The most enchanting way to arrive at Kuramure is to take the sleeper train from Tokyo to Sapporo. Enjoy a steaming hot shower, then sleep cosily in your compartment wrapped in the complimentary kimono, as the train passes under the Tsugaru Strait (the dark sea that separates Hokkaido from the Honshu Islands) and wake up in the white north. From Sapporo, a local train hugs the frozen coastline delivering you to the suburban station of Otaru Chikkou and a sleek, minibus transfer to the ryokan.
Kuramure was designed by the architect Makoto Nakayama who has taken his acclaimed, minimalist style to the North Island's ryokan, galleries and private houses - from city buildings in Sapporo to hotels in touristy resort Noboribetsu. A full appreciation of Kuramure's beauty takes a little knowledge of the exact location - it is in a hot spring valley, 15 minutes outside of the port town of Otaru. Otaru's sea trade was at its height in the late 19th century, evidenced by the carefully preserved stone warehouses and lamp lit canal paths that conjure up Liverpool or Montreal. Kuramure is a carefully plotted melding of this stark warehouse architecture, the rituals of a traditional Japanese ryokan, Nakayama's minimalism and consummate opulence.
As stunning as your personal bathtub is, you won't want to spend much time in it because the ultimate bathing treat in Japan is communal. The practice of single sex, entirely naked, public bathing is both ancient and intrinsic to Japanese culture. The first rule is that the bath is not to get clean in - prior to dipping even a millimeter of toe into it, you need to scrub up on little wooden stools placed beside taps along the wall. Using the accompanying wooden buckets you can soap yourself, wash your hair and rinse thoroughly before relaxing into the meltingly hot bath. (My first public bath in Japan was a disaster concocted from all of my British awkwardness - under the pressure of having an audience for the first time; I used too much soap and slid straight off the stool. Gathering my remaining poise, I got into the bath and lasted about forty five seconds before I had to come out, thoroughly poached). Kuramure's guest baths have the same lustrous beauty as the rest of the ryokan. The changing rooms, worthy of any spa, lead into a sloping indoor pool, but sublime indulgence is on the other side of the glass door.
The outdoor bath is simply stunning. The steam curls around the wooden walls and glimmering stone floor whilst precisely measured frosted glass means that you can enjoy the unending winter view without startling passersby. The baths are open until midnight and there are few experiences that can beat stretching out in the hot spring water catching glimpses of the stars through snowflakes.The rooms are stately. You can choose between sleeping in voluptuous twin beds or, in classic Japanese style, on Tatami floor mats. The suites have a cavernous ground floor living area with cushions around a low table, ideally placed for tea sipping, and screen sliding doors that open onto an enclosed rock garden. Upstairs are the bed or Tatami rooms with Japanese socks (with perfect toe configuration for wearing with flip flops), slippers, padded Hanten jackets and samue (the loungewear originally worn by monks). Beside the washroom is a separate bathroom with a deep stone bath into which water is piped from the nearby Asarigawa hot springs. In Japan, each spring is reputed to have individual healing properties - Asarigawa is noted for its positive effects on neuralgia, aching joints and, perplexingly, "women's diseases".
|Otaru Ryotei Kuramure (Source: NorthernSpy)|
The cold weather isn't just scenic; it produces some of the best seafood around. Fish emerges from the frozen Japan Sea jumping with freshness, docks at Otaru and is served within hours at Kuramure. Due to its intricacy, you need to order the Kaseki dinner in advance. Kaseki is the preeminent form of seasonal eating - it is a complex, multiple course meal that reflects the calendar in ingredients, taste and appearance (for example, autumn meals are often garnished with deep red edible berries). Kuramure's Kaseki menu changes daily and is served in private wooden dining rooms. An example September menu leaps from Sardines preserved with fermented rice to Angler Fish with white miso to sirloin of Japanese black cow to a clear soup of short neck clam and is absolutely heaving with the local specialties of Queen and King Crab.
After dinner, if a moonlit bath doesn't take your fancy, snuffle down in the warmth of the library or with a LP in the listening room and order a nightcap. One very important fact, that I have saved until the end, is that - in the wonderful world of Kuramure - drinks are free. Spoil yourself with top of the range single malts or carefully chosen sake and plan the next day's pampering as you sip.
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