Beniya Mukayu hotel in Kanazawa has the traditional grace of a ryokan (tatami mats, kaiseki cuisine, graceful tea ceremonies) and the design flair of a towering Tokyo apartment. There are unique touches, too: wine and coffee made just for the hotel, ceramic dishes commissioned for its restaurant and clever spa products developed by the owners.
Double rooms from $707.44 (JPY76,883), excluding tax at 20 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of JPY150.00 per person per night on check-out.
Breakfast and traditional kaiseki dinners are included in the rates; WiFi is free, as are hotel transfers from JR Kaga Onsen station (let staff know your train times well in advance; the free shuttle bus is only available between 2.20pm and 6pm).
Begin each day with free yoga in the ground-floor Horin (the symbolic 'forest', where meals are also served), taught by lovely owner Sachiko. Look out for Kenya Hara’s mesmerising large-scale art work, Ho-Sun – who knew drops of water could be so hypnotic?
At the hotel
Gardens; tea house; spa; library; boutique. In rooms: TV, DVD player, CD player, minibar, kimonos, bathrobes, slippers, signature Yakushiyama bath products, spa bath.
Our favourite rooms
We’re already saving for a return stay in one of the Executive Suites, which have a serene bedroom and a bamboo-floored sitting area with a traditional tatami (straw) mat and a low table for taking tea, plus rattan chairs overlooking the garden. The eight Japanese Premier rooms offer the same authentic experience, for fewer yen: if you want to spend your nights (and days too, perhaps) on a futon, opt for a Japanese Premier Tatami Garden room, which also have a terrace, a hammock and of course, an onsen (spa bath).
There’s no pool, but every room has an open-air onsen (hot-spring bath).
Leave room in your suitcase for Beniya’s beautiful local pottery (used in the restaurant), fragrant bath products and gorgeous yukatas (casual, light kimonos), all of which are sold in the boutique.
Beniya Mukatu’s bath products were developed by the owners with the help of a prominent biochemist, using medicinal herbs and water from the local hot springs.
All tables are the same, continuing the hotel's egalitarian ethos, which sees all guests dressed in the same kimonos. When the first of your many dishes arrives, you won't give a monkey's where you are; you'll be too busy admiring what's on your plate.
Your gorgeous green, white and blue leaf-patterned yukata (kimono), which the owners would like you to model throughout.
We can’t think of anywhere better to discover kaiseki cuisine: traditional feasts consisting of countless beautifully presented, delicate dishes. Dinner here is a 10-course affair (served on exquisitely dainty local pottery), so put aside two or three hours to explore new culinary horizons: karuma-ebi (konbu-flavoured prawn with sea urchin and avocado); flounder sashimi; local crab with amber jelly; steamed bamboo shoots, and duck meat balls served in a hot pot. Thanks to the hotel's proximity to the Sea of Japan, and the calibre of the local seafood, there's a fishy focus (please contact the property in advance if you would like to request any food preference/allergy).
None, but there's an area by the lobby where fresh fruit juice, coffee and (sometimes) Japanese desserts are served, with choices changing seasonally.
Meals are served at set times: breakfast at 8am, 8.30am and 9am; dinner at 6pm, 6.30pm, 7pm and 7.30pm.
To order food to your room, you’ll need to be staying in the Wakamurasaki Suite, which has a long Japanese dining table and tatami mat, designed for memorable in-room banquets.
The hotel is in Yamashiro, a small spa town that's a 50-minute drive from Kanazawa.
Komatsu Airport (www.komatsuairport.jp/komatsusypher/www/english/) is the closest, 15km from the hotel (a half-hour drive). China Eastern Airlines and Korean Airways offer international flights; you can also get domestic flights from Tokyo and other cities with Japan Airlines and other carriers. Alternatively, fly into Kansai International Airport, three hours away by car (www.kansai-airport.or.jp/en/).
JR Kaga Onsen is the closest station, 7km away (a 15-minute drive). It takes four hours to get here by train from Tokyo if you hop on the JR Tokaido Shinkansen train to Maibara and transfer to a JR Shirasagi limited express train to Kaga Onsen (www.jreast.co.jp/e/). The hotel offers free transfers from the station (just remember to tell the hotel your travel times in advance).
Kanazawa is the closest city, just under an hour's drive away. From Osaka (three-and-a-half hours by car), take the Meishin and Hokuriku Jidoshado highways. From Tokyo (a six-hour drive), take the Tomei, Meishin and Hokuriku Jidoshado highways. From Nagoya (two hours and 40 minutes by car), take the Meishin and Hokuriku Jidoshado highways.
Worth getting out of bed for
The little town of Yamashiro is 1,300 years old, and is famous for its hot springs and its Kutani-yaki porcelain, which you can stock up on in town; put your yukata on and go exploring. Kanazawa is 40 minutes away (a 15-minute drive to the airport, and a 25-minute train ride from there). It’s definitely worth the trip: it’s one of the few Japanese cities that weren’t bombed during WWII and has some of the best–preserved samurai (Naga-machi Buke Yashiki District) and geisha (Higashi Chaya District) districts in the whole country. Kanazawa’s most famous sites include the ruins of Kanazawa Castle (+81 76 234 3800) and Kenroku-en Garden (+81 76 234 3800 ), one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens. Don't miss the futuristic 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (+81 76 220 2800; www.kanazawa21.jp) at 1-2-1 Hirosaka, designed by Sanaa's renowned architects, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa.
