On Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, Zaborin is a heavenly hotel stay with all of the discreet elegance the country is famous for. Nothing is too in your face, but when you look for it, everything you possibly need is right there. With just 15 villas, each with an indoor and outdoor onsen bath, filled with the purest volcanic water, it’s intimate and secluded, surrounded by meadows and forests, and with some of Asia’s finest ski slopes on your doorstep.
11am, but flexible for a fee. Earliest check-in, 2pm, but flexible for free, if your room’s ready.
Double rooms from £963.81 (JPY146,000), including tax at 8 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of JPY150.00 per person per night prior to arrival.
Rates include breakfast and dinner.
Helping the chef with his foraging is Sato, a septuagenarian who has been studying what is and isn’t safe to eat from the wild since he was 20; he also helps out with hotel flower arrangements from his haul.
Occasionally in low season.
At the hotel
Free WiFi throughout, spring-water onsen baths, valet parking. In rooms: Apple TV, iPod dock, Bose sound system, Nespresso machine, locally made bath products and underfloor heating.
Our favourite rooms
For a traditional Japanese experience, book a Washitsu room, which come with typical futons, as opposed to Western-style beds. Some villas come with an extra tatami-mat room and can sleep four. The other major dilemma is whether you want to look out to the Hanazono forest or the nearby meadow…
There’s no spa, but each villa comes with two onsen baths (one inside, one out), filled with the purest, mineral-rich volcanic spring water.
The region is famous for its ski resorts; since it snows every day for six months of the year, thermals will probably come in handy. Don’t forget your ski gear if you want to hit the slopes of Niseko, Japan’s most-prized piste.
The villas have steps and so are not suited to wheelchair users.
Under-3s stay free. Children aged three to five stay for JPY10,000 a night (includes children’s meals and bedding), or JPY6,000 if they share a bed with parents. Children from six to 12 stay for JPY20,000 a night (JPY30,000 if they want adult meals).
Mountain spring water is used to keep the cellars cool and volcanic water heats the hotel in winter.
Each table is private and intimate, with views of the forest, but ask to sit closest to the window so you can watch the local wildlife frolicking as you breakfast.
Guests don’t have to worry about keeping up with the Joneses; a yukata robe is left in your room and you are strongly encouraged to wear it.
The chef cut his teeth at Japanese restaurants in Tokyo and New York, before returning to Hokkaido to helm the kitchen at Zaborin. Using ingredients from the forest and nearby lake that he’s picked and caught himself, a traditional kita kaiseki meal is served nightly – essentially a set menu, 11 courses long and changing with the local harvest. Breakfast is a similar affair, with vegetables picked that morning, fresh eggs and grilled fish.
There’s a candlelit library and lounge where pudding and tea is served post-kaiseki dinner. Settle by the fireplace and enjoy a local wine or sake from the cellar; or head back to your villa to raid your minibar’s Nikka whisky and Japanese craft beer selection.
Breakfast is served between 8am and 10am, and dinner between 6pm and 9pm. The bar opens at 6pm and calls time at 11pm.
Zaborin is in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, close to the Niseko ski resort and Hanazono forest.
The New Chitose International Airport is a two-hour drive from the hotel. For international travellers, connections are available through both of Tokyo’s airports (Haneda and Narita).
Kutchan station is closest, 20 minutes away by car; hotel transfers to and from this station are free. JR Rail operates services to this station from other Japanese cities, including Sapporo and Otaru on the coast.
Niseko is the nearest town, a 20-minute drive away. From the city of Sapporo, the drive will take around two hours. There’s free parking at the hotel and detailed driving instructions can be provided on request.
Worth getting out of bed for
Japan’s most impressive piste is 20 minutes away by car in Niseko. Non-skiers can trek through the Hanazono forest, visit the Yoichi distillery to learn about all things Nikka whisky, or just stay at the hotel for a wine and sake tasting in its cellar or a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
For excellent homemade udon in Kutchan, head to Homemade Udon Gokoro (the clue’s in the name). For local classics such as yakitori (charcoal-grilled skewers of meat), king crab and plum wine in a typical izakaya (an informal Japanese pub), visit Izakaya Jisakuin Niseko. If you’ve filled up on all the sushi and sashimi you can stomach, try L’Ocanda, a family-owned, mountain-facing Italian restaurant also in Niseko.
