I don’t usually post long stories or promote commercial operations. But this post does as I want to recount a tale that says a lot about the Japanese experience , particularly for western visitors.
As the trip planner I had to fulfill 3 simple criteria for the last couple of nights of this trip: traditional ryokan to stay in, onsen to soak in, and somewhere to trek for half a day or so. None of us had stayed in a ryokan before – as for this trip youth hostels and business hotels were the go. None of us had done the onsen thing either.
Our group was four, fifty year old men. The previous week we had been Saitama supporting the Australian football team in its World Cup game against Japan. After moving to Hiroshima for a few days, Kawayu Onsen was intended to be our chill out time before jetting back to Australia.
I can’t remember how I stumbled on Kawayu Onsen, but I can assure you dear reader that I knew little of it before we stepped from the bus in front of the Kameya Inn. I did know it had only 11 buildings, and one vending machine. And buses went there every couple of hours. But it was also pretty remote.
So the long travel day started about 6:30am from Hiroshima, to meet the “Kurushio” Limited Express from Shin-Osaka at 10:00am, then to meet the 12:25pm bus from Kiitanabe which would land us in Kawayu Onsen around 2:15pm.
Easy as. Don’t you love public transport in Japan!
So the local Ryujin bus wends its way through the suburbs of Kiitanabe, running beside wide racing rivers, then moving onto narrow, winding roads that soon retracted to lanes as the mountain climbing began. Beautiful rugged steep forested slopes.
The narrow roads obviously determined the size of the bus. Small, carrying probably 30 passengers at best. For our intrepid Cameron, it was fairly funny to see him crammed up in his seat, knees under his chin, crying out every so often about cramp in his tucked up leg. Atleast Chris, Keith and I thought it was funny.
As the time ticked by, local passengers got off in little villages. Soon there were the four of us – we had no idea what direction we were heading, where we were, or where our stop was. I sidled up to the driver and was able to confirm that he knew where he was going. Phew.
At last we entered Kawayu with its clear river hugging the road, groups of families were bathing in its warm waters, steep forested hills on the other side. The bus pulled up, the smiling driver turning to us announcing ‘Kameya’. The river and hills distracted us from realising that the Inn host and two staff were waiting at the bus stop (in front of the Inn) to welcome their new guests the moment we stepped out.
And from that moment we could see our 2 days here were going to be very good!
The Inn has an old section and a newer accommodation section. While we were in the newer part, from the inside it had the appearance, feel and creakiness of being very old.
We shared twin Japanese style rooms overlooking the river, and with a small balcony with a couple of chairs and a table. Absolutely delightful.
One of Kameya’s features is the serving of local foods. We had gone for the ‘Kaiseki plan’ for breakfast and supper which is a traditional Japanese style course meal, using fresh local, seasonal ingredients. Again, fairly ignorant of what this meant before hand.
The supper set out for us that first evening was superb. A variety of dishes, served in elegant bowls. And we heartily consumed everything laid before us, even as we speculated as to what some of it may actually be.
However the traditional low table did challenge our creaking hips, and at times each of us were just about lying on our sides just to be able to stretch out the legs.
Breakfast followed on in the same magnificent way. Never before had I spent an hour eating breakfast. Gulping down a bowl of cereal is usually my style. Then dinner again. Then breakfast again. All top quality presentation and taste.
The Kameya Inn is highly recommended. The location, the accommodation, the meals and the presentation. The Seasonal Kaiseki package is also very reasonably priced. Overall, fantastic value at about $110 (Australian) per night per person.
I have posted a few times about the genuine interest in delivering good service in Japan. So these next comments about Kameya may ring true in ryokans and other places across the country – and I hope they do. I just wish they could be replicated and experienced in my home country!
No need for a taxi
Our group was to go on a guided walk along one of the Kumano Kodo sections. Our Inn Host drove us to pick up our volunteer guide early in the morning and then to the walk starting point at Hosshinmon-Oji, and picked us up again at the end of our walk at Hongu Taisha in the mid afternoon. Both these trips took 30 minutes both ways, so our Host was away from the Inn for 2 hours taxiing us around.
Forgot the lunch
The walk was for around 4 hours, and spanned lunch time. In the early stages of our walk, our guide Kyoko explained where we would be having lunch. Lunch? I forgot to arrange for some rice balls for our lunch. Kyoko contacted the Inn, and our Host drove back up to our designated lunch stop on the Kumano Kodo with our rice balls and a drink! Fantastic. Another hour out of the Inn.
During dinner on the second night we ordered some local sake, and damn it was good. After consuming the dozen courses and ample sake, we had gone back to our rooms. Sleep was looking good. That is, until there was a knock on the door of the room Chris and I shared.
I do remember stepping across Chris sprawled out on his futon, sliding the door open, and then thinking that maybe my silk boxers and the raggy t-shirt was not the best look I could have come up with. Anyway, through halting English and our total lack of Japanese, we worked out that our Host wanted to show us some fireflies nearby.
So in the car hop 4 slightly drunk Australians, certainly not dressed for outside activity, and having no real idea of what fireflies were. We drove alongside the Ogi-gawa for a few kilometres and there they were – blinking their crazy lights from across a swampy stream.
We enjoyed seeing them. It was a first for us all. I believe our genuine interest gave joy to our Host who had taken the trouble to rouse us in the first place.
No need for the bus
On the morning of our departure, I was heading to Shingu and on to Nagoya for a few days. Keith, Cameron and Chris were heading back by bus to Kiitanabe then on the Kansai Airport to fly home. Our buses were both leaving around 10:00am, but going different ways.
After fare welling the other guys, our Host told me she was also going to Shingu to do shopping, and offered me a lift the 40 kilometres to town. Of course I accepted this very special favour, something beyond what I would expect as a guest.
Give it a go
The Kawayu Onsen area itself is amazingly quiet, relatively undeveloped, and certainly without the gaudiness of many other onsen villages. In a number of areas along the river, hot gases bubble up through the rocks creating warm and even hot pools in the river. In addition there is a river side public bath to enjoy.
I know Japan is full of these ‘special’ places, and each of us create our real or hoped-for top spots. This one just happens to be mine.