when it is held.
After checking in, I went to the lounge area to have a coffee and wait for someone to show me around. While walking through the foyer, I happened to notice a Japanese flag and a Union Jack. I wondered at the time why there was a British flag there... Perhaps it was for me? No, it couldn't be... (of course it was!)
I sat in the lounge and sipped on a coffee, which the waitress had told me to sprinkle some gold leaf into. The area around Kanazawa is famous for gold leaf, and it is customary to sprinkle it in tea and coffee here - what luxury! I later discovered that it was Kanazawa who provided the gold leaf that covers the Golden Temple in Kyoto.
Kagaya is filled with wonderful artwork and design, all produced by local artists. Everywhere you look you will find works of delicate splendour. A veteran member of staff conducts a tour of all of the famous pieces on display in the hotel (unfortunately only available in Japanese at the time of writing). The tour explains some of the stories behind the works; for example, if you look closely at the paintings above the windows in the lounge area you will notice that the eyes of the characters depicted have no pupils. Apparently, the artist spent 3 months trying to decide whether to paint pupils in the eyes or not. Eventually he decided not to. If you look closely at my coffee cup above, you'll notice that the mug carries the same design as the paintings above the windows. It is these tiny attentions to detail that make Kagaya such a special place.
A Nice Cup of Tea
Upon arrival, most guests are taken straight to their rooms to relax after their long journeys. At this point the nakai-san will serve them green tea and a traditional Japanese sweet to munch on while they sip their tea. This is usually the point when the nakai-san explains about the facilities in the ryokan, as well as asking the guest what time they would like to take dinner and breakfast. She also kindly showed me where my yukata bathrobe was, and made sure that it was the right size.
After putting my bags away and getting ready, I set off on a whistlestop tour of the facilities at Kagaya including the baths and some of the other guestrooms.
No trip to a hot spring town like Wakura Onsen would be complete without a long hot soak in the bath. Kagaya boasts a total of 3 public baths on the premises, 1 for gentlemen and 2 for the lucky ladies. The men's bath is called Ebisu, while the two women's baths are called Benten and Kashin. The make-up of the water in Wakura Onsen is high in chloride, so it is advisable for those with sensitive skin to take their time becoming accustomed to the baths. Both male and female baths feature indoor and outdoor baths, allowing for a wonderful sunset or sunrise view while soaking in the warmth. The male bath even has an elevator inside - that's the first time I've ever seen that!
My favourite bath, as luck would have it, happened to be one of the female baths - Kashin (picture above). The design of the interior was a colourful mosaic, just like something you might see in Barcelona by Gaudi. Similar to the hallways and rooms of the hotel, this bath exhibited that wonderful attention to detail that makes Kagaya such a unique ryokan.
Possessing a long history of receiving important guests, ranging from the Imperial family to famous celebrities (both Japanese and foreign); one of the most impressive sights from my tour around the rooms was the executive floor in Setsugekka called 'Hamarikyu'. As I was looking around the grand and impressive chambers, I wondered about all of the royalty and famous people who must've stayed there...
Kagaya is made up of 4 buildings: Setsugekka (84 rooms), Noto Nagisatei (74 rooms), Noto Kyakuden (40 rooms) and Noto Honjin (36 rooms). Rooms vary greatly in size, design and features and there is sure to be something to suit most requirements. Kagaya boasts both Japanese and Japanese/Western-style rooms.
For some visitors, a private bath is preferable to the public baths, and Kagaya also offers some rooms with attached private baths. Perfect for families and groups who require a bit more privacy.
I had a little bit of time to kill, so I took a wander around to explore. There is a wonderful circular bar in the middle of a large space, a design rises up from the bar to to the ceiling in a fluttering manner, which is said to be inspired by the abundance of rain that the area is infamous for. I also discovered a large Noh stage in the building as well! One of the beautiful touches I noticed in the Nagisatei building was that the glass elevator that looked out onto a huge work of art that stretched from the bottom floor to the top. Guests can look through the glass at the artwork as they ascend. It really was like something from a dream!
Ishikawa's proximity to the Japan Sea has given it a reputation for producing some of the finest seafood in Japan. Dinner featured wonderful fresh sashimi, juicy crab, sweet prawns, succulent meats and carefully prepared tofu dishes. For dessert there was a pudding produced by Le Musee de H , a sweet shop nearby which produces cakes and sweets by Hironobu Tsujiguchi.
Situated in a sleepy onsen town, there is not much in the way of nightlife around the ryokan. However, Kagaya is as much a destination unto itself, and the inn also provides entertainment for its guests in the evening. Ranging from wild dances, to simple karaoke performances and traditional dances routines, there is something for everyone here. Kick back, relax and sip on a beer while enjoying the entertainment on offer. Most guests are dressed in their yukata by now, having enjoyed a delicious meal and a long soak in the bath.
After a fun-packed and exciting day, I was all too grateful to slide into my comfortable futon and turn out the lights. Before I did, I managed to take one last photo - notice the exquisite design on the futon cover - you don't often see something as colourful and intricate as that on a futon!
Rise and Shine
I woke early in time to see the sun rising through the moody clouds. Soft pinks and purples were sliding out from behind the clouds and I snapped a quick photo before heading to the open-air bath to sit and watch the sun come up. Sorry, I couldn't take my camera to the bath, so you'll have to imagine the view for yourselves!
After a soak in the bath I made my way back to my room to enjoy a bit of food. Breakfast was a traditional Japanese-style one; both large and appetising.
Relaxing to the sounds of the Koto
After breakfast, the majority of guests were relaxing in the lounge enjoying an early-morning coffee and a chat. Some were reading newspapers and relaxing to the sounds of a koto, played by a pretty girl dressed in a kimono. There was also a piano in the lounge that had a beautiful gold leaf design.
After checking out, I went to explore some of the beautiful views that Wakura Onsen and the Nanao Bay area had to offer. As we were driving away from the ryokan, I noticed the nakai-san lined up along the roadside waving us goodbye. 'Wow,' I thought to myself, 'that's what you call service.' I sat back in my seat and the car turned a corner. As we turned the corner I almost fell off my seat - along the next street there were more nakai-san standing waving goodbye. I couldn't help but laugh.
That experience sums up the service at Kagaya; the staff take everything just that one step further than your expectations, and that's what makes their omotenashi unrivalled.
Kagaya had been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, and one that I'm sure I will never forget.