Staying in a traditional Japanese inn (otherwise known as ryokan) is something that everyone should at least experience once. I have fond memories of a particular ryokan that I stayed in with my family when I was a lot younger and therefore, I decided to stay at KAI Nikko which is operated by one of the most well-known luxury ryokan brands in Japan, Hoshino Resorts. On this very same trip, I also checked out the luxurious modern ryokan which is right smack in Tokyo's Otemachi financial district - the HOSHINOYA Tokyo.
To provide a little bit of background for those of you who are unfamiliar with the geography of Japan, Nikko (which can be accessed from Tokyo using the Tohoku Shinkansen as well as the JR Nikko line) is the center of both Shinto and Buddhist worship for many centuries. This area is also well known for the beautiful scenery and one of the most famous landmarks has got to be Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖). Since I was traveling over the winter season, I had access to a complimentary shuttle bus that ran between Tokyo Station and KAI Nikko itself. As some of you may already know, taking trains in Japan may be a little bit overwhelming (especially for first time visitors) since there are so many different kinds. With all that being said, I did struggle to find the pick-up point of the shuttle bus and I was actually late for it - to my surprise however, the bus captain decided to wait for me! If you are planning to take the complimentary shuttle (only available to hotel guests), make sure you try to get there early.
Do note that there is a seating plan (even though it is not fully-occupied) so be sure to check it before settling down in your seat. I was fairly certain that everyone else on the bus apart from me was Japanese and I was probably the only foreigner there - visiting ryokans is something that the locals enjoy and as I have mentioned earlier, Hoshino Resorts has managed to establish itself as the leader in the luxury market (therefore the clientele tends to be slightly older as well). The complimentary shuttle departed from the Kajibashi parking lot (which is nearer to the Yaesu entrance) of Tokyo Station at approximately 11:20AM and it arrived at KAI Nikko at around 2:35PM - there is a mini-break halfway through the journey at one of the parking lots so hotel guests could get off the bus and use the bathroom (and also buy some food and snacks).
Unlike the HOSHINOYA Tokyo (which really is an exception), KAI Nikko is as traditional as it gets. I visited the property sometime in early February and it was still extremely cold - I also made the mistake of checking the weather forecast for Nikko as opposed to Lake Chuzenji and therefore it was in reality a lot colder than 'forecasted'. During my stay, it got down to -13 degree Celsius one night. As soon as the shuttle bus got to the property, all the luggages were taken away by the staff at the ryokan before names were called out - everyone actually remained on the bus to wait for their turn (something you will probably only witness in Japan).
My name was the last to be called and it was the only non-Japanese-sounding one - I was escorted to the level where my room is located on before taking my shoes off. It is worth noting that similar to the HOSHINOYA Tokyo where I was at, the rule of thumb is that outdoor shoes should never be worn indoors. I exchanged my shoes for slippers at the genkan (which is essentially an entryway area into a house or establishment) and made my way to my room.
There are only 33 rooms here in KAI Nikko and some of the rooms offer expansive views of the famous Lake Chuzenji as well as Mount Nantai. I stayed in a Japanese-style Room with Lake View GL2 Room which is two categories above the entry-level room. The host introduced the different features of the room and as he pushed open the shoji screens, I was completely won over by the view. You may also choose to open the windows if you prefer to enjoy the winter air (I did!) but I hear this is perfect in the fall.
As part of the checking-in procedure, my credit card and passport was taken from me for verification and registration. I was given two set of keys - one is tied to a massive block of wood and another one which is less bulky (no points of guessing which one I picked!). I was also given a cup of amazake which is a traditional Japanese beverage that is made from fermented rice.
As you can see from the photo above, there are two sets of screens - one is directly in front of the windows which block out some of the light and to maintain some privacy while the other is directly behind the seats (which I actually spend quite a bit of time in) to create a greater sense of privacy. There is a folio on the table (think of it as a compendium of sorts) where you will find everything you need to know about KAI Nikko - this is where you can get the opening hours of the onsen, the nightly Nikko Geta Tap Dancing show as well as other useful information (like bath etiquette!).
While it is not uncommon for international visitors to visit Lake Chuzenji during a day-trip, not many actually stay the night around the area and having done both (even though one was a lot longer ago), staying over is definitely the fair more superior option.
The beds are made to look a little like traditional tatami beds but the plush bedding ensures that a level of comfort is met. If you look closely at the bedside lamps as well as the design near the headboard, you will notice that traces of the Edo Komon which I have previously touched on on my review of the HOSHINOYA Tokyo. In fact what would surprise you even further is that these complex motifs are actually created with nails or glue - this is the traditional art of Japanese wood joinery! If you are looking for some kind of entertainment, there is a TV located by the side of the room but honestly, I did not even turn it on once during my stay - having time to reconnect with nature and yourself is truly a luxury.
There is a small area as you enter the room where you will be able to find a refrigerator as well as water kettle for making tea. The floor area between the bedroom and the entrance is also laid with tatami so you can sit here to enjoy some tea and snacks.
Some complimentary snacks were also provided in the room and I particularly enjoyed the selection of rice crackers here. I am fairly certain that these snacks are replenished on a daily basis but since I only stayed for a night, I cannot be certain.
