Ever feel like you want to stay somewhere with the luxury of a big, fancy hotel but with the quiet, understated charm of a ryokan? There are countless onsen hotels in Amakusa, with Shimoda boasting dozens to choose from. We stayed at the Amakusa Shimoda Onsen Garasha – a small Japanese style hotel with Western-influenced decorations. Its peaceful environment and delicious food make it a great choice for holidaymakers in Amakusa.
Not to be confused with the Shimoda in Shizuoka Prefecture, the Shimoda Onsen area located in Western Amakusa is a hotspot for hot springs, popular with foreign and local tourists alike. Lining the river on its way down to the sea there are lots of little hotels and ryokans dotted on the riverside, each so charming that it was difficult to choose which one we would stay at, but in the end, we plumped for the Amakusa Shimoda Onsen Garasha.
A small hotel with only 8 rooms, you know you’ll be getting a personal service at this quiet little spot. From the outside, you can get a glimpse of the mixed architectural and decorative influences from the stained glass windows, dark brickwork, and the army of garden gnomes that greet you on arrival. In the foyer (and throughout the corridors), you’ll notice a mild obsession with Gustav Klimt, combined with more traditional Japanese decorations.
The bedrooms are a unique blend of Japanese and Western. The tatami floor, decorated panels on the cupboards, low table, and chairs are all very much of the traditional Japanese ryokan style. However, while at first glance the beds appear to be futons, they are actually Western style mattresses that have been put straight onto the floor without a frame, sort of like a cross between a bed and a futon. Our private balcony looked out over the river which made for a lovely view to wake up to. TV, fridge, and tea set are included in the room, as well as a private toilet and sink area, and I believe the more expensive rooms also have private bathrooms.
As for general bathing, there are male and female onsens on the ground floor which are free for guests to use at various times during the day. The onsen has a basic changing area, three or four shower stations, and a tepid indoor bath. There is one outdoor bath – a small pool with a rocky surrounding and a curtain of plants which have been tactfully placed to conceal bathers from the public road, while still allowing you to peep through the foliage for a commanding view of the river below and hillside beyond. The onsen there is not for the faint of heart when it comes to creepy-crawlies as there was a sizeable army of spiders lining the walls, and I was most surprised to find that I was sharing my bath with a little red crab.
Price-wise, we thought it was very good value. On their official website (Japanese only), rates are per adult person and range from 8,000 to 17,000 yen (changes depending on season). You can contact them to know their rates for children and for special holidays such as the Golden Week.
We don’t usually go for the accommodation and dining plans when traveling, but the course options at Shimoda Onsen Garasha looked so good that we just had to give it a go, and what a luxurious time we had of it. Dinner was served in a private room – Japanese style with tatami floor, low tables, and lovely traditional decorations.
To say that we were stuffed by the end of the meal does not begin to cover it! On arrival at the dining room, our starters had already been laid out for us – tsukemono (漬物 – pickles) of various sorts, a sashimi platter of fresh, local fish, pork, and vegetables ready to go in a one-person-sized hot pot, and a delicious king prawn.
It wasn’t long before more delicious wares were brought to the table – a blossom topped fish cake, deep-fried fish and vegetables with tartar sauce, fish cooked in a sweet, sticky sauce to a light and flaky perfection, soup, rice, and a delicious crème caramel for pudding. (Much to my relief! In my opinion, a Western style dessert is always much preferred than a Japanese concoction of red bean paste or sweet potato!)
Deciding to go all out, we also had the Japanese style breakfast, served in the lofty atrium which is chock-a-block full of decorations (of all kinds) and a glass cupboard stuffed with beautiful Chinaware. Japanese breakfast is one of those things that I get an urge to retry every six months or so, and then once I have eaten it, I remember why I usually prefer cereal or toast – it’s just not my thing. I don’t mind onsen tamago or raw egg over rice – there is something about that unusual blend of textures that makes me think of a savory rice pudding – but the rest of it, (the fish, pickles, vegetables) I could take it or leave it.
We had a truly lovely time at the Shimoda Onsen Garasha. It was a Sunday-night stay and I think there was only one other couple staying at the hotel so it was beautifully quiet. The Shimoda Onsen area is anything but lively – there isn’t much to do around the town in the evening, but frankly, that’s just what I wanted. A dip in the onsen, a seaside walk, peace, and quiet to settle down with a good book – it was wonderfully relaxing. The staff at the hotel were all very friendly and polite. It seemed to me like a family business by the easy way the staff were interacting with each other, and when we were checking out in the morning, a young relative had been brought over for a visit and was busying herself trying to steal slippers to play with. A lovely atmosphere indeed.
Amakusa is a wonderful place to visit – there are so many great things to do in terms of scenic spots and museums, and it is a really relaxing place if you need a quiet getaway. If you’re looking to stay on the Western side of the island (away from the main city), then the Shimoda Onsen area is a great choice. Or even if you’re just passing through, there is a free public footbath that you’re sure to enjoy.