It had been so many years since I’d last visited Nikko that I barely recognised the place. Except for that stunning red bridge and the breathtaking hairpin bends (Iroha-zakka) that zigzag up the mountain on route to the lakeside resort area . I hailed a taxi from the Nikko Tobu railway station, and scored a driver with 40 years experience. He informed me in perfect English that he would drive very carefully… making the journey far less fraught than I’d remembered – cast your mind back to the mid to late 80’s, and imagine a teenage me and nervous mum packed into a giant tourist bus , clambering its way to the top, with only enough time for a very quick shrine visit, lunch and a stroll before we faced the seemingly steeper downward return.
This time I had 2 whole days and nights alone, at the end of a three month trip which had been crammed with research for a new tour in Shikoku as well as hosting my first two post covid culinary and culture tours.
Although I had longed to return to the region – I was completely exhausted. Fortunately, the two accommodations I’d been invited to stay at, in the middle of the Nikko National Park, were perfectly set up for an incredibly relaxing pitstop – I couldn’t have been in better hands. So much so that had I not needed to return home I would have stolen away into the corner of a suite for a week.. where no-one would have been the wizer (uh-huh..) and meditated over the drifting snow, sun-mirroring lake and ethereal mountain peaks until the mini-bar ran dry.
My first stop was Kai Nikko – a traditional onsen style resort which has been recently refurbished by the amazing Hoshino Resorts folk. I’m a huge fan of the Hoshino group so it was a no brainer to say yes to the invitation. I was swiftly ushered into a lounge chair to discuss my afternoon’s activities and the timing for my Kaiseki dinner of local specialities – which would be followed by a short folk-dance performance. After arrangements were made I was escorted to my room and nearly fell over backwards at the view – see the very first image in this post – glorious.
I was introduced to my large traditional ryokan style room ( instantly grateful I’d be sleeping on a comfortable western mattress instead of futon on the tatami – my old-lady back does not cope well with futon these days) and invited to relax in front of the windows where snacks were waiting and tea was poured. I was instructed to simply enjoy my surroundings… and while I definitely spent some minutes in the moment… I then busily snapped away with my phone because, seriously… take a look a this place.
A knock at the door came with a wooden tray of a thick, sweet, smooth azuki bean soup, some dango (chewy rice dumplings) and the most divine strawberries for dipping. It’s not the traditional way of serving the soup, this was more like a fondue – the soup thick, smooth and glossy, but it was bloody delicious and great sustenance for inspecting the hotel further.
I took a peek into the tempting onsen (hot spring bath) downstairs ( friendly onsen etiquette lessons area available ) then popped into the lounge area which had been set up with afternoon refreshments including delicious senbei (rice crackers) , varieties of local sake, and strawberry milk – made from local cows and more of those lush Tochigi berries – Oh my god. While I waited for my Kumiko craft lesson I enjoyed a lingering gaze across the green tiled rooftops towards the picturesque lake and mountain ranges. Back in my room I sat for as long as I could, breathing in the sunset. This was such a tonic.
Dinners are enjoyed in privately partitioned rooms, within the restaurant and feature local Yuba (tofu skin), which happens to be one of my favourite things… Tonight it came in various forms, including sashimi, tempura and a hotpot of rich Tochigi Wagyu. A mousse-like yuba starter with jellied local soy sauce and sea urchin looked as stunning as it was delicious – served in beautifully hand-carved Nikko -bori – wooden bowls, stained an earthy red. The entire meal was wonderful and afterwards I clapped (and stomped my geta /clogs ) along to a fun dance performance before retiring for the night.
In the morning, in the same dining cubby, I enjoyed a gorgeous breakfast which was a mix of western and Japanese – yuzu compote on local yoghurt, handmade tofu with sweet soy, a simple yuba hotpot, saikyo-yaki – fish marinated in miso and grilled, omelette, rice with furikake and pickles. Afterwards, more fresh strawberries and a petite bottle of freshly squeezed milk from a local dairy farm, the date hand-stamped on the seal covering its fresh, sweet cream.
I loved pretty much everything about my stay, but it was time to move on. Staff were wonderful – I was super well looked after, and spent too much money at the lobby store which is filled with locally made foodstuffs (some of the best soy I’ve tasted and that amazing red bean ‘fondue’ and their senbei range!) alongside plenty of handicrafts – ceramics, textiles etc.
Now, if I had to scratch away for a negative about this establishment, I would say that I found the heating too high generally on the property – however, the Japanese feel the cold more than we do and I tend to feel the heat more than some… It wasn’t a big issue as I was able to easily adjust it in my room by turning off the room a/c and opening the windows, so sleeping wasn’t a problem. I just found the public spaces to be a bit toasty for my liking. I know some of you will be looking at the heat factor as an absolute positive!
When it comes to warmth in hospitality however… it was spot on.
Stay here for:
A traditional Japanese ryokan experience (but with a few western-style creature comforts!), excellent food and an all round, wrap-you-up-like-a-hug, grand old time – fun for the whole family, couples or simply having an incredible relaxing time to yourself.
Pre-empting the possibility of me slipping on an icy pathway, the kind driver of the Kai Nikko shuttle bus drove me to the next property, all of 2 minutes away, and into a whole new experience.
