Hush conversations overheard through washi paper sliding doors, modest splashes of neighboring bather’s bucket water and faint simmering of freshly cooked rice as it reaches ‘niebana (flavourful al dente)’… all perfectly in tune with the rolling hills of Niigata landscape, disciplined attention to service and gentle yet confident design at Satoyama Jujo describe my two night stay at the modern luxury ryokan.
This new ryokan in Osawa onsen comes fully stocked with well behaved elderly guests in modern cool garb marvelling at inhouse artwork and occasional young families drawn to the region’s rugged landscape (and ski slopes in the winter). The property is one of Design Hotels’ latest outpost in Japan and it deserves the mark of that design authority.
The site comprises two buildings, the main heritage structure and the new, smart and economically developed, extension. Reception and dining space is in the century old house made entirely of timber with traditional pegs and joints. Dark timber columns, massive beams and wide parquet floors set the somber and rich dark tones in a typically Japanese tranquil atmosphere. As you enter the the annex where 12 guest rooms and onsen are in, hinoki stairs and walls accented by brighter lighting invites and modern artworks with traditional motifs draw attention. And the owner Isawa-san’s chairs, mostly mid-century modern danish with occasional, bolder placements of Arne Jacobsens accentuates.
I spent the first night in Room 303, collaboration with the Tokyo purveyor of relaxed casual wear 1LDK and the second night in 301 with sweeping views of Hakkaisan (八海山, eight wave mountains).
All rooms are twin bedded with modern fittings like sofas, chez lounge and shower. Each day onsen water is filled in the ensuite (actually in the balcony) traditional bath. I was here in early November when the mountain region temperature falls so opted instead for the public onsen bath on the second floor.
Probably the most intense hours in the otherwise lull of my stay was dinner. Each evening, modern twist to traditional kaiseki (course menu) is served at Sanaburi dining room with a focus on locally grown vegetables and foraged leaves, nuts and mushrooms. ‘Sanaburi’ is the communal feast shared among the village-folk after rice planting and signifies the wealth of Mother Nature presented on the plates.
My ten-course kaiseki more than showed off the bountiful produce of Niigata inside a 2-hour, slow-burning nevertheless a culinary assault. My favourite was soba soup with wild mushrooms, deeply savoury and rich, and Buri (amberjack) shabu shabu. Of course you cannot not dwell on rice and sake in a Niigata meal, in many ways the centerpiece rather than accompaniment. Koshihikari(コシヒカリ, particularly esteemed rice varietal) was cooked on my table complete with ‘how to cook Gochisou-gohan’ instruction guide. This being early November, I was being served new rice just harvested a few weeks back and probably polished days ago.
There were two tasting flights, one high-grade Niigata sakes and the other more local Osawa varieties. I tried both on each night with additional orders of daiginjo for the ginjo variety which was served. The Osawa variety include the renown Hakkaisan (jumaishu and daiginjo) both with incredible nose with deeper straw hues for junmaishu and crystal clarity for daiginjo.
As I leave the professional and friendly staff of Satoyama-Jujo behind (almost all of service staff speaks impeccable English, a rarity in countryside accommodations) and head to the nearest Shinkansen station, I mark my calendar for the next Niigata visit.
Short excursions –
Days are short but sun rises early in this mountain region so after an early morning bath in onsen go for a walk to the neighbouring village when the air is crisp and clear. About an hour’s lazy walk round trip.
If you get friendly with staff and they’re unoccupied enough to accompany you, ask for a short drive to the ski chairlift peak with viewing point into the Minamiuonuma valley and Hakkaisan in the backdrop.