“Don’t worry about it, everything that happens is for a reason, you just don’t know what it is yet.” said Laureen, my lovely travel companion, in her usual uplifting tone as I was huffing and puffing about the fact that we missed our train to Katsuura for the second time (don’t even ask!). After the invigorating spiritual respite in Mt. Koya we set off to pamper our body in Wakayama’s onsen, a hot spring town, for two nights. For the uninitiated, Wakayama is considered to be one of the prime destinations for famous Japanese hot springs and boasts with rich thermal waters that relieve you from stress, help you cleanse the body and, allegedly, treat illnesses. There is an abundance of onsen towns in Wakayama (Shirahama, Kawayu and Yunomine are just a few), but we chose Katsuura for its proximity to Nachi Falls.
The plan was to get there by 5 PM, but since trains run from Wakayama city every 2 hours and the journey takes about three hours, it meant we wouldn’t be arriving till around 9 PM that night. I had another short panic attack when I realized that our hotel was on an island and ferries wouldn’t be running that late. However, our concierge assured us that they’d send a boat to pick us up upon arrival. Talk about customer service and hospitality.
I was quite excited to book Nakanoshima Hotel. The photos promised a peaceful resort located on a private island off the Katsuura shore. The thing that attracted me the most was their rotenburo – the alluring open-air natural hot spring pool overlooking the azure coves and islands.
It was pitch dark when we got off the train, I was so curious to see where we were, what did the hotel look like, but all I could see was the bright lights coming from the rooms glittering in the dark. Every room in Nakanoshima Hotel has an ocean view, but I couldn’t see a thing when we checked in.
Despite being dead tired, we were assured by staff on check-in that the onsen would be open until midnight that evening. Excited to take a dip into the famous hot spring, we dropped our bags in our room, slipped into yukata helpfully provided by the hotel and walked to the ground floor to the women’s bath. Since Japanese onsen etiquette dictates to bathe naked, baths are strictly separated by gender.
After we quickly got undressed, washed off our make-up (toiletries and luxurious Shisheido skincare products are provided at the ladies’ changing room) and took a thorough shower, I was ready for my first hot spring bath. And what a heavenly experience it was.
Ringed with boulders and screened by shrubs, a little granite tub with tiled roof and open sides overlooked a vista of the Pacific Ocean and little neighboring islands that dotted its surface. It was a perfect summer night and the serenity was almost palpable. The sky was clear and the full moon left a glistening trail on the ocean. There was a slight hint of chill in the air. Covered in goosebumps, I stepped cautiously into the very warm (and in some places blazing hot) water. It was utter bliss. I stretched out, moving lazily, and doze to the murmuring sound of crickets and water cascading gently into the pool. The sensation of a silky-smooth water felt incredible on my skin. The quietude was so soothing. I experienced true contentment and a reprieve from all anxiety – the day’s load of fatigue and stress seemed to have suddenly evaporated. The sounds, the views, the perfect ambiance – it all induced a trance-like calm and relief, a feeling I’d like to preserve forever.
In 20 minutes, our eyes started to droop and we decided to call it a night. We slid into our soft futon beds set out onto the tatami floors and drifted to the most peaceful of sleeps.
Next morning, I woke up and ran to open our sliding shades with the same enthusiasm as a kid rips open her Christmas gifts (who am I kidding, I still rip open my Christmas gifts as enthusiastically as I used to in childhood). Here it was, a gorgeous view of the famous Wakayama coastline. Water was deep jade color and totally crystal clear. I would have jumped into the ocean straight from my balcony if I could, but it was time for breakfast. You know I cannot skip breakfast.
I also took a good look at our traditional room. The rooms in Nakanoshima Hotel are furnished in the best of Japanese tradition just like our shukubo in Koya-san. They are spacious and the light floods from the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Hotel provides a good buffet breakfast and we also savored a multi-course kaiseki dinner on our final night, which tasted really good, for the most part.
Besides two female rotenburos, hotel also has an indoor hot spring pool, and is supposed to have a regular outdoor swimming pool. But it was emptied during our visit due to lack of customers.
Just like Atami, Katsuura is one of those small dormant cities in Japan that seem to be dying a very slow and painful death, living off the former glory of a famous resort city. On the surface, Japan seems like a country with highly populated metropolises of high technology and skyscrapers. But once you delve deeper into the rural areas, you see its other, ghostly side. Back in the day, the Japanese Government made it nearly impossible for the average Japanese to acquire a passport to travel. Destinations such as those in Asia and the Pacific were off-limits, so the tourism industry looked nearer to home to meet domestic tourists’ demands for sun, sea and sand. Locations that provided a perfect subtropical climate were scaled up with sprawling resort complexes showcasing the economic boom.
Nowadays, however, very few of these resorts manage to keep up as most Japanese choose to vacation overseas instead of hanging out in their own backyard. Even though Nakanoshima Hotel seemed to attract public, majority of the guests were elderly, and only about 20% of its full capacity was occupied. Places like this might come to life a few times a year at best, most probably during a significant festival held at that location.
The lack of clientele has inevitably reflected on the quality of the interior of the hotel, which was in apparent need of a face-lift. Crimson sakura-patterned carpets were stained, while curtains, wallpaper and doorframes looked tired. On my last day, I had just enough time to take a boat cruise around small islands that surround Katsuura. One of those seemingly wild islands sheltered an abandoned resort facing the ocean. Imagine how awesome would it be to stay at an isolated place like that?! Talk about hidden travel gems and off the beaten path retreats. A similar resort located in Thailand or Hawaii would have attracted hordes of travelers, yet Wakayama doesn’t seem to be able to keep up, which is a shame.
We truly enjoyed our stay at Nakanoshima Onsen. It might have not been the most luxurious ryokans Japan has to offer, but it provided an invaluable peek into a nostalgic side of the country, as well as left the most lasting impression. On our final night, in an attempt to recreate the perfect moment of the previous night-time bathing, I descended to the rotenburo one last time. But this time the sky was clouded, there was no moon or nor its trail reflected on the ocean, and even crickets seemed to have gone silent. I chuckled to myself. You were right Laureen, it all happened for a reason. The day we were late for the train turned into one of the most perfect nights of my life.
- I booked Nakanoshima Hotel via booking.com
- You have to get to Kii-Katsuura Station, walk to the pier (5-8 minutes) and catch a ferry to the hotel. Ferries run every 15 minutes during peak morning and evening times, and once an hour during the day. You can check with concierge for specifics.
- Nakanoshima Hotel is a good stay only if you are not a pretentious traveler. Service is good and even though the premises needed renovation, everything was neat and clean.
Have you visited hot springs in Japan? How did you like it?
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