Try the excellent soba noodles at little Yamase (+81 76 176 0357) at Yamashiro Onsen. It draws a loyal lunchtime crowd. Yamasan (+81 76 221 0055; www.yamasan-susi.com) is a sushi restaurant set right in Kanazawa's food market, so you’re guaranteed the freshest daily produce. For more succulent sashimi, try Kame Sushi (+81 76 176 0556; www.kamesushi.com), a short stroll from the hotel at Ishikawa Kaga Yamashiro Onsen.
‘Rice, feather or sponge?’ inquires our softly spoken hostess as we’re whisked to our garden-view room. Choosing your preferred pillow stuffing is about as taxing as it gets at Beniya Mukayu, which is just as well – it’s day two of our honeymoon, and we’re in need of some post-wedding downtime. Although, it’s possible that we’re a little hungover too…
Our sake-induced sore heads are miraculously soothed as our train pulls into sleepy hot spring-blessed town, Kaga Onsen. Within a three-hour train ride, Tokyo’s cacophonous car horns and neon striplights were replaced by miles of paddy fields and a sweet, sweet silence. Tucked away behind a bamboo forest, the entrance to our ryokan is marked by a lantern-dotted path. We’re greeted by a team of politely bowing staff who lead us into a minimalist lobby and serve us thimbles of freshly-squeezed apple juice. There are no big screens or lounge tunes – the goal here is to return to nature and a calm reflective state. Of course, this is is easier to achieve amid a fairytale garden, and extraordinary art, with access to a natural hot spring, and a private open-air onsen (bath) in every bedroom.
Now, back to pillows. Having noted our preferences, the hostess leaves and we commence ooh-ing and aah-ing over the adorable details in our room (or rooms, I should say – there are three divided by sliding bamboo partitions). Everything is so neat, so understated, so Japanese. Coffee is the ryokan’s own blend; organic toiletries are made locally; there are four (four!) types of slippers; and in the corner of our room lie folded yukatas (informal kimono robes), which are to be our uniform for the next two days. My in-room explorations are interrupted by a manly squeal from the bathroom. ‘The loo’s got buttons! This one heats up the seat… Ooh what does this one do? It’s all in Japanese!’ I leave Mr Smith to figure it out for himself and collapse into the hammock on our decked terrace for an afternoon snooze.
Soon it’s time for our welcome tea ceremony, so we shuffle down to the library in our slippers and traditional Japanese attire to meet the owner. I can’t help but giggle at the sight of my six-foot tall, unshaven Mr Smith in a long floral robe, but he soon gets his own back when a hostess runs after us, beckons me into a corner and starts to undress me. It’s more forward than I’m used to, but for lack of Japanese vocab, I let her get on with it as a bemused Mr Smith looks on. It turns out I’m wearing my yukata wrong: right side over left means you’re attending a Japanese funeral, the hostess explains apologetically. Looking a little less morbid, we spent the next hour sipping on local matcha tea, trying Japanese sweets, and taking selfies with the owner.
I’d heard the cuisine was outstanding (no surprise, it’s a Relais & Châteaux property) but didn’t expect our nine-course dinner to be so sensational. Slow-baked bamboo with a thick salt crust was a revelation; the sashimi was so fresh, it had a creamy texture; Kobe beef (the best in Japan) cooked in kelp was melt-in-the-mouth tender. Next up, a plate of chargrilled ayu fish; they’re eaten whole in Japan, explains our waitress. Mr Smith accepts this challenge, grins at a weird, wobbly fish head between his chopsticks and pops it into his mouth. (He declares it’s delicious, but on this occasion I just take his word for it.) We sip the hotel’s own plum wine while squid sizzles on the hot stone brought to our table. By the time a giant lacquer bowl of ginger rice arrives, we’re defeated. Noticing our disappointment, the waitress smiles and says, ‘Don’t worry, chef will make them into rice balls and I’ll bring them to your room for later’.
Ah, jetlag. It’s not fun. At 5.30am, I’m wide awake, enviously listening to Mr Smith’s soft snores. I slip out of our Japanese futon bed, devour the rice balls left discreetly by the entrance, and tip-toe to our outdoor onsen for a soak. The birds chirp, the leaves rustle in the breeze, dawn is breaking… I feel an overwhelming sense of calm. And just when I thought this place couldn’t get any more restful, our alarm clock buzzes, reminding me it’s time for our free yoga session downstairs.
A tad too early for fish heads, we opt for the Western-style breakfast of stress-relieving juice (not that we really need it by now), organic salad, fresh fruit, and farm-laid eggs on thick toast before setting off to Kanazawa. We spend a magical day ducking in and out of traditional teahouses in the Geisha district, marvel at design genius in the 21st-Century Museum of Contemporary Art, snap away at ladies in kimonos in one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens, and sample unidentified edible objects in the colourful market.
On the evening train back to our honeymoon home, I look lovingly into my brand-new husband’s eyes and suggest a bathe in our private onsen before dinner. Ever the romantic, Mr Smith mumbles in agreement, yawns, then says, ‘You know, those spray jets on the loo are pretty powerful. They really get up there!’ Ah, happy honeymoon.
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