Date of Visit: February 27 2013 (overnight stay)
To truly enjoy traditional Japanese hospitality, one should at least stay at a ryokan – like what I did for my little R&R after Tokyo Marathon 2013!
Never heard of a ‘ryokan’? Easy-peasy, let me explain….
Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns which became popular in the 17th century (Edo Period) to accommodate travelling merchants and feudal lords along the Japanese highways (gokaidou).
And for a more verbose explanation with historical perspective…
In feudal Japan, vast landholdings were controlled by the Daimyo, ‘territorial lords’. In order to stop them from becoming too powerful and rebellious, the Shogun, ‘generalissimo’, issued a directive that all Daimyos have to travel to Edo (current day Tokyo) every other year (sankin-koutai) to spend a year in Edo where their wives and children were forced to remain as hostages. Since the Daimyos travel in an entourage of hundreds of people, they needed frequent stops along the road to rest and eat, and thus the traditional inns were born to serve these needs.
Today, the ryokans continue as the cornerstone of Japanese culture offering retreats to visitors to immerse in traditional customs, cuisines and architecture.
Ditto-ed and onward to my stay at Oyado The Earth!!
Oyado The Earth (OTE) is a 16-suite inn in the City of Toba located at the northeastern end of the Shima-hanto Peninsula in Mie Perfecture. Bordering the Ise-Shima National Park and facing Ise Bay of the Pacific Ocean, Toba is also a beautiful place for boating and hiking. The area is famous for seafood especially oysters and cultured pearls. Does Mikimoto ring a bell, Ladies? I am sure that you are all too familiar with the name synonymous with the perfectly round pearls – and this is where it all started – Toba!
Nevertheless, the main reason I travelled down to Mie Perfecture was to visit Ise Grand Shrine – the most sacred shrine in Shinto religion. I was also lucky to have Taka, my friend whom I met in Hong Kong ages ago to volunteer as driver for Mom, Bro and I. (FYI: If you are not as lucky as us, OTE is 2 hours and 45 minutes by car from Nagoya, or a 1 hour 40 minutes by train from Nagoya station to Toba Station and a further 35 minutes ride by car from the station).
Booking Oyado The Earth (apparently ‘oyado‘ is another word for traditional-style Japanese inn) meant venturing into unfamiliar territory for me and proved an interesting exercise since I could not find much online reviews when I started booking back in December 2012. And what a wonderful surprise to find out how wonderful The Earth was!
OTE is set in a near total immersion in a relatively pristine natural environment surrounded by forests and Toba Bay. From the observatory deck in The Earth, one can easily see the numerous islands in the middle distance. Our trip to OTE took us down the windy narrow and rocky road to the edge of a cliff.
We were very suprised to find the hotel attendant already waiting for us at the gate to direct us to our carpark.
The passageway to OTE is quite James Bond-ish – cue in the automatic steel sliding-doors and zig-zag corridors with pockets of landscaping.
While waiting for the key to our room, we were seated in the lounge and treated to a welcome drink of sparkling wine and Japanese sweets.
OTE’s common spaces includes gender segregated 24-hour hot-springs bath or onsen (on the ground floor where the rooms are), a cosy library and an adjoining lounge furnished with plush sofas.
While each suite in OTE has a private open-air spring-fed onsen attached, ours went one step further with our own private entertaining room and a guest toilet. Our Premium Suite is very spacious, we also have a separate sitting area for Bro to close off for his privacy. He slept on a make-shift futon which was laid out on the heated tatami mat when we were having dinner. I have to point out that service in Japanese hotels are truly all-inclusive whereby pajamas and toiletries are provided – the guest simply has to turn up!
We had a small outdoor onsen where Mom, Bro and I went to soak our feet after dinner. Even though we were sitting in the freezing cold, the hot water warmed us up and I must say the stiffness in my calves and feet literally melted away in the hot water from the springs!
Our packaged stay came with elaborate set meals for both dinner and breakfast, served at a time set by us. (‘Confession!’: I had exchanged some emails with the Eri, the GM of the hotel, regarding dietary requirements and meal times, so even though the attendants did not speak much English, everything went smoothly without a hitch!) We had the traditional multi-course kaiseki dinner, drawing on freshest produce from the land and sea in the area.
Last, but not least, OTE left no details out, by ensuring that we have our midnight snack of rice and roe on standby in case we wake up in the middle of the night hungry!
We woke up early the next day to catch day-break. Watching the sun-rise was truly a majestic experience and made even more special by catching the sun rising over the the Pacific Ocean.
We had our breakfast at the restaurant at 7:30am as arranged. Here is our very attentive server.
Our breakfast of assorted small dishes was literally fit for a Daimyo!
Hang on! That’s not all for breakfast! We were invited out to the Lounge for fruits and yoghurt while waiting for Taka to pick us up! More Oishi!
It was truly a fantastic experience staying at OTE – delicious food, attentive service and beautiful surroundings. The only regret is that we only stayed overnight, if we revisit Toba in the future, we will stay for an extra few days to take in attractions of the area such as Meoto Iwa, Toba Aquarium, Mikimoto Museum and Pearl Island – maybe even go hiking in the Shima National Park.
We also had a warm send-off from the manager. As Taka drove out of the oyado, we noticed in our rear-view mirror that the manager maintained his deep-bow position until we lost sight of the oyado! Wow! Now, THAT was a real traditional Japanese hospitality!
Before we headed back to Nagoya train station, we detoured to visit Ago Bay which came highly recommended in the Michelin Green Guide.
The winding road to Ago Bay is a bit like the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia – trees and shrubs on one side of the road and scenic water views on the other. Once we arrived at Ago Bay, we had to climb some steep steps to reach Yokoyama Observatory Deck. There, at the height of 203m, one can take in the spectacular panorama overlooking the peninsula to see with our own eyes the famous saw-toothed coastline that has more than 60 small islets. It is said that every season has its natural beauty, such as cherry blossoms and red maple leaves.
After 30 minutes, it’s time to head back to Nagoya train station to drop off our rental and onward journey to Kanazawa!