The bathroom of the Japanese-style room that I stayed in has both a dry and wet area - the wet area comes with a deep-soaking bathtub as well as a shower area which resembles that of a traditional bathhouse. While the bathtub itself is not big enough for you to stretch out completely, it is really quite a deep one so you will be able to enjoy a nice warm bath without having to leave your room at all (even though you really should because the onsens and sauna rooms are great).
In the dry area of the bathroom, a wide selection of products are offered - this includes face soap as well as cleansing lotions which are not typically found in hotels. As you would expect from ryokan, the bath amenities are not individually bottled and a specially-formulated range is offered here at KAI Nikko.
There is an equivalent of a lounge where guests staying in KAI Nikko can utilise and in the evenings, complimentary sparkling wine is being served here. I dropped by for a quick drink since I was curious but I soon made my way to the restaurant after one drink.
There is only one restaurant here at KAI Nikko and this is where breakfast as well as dinner is being served. It is definitely worth noting that similar to my experience at HOSHINOYA Tokyo, all guests staying on property are dressed in a Yukata. Honestly, you are going to feel really out of place if you do not do so and seriously, I am not even sure if that is an option.
Since my room rate came inclusive of dinner as well as breakfast (which is highly-recommended especially when it is so cold outside), I had the privilege of enjoying an authentic Kaiseki meal in the restaurant which uses locally-sourced ingredients. The appetiser was a beautiful combination of fresh sea urchin and yuba (a speciality in Nikko) on top of a cold dashi jelly - absolutely delicious! Sake is also relatively affordable here in the restaurant (especially when you compare it to how much I actually paid for the wine pairing in HOSHINOYA Tokyo) so feel free to drink away.
Leave it to the Japanese to make every dish so beautiful - the second course was an assortment of seasonal delicacies and I particularly enjoyed the kazunoko which is essentially herring roe that has been marinated in dashi soy seasoning. The king crab sushi is also delicious but what stood out for me most was the eggplant mousse (something that I would never imagine myself eating) that is topped with flying fish roe.
As if that was not enough to impress, the selection of fresh sashimi served during dinner won my heart - these sashimi are subjected to changes as they are dependent on what is available for the day.
The tempura course in this kaiseki meal featured deep-fried chicken, vegetables as foie gras that is wrapped in yuba - this is served alongside green tea salt and lemon to taste.
While all the dishes that were served were really good, what was perhaps the most exceptional dish was the soy milk hotpot that is served with yuba as well as Wagyu beef. Now I must say that when I was researching about the KAI Nikko, I came across the soy milk hotpot which I had my doubts but honestly after eating it, I must say that it is the most amazing thing ever. There is also something about enjoying a warm savoury brother in the cold wintery weather but the combination of flavours in this one is beautiful!
For the final course, Japanese rice as well as miso soup was served but I was already stuffed by then.
For a sweet ending to this amazing meal, I picked the hojicha crème brûlée which was a splendid choice. Now the crack of that perfect caramelisation was satisfying (especially when I brushed it with the back of the spoon) but that creaminess and consistency is just something that you would not expect to find outside an established French restaurant.
To raise awareness about the Nikko-geta which are traditional sandals worn in the area, KAI Nikko puts up a Nikko Geta Tap Dancing show (where hotel guests can partake in) in the Lobby Lounge which is located near the restaurant to explain the history of these sandals. As you would imagine, the entire thing is in Japanese but there is an English write-up that you can request for which helps you understand what the performers are talking about. What is even more interesting however is that the staff on stage were actually helping out in other aspects of the ryokan operation prior to this.
I got back to my room after a really satisfying dinner at the restaurant and the show in the Lobby Lounge and was surprised to find this sense of peace from the comfort of my own room. Even though it was probably -10 degree Celsius that night, I chose to leave the windows open so I can enjoy the cold winter air under my really comfortable blanket. You probably can't quite see from the photo but there were so many stars that night and having the lake, the mountain, the snow and that absolute stillness was truly humbling - I guess that is something that nature does to you when you least expect it.
I got up fairly early the next morning and because of how foggy Lake Chuzenji actually was the previous day, I did not actually realise how beautiful (or how many mountains there were!) it actually was. Honestly, I must have spent at least an hour gazing out to this amazing view (while being wrapped in my blanket) and I must have taken at least a hundred photos since it just kept getting prettier - I have a photo of this view now as the wallpaper on my iPhone.
While I initially thought that breakfast would be served in the room, it was actually being served in the restaurant (the same location as where dinner was served). I enjoyed the sumptuous spread thoroughly and even though a soy milk hot pot with yuba was served in the morning, it was not the savoury kind that I had the previous night. The salt-grilled Japanese Iwana was perhaps the standout component with its delicate flavours.
There are a number of onsens (both indoor and outdoors) that you can enjoy at KAI Nikko. There is a permanent one for men and women separately but what is perhaps most interesting is the one where sake is being poured into two times a day - this alternates between being a male and female one so make sure you check for the right timing beforehand.
I guess it is safe to say that the Hoshino Resorts KAI Nikko is quite possibly my most unique stay up to date and that is largely due to the fact that I have not been to a Japanese ryokan for the longest time. In fact, the last time that I visited one with my family, I was probably way too young to fully appreciate every single detail that has been placed into creating such a memorable one. If you are looking for an unforgettable experience, I highly recommend checking out this property in the winter (but I hear autumn is immensely beautiful too) since the room rates are comparatively lower. Honestly, it does not get any better than this!