Throughout the years, I’ve found a number of reasons to travel: weddings, a honeymoon (not even my own), a cacti festival, a one-year-old’s birthday party, an olive harvest… But never has ‘taking a bath’ been a top reason to book a hotel room. That is, however, until I heard about luxury hotel Zaborin.
Let me preface this by saying, I am whole-heartedly a shower person. I’ve always admired people who enjoy a soak and genuinely wish I could partake in the sudsy fun. The thing is, I’ve never sat in soapy water for more than three minutes before thinking, ‘Okay, what now?’ But then, everything changed when I spent two glorious, water-filled nights at Zaborin. If you’ve never been to Japan, it’s worth mentioning that the Japanese take their baths seriously. Visiting an onsen – or natural hot spring – is a time-honored tradition among the locals that dates back to at least the eighth century (so it’s more historic than just a Jacuzzi craze). Like any age-old ritual, there are rules: swimwear is generally not allowed (nope, not even in public baths), you’re expected to wash your entire body before hitting the thermal H2O, and you can bring a hand towel with you, which you’ll then place on top of your head while you soak.
After discovering what a big deal hot-spring culture is in Japan, I realised how special it is to stay at Zaborin, where each room has two private onsens – one inside and one outdoors. For once, a tub (or two, in this case) piqued my interest.
When I first arrived at the hotel, I had plenty to do. I took a tour, met the onsite matcha master (who taught me the proper way to mix the frothy green tea), and, perusing the library and DVD collection, figured I’d hole up for the night and watch a couple of movies. However, I never made it to Blade Runner or Memoirs of a Geisha (a cliché pick, I know) because once I put one leg in my patio onsen, I knew I wasn’t getting out for a while – bath time had superseded all my other plans.
The tub itself looked as if it had been carved out of volcanic rock – appropriate, as I could spot Mount Yotei, an active volcano, from my patio. Sitting on the ledge of the bath, there was an oversized copper ladle, which I’d been told should be used to stir the water and mix up its natural mineral content. It’s said that this this geothermal elixir can heal aches and pains, speed up the metabolism and help treat chronic skin diseases. Personally, I’d add jet lag cure to that list, too. After steeping for about 20 minutes, I felt the stress of 15 hours of travel melt away as I stared out at the snow-covered forest surrounding the hotel.
The only thing that could tempt me away from my tub that night was the 11-course dinner included with my stay. I clung to the factoid about mineral water ramping up the metabolism as I devoured every morsel of that feast. The menu was written by hand in both Japanese and English, and was pretty enough to frame as artwork. My meal included innovative dishes such as red miso soup with leek; wagyu beef roasted over local pine-tree wood; and a sashimi platter with tuna, flounder, sea urchin, squid and horse-hair crab. I polished off my dessert (jelly made of white-birch sap, wild-grape water and ice cream with white-miso apple sauce), then hightailed it back to the room. Tub-time part two!
I did go skiing on my second afternoon, and a driver from the hotel dropped me at the Hanazono Resort, which is just five minutes from Zaborin. I spent about two hours on the slopes and then popped into the lodge to slurp ramen and enjoy a bottle of Kirin while a guitarist played live. After lunch, I headed back out for a couple more runs, but at the first sign of soreness in my legs, I decided I’d need to seek treatment immediately. I prescribed myself an hour of bouncing back and forth between my indoor and outdoor onsens, followed by another 11-course banquet and a glass of sake. Low and behold, that was exactly what I needed.
Before leaving Japan entirely, I stopped in Tokyo for 48 hours and spent an afternoon stocking up on bath accessories. A tub-time convert, I knew the capital city would have the goods to fuel my new obsession. I found exactly what I needed at Tokyu Hands, a store with eight floors of home supplies and beauty products, including the most impressive selection of bath salts I have ever seen. I grabbed a dozen envelopes filled with scented soaks and decorated with cartoon characters, sumo wrestlers and cherry blossoms. My humble bath tub at home has nothing on a volcanic spring, but at least I’ll think of Zaborin each time I take a dip.