Friday, 29 April 2016

Private onsen experience at the Gora Hanaouchi and Mount Fuji up close | Hakone | JAPAN | November 2015

Hakone is well known for hot springs, onsens, beautiful mountain landscape and of course, the
magnificent Mount Fujisan scenery.
In 2014, during our last trip, we had our hearts set on seeing Mount Fuji in person. We didn't and we were very disappointed especially as we had traveled over 3 hours from Tokyo in hope to see MF. The weather was crap (well, overcast but warm) and certainly not perfect weather conditions to see MF clearly.

So during our 2015 trip, we decided to stay over in Hakone not only to see MF, but also to experience our own private open air onsen set in the mountains - something we always said we would try at least once. I found us a wonderful gem, Gora Hanaougi, set within the mountains. Hanaougi is a luxury ryokan-style hotel in Gora. It offers peaceful and relaxing rooms with views of natural landscape. As you enter the ryokan, you are hit with an impressive lobby with chandeliers made out of wood and the corridor is decorated in Tatami mats. Staying here has been one of the our most elegant Japanese experiences.

Hakone is located along Tokaido, where Edo (modern-day Tokyo) is connected to Kyoto, and was developed as “shukubamachi”, a town offering food and accommodation to travellers. Not to mention the spectacular view of nearby Mt. Fuji, there are numerous tourist spots in this area, such as Owakudani volcanic valley and the beautiful Ashinoko lake.

As we checked in,  we were warmly greeted with a cup of hot green tea and Japanese sweets. We had a dedicated host for our entire stay who attended to our every need.

Our terrace room faced the Gairin mountain and forest. We were able to relax in comfort in our own private open-air hot spring bath overlooking the magnificent mountains and beautiful sky. The room is a perfect blend of traditional and modern without loosing it Japanese appeal. We stayed during the peak of Autumn so a hot soak in a hot onsen was blisssss and staying during this time of year when the leaves turned colours was wondrous. Every room has a low table made of Jindai-Keyaki wood which is old zelkova buried in volcanic ash for many years, crafted from precious wood using a traditional technique called 'Chigiri', joining wood without using any nails.

Our dinner and breakfast was served by our host and it was decadently presented on beautiful crockery. We had the finest A5 beef kaiseki meal which included fresh vegetables from the local farm, fish from inshore waters and fine beef from Hida. There were 12 courses yet we left feeling completely satisfied without feeling like you're in a food coma. The beauty of Japan's food and ingredients is that it does not leave a stodgy feeling after a heavy meal. Breakfast fast was quite extravagant with array of small dishes to sample and I must say, it certainly made a worthy Instagram photo!

Oh, and we managed to see Mt Fuji, which was the main purpose of our stay in Hakone! Any first time Japan traveler would say the time - you have an urge to see the beauty of Mount Fuji. We had been very fortunate to have the right combination of luck, planning and perfect weather to see MF in all its glory. I think my heart skipped a beat when I set eyes on it for the very first time. Standing still for a few minutes admiring something you longed to see, there is something quite serene and you feel an undisputed amazing feeling that fills up your entire body. MF is quite a beauty in pictures, but in person, it is simply awe-inspiring-ly breathtaking.

We took a cruise on Lake Ashi and returned back to the hotel to kick back and relax and to enjoy our private onsen

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Kyoto Diary | Meeting a True Geiko | Japan | November 2015

If there was one particular highlight on our 2015 Japan trip, I would say that watching a Geisha perform a beautiful dance, taking selfies together, playing drinking games and getting to know more about these mysterious beings was a particularly memorable experience for us both.

When you visit Gion, the Geisha district of Kyoto, you may spot one scurrying along a quiet side street, or being surrounded by tourists trying to catch a glimpse into a quintessential part of Japan. One thing is obvious, they are not attention seeking beings, they are more elegant, quaint and prestigious to the Japanese culture.

An opportunity to spend an evening with a Japanese Geisha at Gion Hatanaka was truly a magnificent way to get to know the artists in a more personal way.  We got to see their makeup close up; the way their eye-shadow, face powder, lipstick are all applied with precision. The manner in which their hair is made up, their beautiful kimonos and the way they hold themselves. I was mesmerised. Young ladies aged between 15-20 train for five years to become a Geisha (in Western Japan in regions such as Kyoto, they preferred to be called Geiko). During this training period, they are known as Maiko, learning the traditional art of Japanese entertainment. 

The host showed us our table where we were seated with fellow diners from all over the world. Laid on the table in front of us was a dark lacquered box, wrapped in a decorative paper ribbon. It was presented as a gift, a box offering beautifully presented Kaiseki cusine and each course was beautifully presented and cooked with care and attention.  It was here that I also experienced my first Sake drink – it was strong and one sip was enough to send me into a deep coma! Lol.

The evening started out with the host introducing a beautiful Maiko called Koyoshi, followed by a graceful Geiko called Fukumari.  Both performed a traditional Kyoto dance called Kyomai with such poise and beauty.  It was hard to take your eyes off them!   After the dance, the Koyoshi and Fukumari, along with a translator visited each table and we took the opportunity to ask them anything we wanted to. It was a chance to get to know them behind the iconic façade as well as understand more about why they do this as a profession.  They were truly sweet and adorable girls who just like to watch American movies and go to the cinema and hang out with their friends on their days off.

Though it has become a popular tourist attraction, it will give you a glimpse of the culture which is otherwise difficult to access and an evening with a Geisha is undoubtedly is one of our highlights of our trip.   Further details can be found here

I created a video to document our unforgettable evening we spent with a Maiko and Geiko (aka Geisha), showcasing the traditional Japanese dance, listening to the music being played from the Shamisen (a traditional three string lute instrument) by Takae. 

The Japanese culture and traditions are admired from many people around the world, I hope you are able to see the beauty of the arts in which Maiko's & Geiko's are taught to perform taking many years to master and the challenges they face in pursuit of this lifestyle. 

One day, I hope you too will be able to experience this amazing Kyoto tradition.