The Ritz Carlton, Nikko – the only luxury hotel in Tochigi prefecture, is a stunning, contemporary property with jaw-dropping art work, highly polished service and incredibly well-considered design and amenities… every little detail, even down to lift button panels made me swoon. Staff bent over backwards.. but in a subtle way, and with good humour. Things appeared or cleared almost like magic – and without fuss, making you feel instantly at ease and dissolving any concerns of over-formality.
I was welcomed by gliding angel people and transported to a handsome lounge area where I waited by the fire, sparkling yuzu juice in hand, for the lovely Roy Raja, the hotel’s Assistant Director of Sales and Marketing. I’d interviewed Roy for a story during Covid and we’d stayed in contact so it was lovely to be finally meeting him in person.
After chatting for a while, Roy suggested I have some time to settle into my room before we met again for High Tea. Who was I to argue. I leisurely explored my stunning room and all its features and quickly fell in love. Sensor lights that move with you as you enter the spacious walk-in closet or the bathroom. Under floorboard heating. A bath that overlooks your own tiny zen rock garden and the mountain ranges beyond, Diptyque toiletries, designer furnishings, super high quality and seriously covetable decor items, indoor and outdoor sitting areas , and pretty much anything you could want for.. I was so busy feeling my way around the dreamy space that I neglected to notice a wooden box, sitting on a table with a welcome note, inside it were 18 snow-white strawberries, a variety know as milky-berry – and they tasted like white chocolate. I know.. right?
I dragged myself away from my quarters and down to the lobby area again, now set up for High Tea overlooking snowy garden scenes. Outside children were building snowmen or playing in the powder – all under the watchful eye of the hotel staff who have designed plenty of activities to keep the little ones busy in any season. Now this is not the type of hotel I would not have imagined encouraging children but Roy proudly explained that they love having families stay and I was soon schooled on all the things they have set up to entertain them. Let me tell you – all the kids I noticed at the property were very well mannered, I’m not sure whether they arrived at the hotel that way or whether the kids programme was the key but not once did I hear a child cry, whinge or anything but polite – and I’m not just talking about Japanese children. Maybe there was something in the water here?
Our tiered tray of gorgeous bites arrived under a sugary snow cloud which we pulled apart to extract our own tiny snowmen and various other sweet and savoury morsels. Just baked scones were delivered in a wooden box and our tea sommelier was always present in precise time for refills.
Roy showed me around the property including some of the suites which were like a dream apartment – plenty of separate sitting areas – one had a butler’s pantry and kitchen, another had its own gym, the furnishings and fittings were incredible – even the lightmshades were works of art of unspeakable worth.
On route to the spa he pointed out 1200 year old lanterns, one of the few things remaining on the grounds from the previous lodgings , and various pieces of Nikko Bori (wood carvings) on the walls (plus a whole lot of other very cool details you need to see for yourself) . The artworks were commissioned from a local woman and her daughter who also carved vessels for the hotel’s restaurant. You can even take lessons in the craft, arranged by the hotel. I’d chosen Furoshiki from the list of available activities because I’m not naturally very good at it and needed a few hot tips so that next time I wrapped gifts the Japanese way ( in environmentally friendly, beautiful cloth which can be repurposed) I wouldn’t embarrass myself. As I also sell a few Furoshiki (and Tenugui) at Zenbu Home I felt it was about time I upped my skills! Although I must admit most of my own treasured furoshiki are used as tablecloths!
I met Roy again for dinner – a bowl of ramen at the bar. A simple supper after a fancy High Tea, at least that’s what I’d envisaged. After a cocktail with Ritz Carlton stamped ice – just in case you forgot where you were staying – I was presented with a stunning bowl of designer ramen on a tray with lush accoutrements. The ramen was the result of a 2 year collaboration with Afuri Ramen, all made from local Tochigi ingredients. The broth, a light but intensely flavoured chicken dashi scented with yuzu, held a tumble of delightfully chewy handmade noodles and beside it was a mouth-watering collection of lovingly made toppings and seasonings – including Nikko’s delicious Goyo eggs. An exquisite sensory experience which came with a significantly higher price point than most ramen you’ve met, but for this quality and care… boy, it was worth it.
I retired to my room, falling asleep so quickly that I did not notice the mini snowman on my balcony, left for me during turndown service, until the morning.
I managed to squeeze in two more meals before I left – breakfast and lunch, both excellent – with a real focus on local. The views from both the breakfast room and the Lakehouse restaurant were wonderful as was the fit out – the Lakehouse transporting me to another country all together. So beautifully done, so cosy and welcoming and really great, fresh food with plenty of variety.
I enjoyed a final stroll of the hotel and noticed that the wide, open public spaces throughout ensured you never feel like anyone is on top of you, even when they are at capacity.
Stay here for:
A luxe, ultra stylish and sophisticated escape where you’ll feel like royalty, without the pomp and pageantry. I want to live here. One of my all time best hotel experiences.
I visited in winter and only for a couple of days – so for me it was a ‘snuggle down and soak up the ambiance’ style stay however there are beginner slopes near by if snowsports float your boat. In the warmer months there’s a swathe of Lake and mountain related activities offered by the hotels or local tourism.
From Tokyo – go to Asakusa station’s Tobu Line and it’s a direct 2 hour journey to Tobu Nikko Station . Here’s some detailed info
Then there’s a local bus up the mount to the Chuzenji Lake area ( about 40 minus) or take a taxi – about 25 minutes . Here’s some taxi info
I was a guest of Tobu Railways, Hoshino Kai Nikko resort and The Ritz Carlton Nikko.