Jun 7, 2022
A HIGHLIGHT OF ANY TRIP to Japan is a stay at one of its iconic ryokans, traditional half-board inns that usually boast hot-spring baths. In the classic model, the experience is centered on the room, with the assumption that guests want a sanctuary where they can relax and unwind in privacy. Dinner is brought to them, all of the courses generally coming together to minimize intrusion. With such an approach, the drinks menu is usually an afterthought, tending toward large bottles of beer and carafes of sake guests can pour for themselves.
Recently, though, ryokans are shifting to a model that tempts guests out of their rooms in order to provide a more luxurious, service-centered experience. Most obvious is the trend toward sophisticated restaurant spaces, where meals can be served course by leisurely course, allowing for time-sensitive preparations and hands-on service. Expanding the drinks offerings to include aperitifs, wine-pairing flights, and post-prandials has come hand in hand.
Some ryokans aren’t stopping there, and instead fully investing in attractive bar spaces, betting the social media generation wants a unique environment and a craft cocktail more than an early night in their room.
“By incorporating local ingredients and decor, many ryokans have realized they can craft an experience of their locale through drinks too. It’s another way for guests to enjoy their stay and part of the unique charm of Japanese ryokans, which is rooted in a sense of place,” says Hiroki Fukunaga, CEO of Ryokan Collection, a nation-wide consortium of luxury ryokans.
Take FUFU Kyoto, which opened near Nanzenji Temple in early 2021. Their location at the foot of the Higashiyama Mountains was a popular area for noble estates going back to Kyoto’s days as the imperial seat. FUFU nods to that history by preserving many of the original trees and plants in the landscaping of their Japanese-style garden. A teahouse, a cultural feature those bygone samurai considered essential, was built next to the pond and christened Yae Hitoe after a variety of cherry tree growing nearby.
Yae Hitoe offers a space for tea ceremony and ikebana flower arranging by day. However, at night, it transforms into a chic guest-only bar serving fine wines, whiskies and cocktails in elegant etched glassware. Two walls retract to admit the evening breeze and the musical tinkling of the garden’s waterfall. Drink in hand, guests can spend a thoughtful evening watching the carp lazily coast through the lantern-lit pond, exactly as samurais and lords did centuries ago.
Courtesy of ryugon (2)
At ryugon in Uonuma, Niigata, the experience is more pastoral, but no less beautiful. The heart of their property is a lovingly preserved 19th-century farmhouse, onto which luxury lodgings have been grafted. The modern extension curves around a sprawling pond and garden, providing expansive views even in the depths of winter when snow drifts reach as high as the eaves.
In a 2019 renovation, ryugon added a bar and lounge space to the main building, preserving the structure’s traditional irori hearth at its heart so guests can enjoy the atavistic pleasure of gathering around an open flame. In fine weather, there are also plush high-backed couches facing the central garden.
As impressive as the bar space is, the true showstopper is the menu. Isolated by the surrounding mountains and buried in snow half the year, this area has developed a highly unique gastronomy that includes foraging, preserving, and fermentation. The ryokan strives to reflect that not only in the restaurant but in the bar as well.
The cold climate is perfect for sake brewing and Uonoma brewers like Hakkaisan and Aokishuzo naturally feature heavily, as do the town’s shochu brewers. Hardly anything on the menu, apart from a few European wines, comes from further away than the next town over, and a good amount is actually made in-house, as one of ryugon’s specialties is traditional infusions. Behind the bar counter are shelves of glass vessels filled with ume plums and yuzu citrus aging in local spirits or sake, the summer’s excess preserved for year-round enjoyment. More unusual botanicals, like Japanese cedar and a wild species of flowering bird cherry called anningo, create less familiar flavors. Whether straight up, cut with soda, or mixed into a custom cocktail by the bartender, these liquors offer a taste of Niigata’s snow country only available at ryugon.
Meanwhile, Kanagawa’s Hakone Kazan has centered the bar experience so completely, they eschew the term “ryokan” in favor of “bar hotel.” Rather than the traditional kaiseki dinner, they offer free-flow drinks all night, followed by a late-morning Champagne brunch and leisurely 2 p.m. checkout.
The main bar (there’s also a self-serve lounge) is a sultry stunner. Behind a 13-meter-long teak counter, a picture window shows Mt. Sengen by day and the illuminated boughs of the garden’s cherry tree by night. The armchairs arranged in pairs along the counter appear like thrones in the dim lighting, each couple well beyond the pool of light cast for its neighbors, creating a curious feeling of privacy. Lounge chairs and banquettes around a marble-ringed fireplace also provide places to canoodle, while the gentle aroma of wood smoke and the softly dancing flames create a soothing ambiance.
Along with wine, beer and the usual spirits, the sprawling menu features more than 160 Scotches and whiskies, and the tuxedoed bartenders are happy to customize tasting flights. Pages and pages of cocktails, classic and original, are arranged into thematic groups like “In the Movies” and “Memories of Summer.” Periodically, the bartenders compete to invent cocktails for a separate seasonal menu as well, so even the most regular guests will always have something new to try. On a recent visit, the seasonal offerings included some truly avant garde mixology like a boulevardier made with a bourbon washed with Ashigara beef fat and garnished with a charcoal cheese tuile and whitebark magnolia smoke.
With such inviting bar and intriguing drinks, you’ll be hard pressed to tear yourself away, so take our advice and hit the hot springs first. Then head to the bar and enjoy another classic ryokan experience: boozing it up in a yukata.