“And then she turned her gaze up toward the heavens” —Dante Alighieri
Floating lanterns are lit as the sun goes down. Sipping green tea on the deck of my villa overlooking the water, I breathe in the silence. Karuizawa is a mountain resort town in Nagano where the Imperial family vacations, and Tokyoites escape their sweltering summers. The premier resort is Hoshinoya, a ryokan built into the mountain landscape. Here, luxury is not defined by opulence, but by refined austerity. The aim is to embrace simplicity, and to focus on relaxing the body, the breath and the mind without clutter.
Omotenashi is Japanese hospitality that anticipates the needs of a guest and then provides for them. At Hoshinoya, like an episode of Fantasy Island, my hosts have anticipated that I need to be reminded to breathe, to unwind and centre. An early morning breakfast of tofu soup made with water from local hot springs, chicken, mushrooms and soba is warm, wholesome goodness. I set out on a bird-watching forest walk and am shown the migratory paths of bears and frogs. Reaching a teahouse, I am guided through relaxation exercises.
The spa is renowned for jade and volcanic stone treatments, thermal mud masks, saké body wraps, acupuncture, and deep-tissue messages. Following a consultation, I am treated to a luxurious massage with a customized blend of essential oils. Kneaded into a cozy slumber, I could comfortably lay here the rest of the day.
Lanterns hanging from trees light the way to dinner at Bleston Court, Yukawatan where I’m greeted with champagne. From simplicity comes brilliance. An amuse bouche of intricate morsels is like decorative parcels of jewellery balanced on a row of marble planets. Beet consommé within a jellybean sprinkled with gold, a sphere of pork in wasabi croquette, a chocolate truffle of delicate chicken liver, and more! River carp tartar with citric yuzu in delicate daikon ravioli, and succulent Shinshu beef with mountain vegetables in an emerald chrysanthemum consommé, displays the quality of the local bounty and Hamada’s artistic deftness. Dessert is a playful and impeccable palette of colour presented as an artful collection of flavour trophies on a pedestal.
Talk about at a hot spa with chutzpa! It seems that every star in the universe is out tonight as I follow a lit path through the woods toward the Meditation Bath. Here, I am told, I must unite with the darkness and face myself. Stepping into the bath beneath a waterfall gushing from the wall in front of me, I glide into a large, bright white, sterile-looking, high-ceilinged room. I sit alone in silence and acclimate to the heat, all the while fixating on a black corridor in the corner. One deep breath, and I wade toward it and slowly through it. Immersed in water I follow into the darkness as the passage turns into a pitch-black room. Unfortunately, my “meditation” is on how uncomfortable I am, and thoughts of every horror movie I’ve ever seen. Perhaps this spa concept has been lost on me, as I court every one of my irrational fears. Slowly, I focus on the simple and sweet aesthetic of Japanese shamisen guitar and ambient spa music. As my eyes adjust, I gradually begin to breathe easy, and realize my attention has shifted from depending on the light to trusting the dark. Stretching out I float into a wonderfully liberating calmness.