Looking for places to stay in Japan? Want a traditional inn in Matsumoto? Read our hotel review, and check out our favourite places to eat in Kyoto here…
Tobira Onsen Myojinkan in a nutshell
A luxurious ryokan (traditional inn), high in the forests of the Japanese Alps, this Relais & Châteaux hotel offers impeccable service, kaiseki dinner experiences and mesmerising forest views.
Japan is famous for a type of service culture called omotenashi, and this dedication to cherishing the customer is observed in every which way at Tobira Onsen Myojinkan. Shoes are swapped for slippers at the door, green tea and hot towels are offered, and you can order drinks from maroon leather armchairs that sit beside roaring fires during winter.
Pad softly to the contemporary dining area, where large grey cushions balance on wooden benches, or head to steaming onsens, where you can inhale the wild forest air while you bathe. The hotel is largely made of wood and is designed to reflect its natural surroundings, with huge glass windows and wraparound terraces that showcase the forest. Do a spot of forest bathing (or shirin-yoku as they call it in Japan) and take your pick of the maple trees in their seasonal glory: snow-capped in winter, lush green in spring and summer, fiery red and orange in autumn.
Head to the hotel’s steaming onsens to inhale the wild forest air while you bathe
Which room should I book?
Choose between western- or Japanese-style bedrooms and wallow in home comforts from both cultures. The newly refurbished Zen Rooms promise a luxurious combination of both: colourful tatami mats sit at the foot of squishy beds, a private wooden onsen perches beside a monsoon shower, and traditional robes are provided to wear when eating at the restaurant. A glass wall allows all-day woodland observation, and it’s this natural canvas that sets the tone inside (think wooden floors and headboards, statement pieces made from twigs, mottled clay walls and soft lighting).
The refurbished Zen Rooms promise a luxurious combination of western and Japanese comforts
The food and drink
As with all Relais & Chateaux hotels, there is a firm focus on local gourmet experiences. A kaiseki dinner (the local take on a tasting menu, with a series of painstakingly prepared dishes carefully – sometimes theatrically but usually very formally – presented to each diner) is one of the ultimate Japanese culinary experiences and the version on offer at Tobira Onsen Myojinkan is no exception. Dress in the robes provided and head to the warren of private dining rooms that surround the hotel’s kitchen; some are lined with huge sake bottles, others with ukiyo-e paintings.
Our kaiseki menu started with sansai (“mountain vegetables”) served on a bamboo leaf with a simple dipping sauce, allowing the unique, vitamin-rich flavours of bitter angelica (tara no me), aniseedy mountain asparagus (yama udo) and bittersweet flowering rapeseed (nanohana) to shine. Tilefish (which has a sweet, delicate taste) came next, drifting in a traditional Japanese soup topped with a pop of pink cherry blossom.
Sashimi chefs cut snapper and finely sliced wasabi with precise theatrics, before we moved on to umami-rich lake fish carp stew. Bamboo-studded kinome rice was served in a terracotta dish, from which toasty aromas escaped as the lid was removed, while vibrantly green Japanese sansho pepper leaves imparted their bright and floral flavour, and pretty pickles added tartness. Fruit jelly topped with cherry blossom granita provided a finish that epitomised Japanese springtime. Order a glass of reasonably priced sake to pair with your meal – bone-dry dai shinchu from a neighbouring town, or sweeter (but equally delicious) kiriko “cut grass” sake from Obuse.
Sashimi chefs cut snapper and finely sliced wasabi with precise theatrics
A tray-like wooden box is laid out as you slide onto your cushioned bench. Onto this are placed a succession of little dishes and boxes, opening to reveal Shinshu apple compote, vegetables with sweet miso, soy-cured salmon, silky tofu, bamboo parcels of fermented soy beans, sardines, and the obligatory trio of miso, fluffy rice and grass-green tea.
A tray-like wooden box is laid out for breakfast, used to hold a succession of foodie treats, from apple compote to miso and soy cured salmon
What else can foodies do?
Though we recommend soaking up Tobira Onsen Myojinkan’s serenity, there are plenty of foodie trips to embark on outside its walls if you feel like exploring. Visit Daio Wasabi Farm on a sunny spring day to witness the cherry blossom contrasting with the vibrant green wasabi. Buy a Shinshu apple or wasabi soft-serve ice cream, then amble across bridges over wasabi fields to shrines set amongst dense clusters of trees. There are panoramic mountain viewpoints to enjoy, too.
In the mountain town of Matsumoto, stop by Kobayashi Soba for tempura of mountain vegetables and neat boxes of soba noodles served with duck. Or try Katsugen, which specialises in tonkatsu sets – juicy pork cutlets quilted in crisp panko breadcrumbs, with miso soup, rice and a mountain of shredded cabbage to dip into thick tonkatsu sauce.
Try chocolatey Castle Stout and IPA, from Matsumoto Brewing Company, at craft beer joint Hop Frog Café. It’s dedicated to former Matsumoto resident and artist Yayoi Kusama, whose spotty pumpkins took Instagram by storm during her London exhibition. Then book a soba noodle-making class via Inside Japan Tours, creating and eating as many buckwheat noodles as you like.
Visit Daio Wasabi Farm on a sunny spring day to witness the cherry blossom contrasting with the vibrant green wasabi
Is it family friendly?
The Hachinoki Room is a family room complete with private onsen, and extra beds can be added to the Zen Rooms. Children’s menus include fried shrimp, sausages and soups. It’s worth noting that there’s an overriding sense of calm about the place, so children are expected to be quiet and well-behaved.
Although the ryokan’s setting is stunning in all seasons, we suggest visiting in autumn, when the leaves of the maple trees turn the forest into a fiery blaze of red, yellow and gold.
As with all Relais & Chateaux hotels there is a strong focus on food, so a Japanese breakfast and full kaiseki dinner for two are included in the price.
Words by Alex Crossley
Photographs by Alex Crossley and Relais & Chateaux