December in Japan. Forget roasting chestnuts and sipping egg nog, here the holiday means being deluged by a yuletide of tasks as you struggle to get yourself and your life in order for the New Year. As my to-do list started to rival the length of Santa's famous twice-checked list, things were looking bleak.
"Time for a break!" I thought.
A little R and R would put right back on track - or at least give me a welcome diversion. So, I packed my bags and headed to Ito no Ryokan on the Izu Penninsula.
Soothing onsen, gourmet cuisine, stunning views, traditional design, heartfelt service... it is amazing how many unique characteristics can be conjured up by a single word: ryokan. This time around, I decided to stay at Komeya, the "gourmet ryokan" with an emphasis on cuisine, essentially the Japanese version of an auberge.
The trip out to Komeya was simple. From Atami Station on the JR Tokaido Line, I took the Izu Kyuko Line to Ito Higashi Station. It took about 30 minutes. After arriving, I strolled around the residential neighborhood surrounding the station before heading up the sloping road that leads to Komeya. There I found the ryokan's gate, designed in a traditional style and surrounded by a bamboo thicket. The sound of a cascading waterfall rushed to meet me as I passed through the gate and meandered past a peaceful Japanese garden. I felt like I had crossed over into some enchanted world.
As I approached the entrance, I was warmly greeted by the staff and then proceeded to the check-in counter at the back of the lobby. The kimono-clad woman presented me with freshly brewed green tea and Japanese treats. Time for a break!
Komeya houses 17 guestrooms. Though each has its own distinct layout and design, all rooms feature water flowing in from the nearby hot spring. Another pleasant surprise for many overseas travelers is that a comfortable bed awaits them in their room, instead of the old ryokan standby -- the futon. The proprietors may be operating a traditional ryokan, but they have also infused more modern elements in order to provide guests the most comfortable stay possible.
I stayed in the main building, in a tatami room with a low bed. The bathroom had a tub made of Japanese cypress, partially exposed to the fresh air outside. This lets guests enjoy the liberating sensation of bathing in the outdoors, while still enjoying the privacy of their own room, a point that many female guests appreciate.
Guests can choose between different types of rooms when booking through JAPANiCAN.com.
The Japanese rooms in the main building feature plenty of space,
a low bed and a Japanese cypress, semi open-air bath.
The new building is home to modern twin rooms.
The spacious terrace boasts a porcelain open-air bath.
Once the hour hand crawled past six in the evening, it was finally time for dinner. I had skipped lunch so I could bring my 'A' game to this much vaunted "gourmet ryokan." Now, sitting in the private dining area, it was time to reward my growling stomach for its hours of patience.
Japanese cuisine is unique in that it captures the flavor the season. Komeya prides itself on offering kaiseki cuisine prepared with the freshest ingredients from the best locations. They sedulously adhere to their motto of providing delicious foods at the height of delectability. Accordingly, they change their menu monthly. December featured Shizuoka Prefecture's own Lake Hamana's specialty -- oysters. The final dish was an exquisite medley of oysters served with seasoned rice.
Making the most of their proximity to the sea, Komeya's other dishes also included fresh seafood, such as sashimi, rock salt barbecue, and various simmered treats. Not just a delight for the taste buds, appreciating the bowls and plates that held these delicacies was a big part of the experience, as well.
After I finished my meal, I headed to the far end of the dining area and toward the entrance to the reservable open-air bath. The embrace of the verdant bamboo grove, the sound of a waterfall washing over me, this bathing area immediately put me at ease. No reservation is necessary either; all guests have to do is check the board located at the entrance. If no one is using the bath, feel free to jump in.
The large shared bathing area houses baths made of Japanese cypress and another constructed from rocks. Both have an open-air version. It is even possible for a guest to sample all of the baths during their stay because the times that men and women can use the facilities varies.
A bevy of ice-chilled drinks rests by the bath's entrance, free for parched guests. The refrigerators in the individual rooms are also filled with free mineral water and beer. There is never a thirsty guest at Komeya!
A nice firm mattress helped usher in a good night's sleep. I woke up the following morning and, after an invigorating dip in my room's open-air bath, it was time for a break... fast! Off to the dining area.
The first thing I noticed was the plethora of little bowls arranged on the tray. "This is the kind of breakfast I'd expect from the 'restaurant ryokan'," I thought. Compared to dinner, the items here were lighter, easier on the stomach. Check out was at 11 a.m., so that gave me plenty of time to head back to the bath and then relax in my room.
Comfort, quiet and sense of privacy permeate this 17-room ryokan. With meticulously prepared meals and soothing baths, why don't you make it a stop on your next trip to Japan?
Guests will find all sorts of rice-related decorations placed around the ryokan, from the Komeya logo to the rice-adorned nameplates located by the guestrooms.
Both inside and outside the building, visitors will discover a variety of heart-warming, seasonal flowers. The staff arrange the bouquets in the guestrooms daily.
Of course, Komeya offers the traditional Japanese staples of relaxing onsen and savory cuisine. But, there is also an element of modern Japan to be found there. Located by the bathing area are massage chairs made by a major Japanese company. They are so soothing guests will wonder if there isn't a miniature masseuse living inside. Please take the opportunity to experience the marvels of Japanese technology, too!