Breathing in Gunma
If you’ve only ever explored Japan’s wonderful frenetic cities, you might not understand why this beautiful country is so Zen.
Alliance Magazine - Aug/Sept 2019
Words: Michelle Hespe
Like most of us these days – running around a slave to technology and with a stupidly busy schedule – I was in need of some real downtime. Some time to breathe. And I found it, in an elegant Japanese ryokan (traditional guesthouse or inn) tucked away in snow- and mist-covered mountains. It had everything the doctor and chiro had ordered, with a big dose of fairy tale.
At Bettei Senjuan, nestled at the foot of Mt Tanigawa in Gunma Prefecture in northern Minakami, I ticked off the elements needed for a few days of true relaxation and rejuvenation: fresh mountain air, healthy food courtesy of mother nature (prepared by incredible chefs), massages, walking, hot mineral healing springs, zen-like reading rooms, an abundance of natural light, and views to die for. Not to mention attentive, kind staff who somehow soundlessly floated by, ready to take care of my every whim if need be, or quietly understanding if I needed alone time.
There are only 18 suites at Bettei Senjuan, each with its own outdoors onsen that you enter through the bathroom, and a communal onsen with luxurious pampering products, massage chairs and exquisite views. In winter, sitting in a hot tub and marvelling at steam rising and merging with snakes of mist while rivulets of water carve their way through snow and ice is a seriously relaxing experience. And even better with a hot tea or saké.
The art of Japanese food
Meals at Bettei Senjuan are an entertaining yet calming affair: like interactive theatre, where the diners are involved in every exquisite dish. As a family or group you can sit in your own private dining space, all at individual little tables, and a degustation can involve eight to 10 intricately prepared courses that are nothing short of works of art – and in true Japanese style, every ingredient is sourced, handled and displayed with love and care on ceramic bowls, plates and platters handmade by local artisans. Each of my interesting (to a foreigner!) and delicious dishes is presented by a cheery waitress who offers the food as a gift. She clearly loves her job, and politely and humbly discusses where every ingredient is from and the methods of cooking (some modern, some traditional) that the chef has applied.
Among the many delicate appetisers I indulge in are herring roe with dried tuna shavings, salmon roe with grated radish, and local apple dressed in tofu. Then comes oyster cake with white miso soup, red bream, yellow tail and trout sashimi, and a dumpling dish with red king crab sauce. It’s enough to have any seafood lover rejoicing.
Next my own little hotpot over a flame is delivered, and I’m taught how to cook my local Joshu beef and crack a freshly laid egg in for good measure. Dessert is a bracken rice cake with black syrup and citrus sherbet.
By the time I leave my table, bowing back to my server with heartfelt gratitude, I feel as full as I do content. I saunter quietly home in my slippers and yukata (a casual version of the kimono, usually made of cotton), admiring the soaring ceilings of the hotel’s rightfully famous architecturally designed swooping wooden walkway. It’s lit up in all its glory, and golden spotlights bounce off the snowy hillocks growing larger by the minute outside.
Each evening when I return to my suite, after dinner and perhaps a late-night saké or wine in the hotel’s bar, I smile at the transformation. By day the space is a sitting room with elegant, low-slung traditional Japanese furniture, the pared-back decorations including a ceramic vase here and a single sculptural element there, neatly placed in a tokonoma (alcove). Every space is created to induce calm.
By night, the staff have laid out a traditional futon bed on the tatami (straw) mats, and I sit quietly at the low wooden table, legs on the floor, enjoying a green tea and nibbling sweet dumplings that are kept warm in a steamer. Then I crawl into my quilt, which has an opening on top so you can slip inside like a sleeping bag, making sure I’m facing the view before I fall asleep. There’s snow falling lightly, sprinkling like icing sugar across the mountains, dusting the treetops. There’s no sound except my slow, measured breathing, in and out, in and out – just like the doctor ordered.
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