Getting to Ikaho from Minakami involved a 65-minute train ride, a long wait at the bus terminal, another 20 minutes on the local bus and almost alighting at the wrong stop because the names were so similar.
Still, we made it to the Ikaho Onsen bus stop without excessive panicking, and once there we called the hotel to be picked up. We tried calling ahead and letting them know what time we'd be there, but they told us firmly but politely to call them again only when we'd alighted from the bus.
Two years ago, we'd visited another ryokan in Japan where they came in two cars to pick a group of us up from the bus station. We thought the inn was a distance away since they insisted on coming to the bus stop to get us, but as it turned out, we spent much longer piling into the cars than it took for the them to drive us the 50 metres down the road to where the inn was. We're still completely baffled as to why they didn't just give us the directions to walk from the bus stop. After a few drinks we sometimes reminisce sitting in the cars with mounting incredulity when the ride was over in less than a minute.
This time, the ride was swift but not ridiculously so. We still had to navigate a number of narrow side lanes and some rather steep streets before pulling up at the front door.
I don't think we've ever fallen in love with a hotel in the way we were so completely taken by Oyado Tamaki. On arrival, they relieved us of our bags and whisked us to the lounge area where we were given cool towels to refresh ourselves and iced yuzu (Japanese Citron) tea.
The lounge overlooked a small garden, and as we waited for D to finish filling out the forms for our stay, M & I put on the slippers that neatly lined the perimeter of the courtyard and went to explore.
By the time we reached Tamaki, it was almost dusk, so the courtyard was bathed in a warm golden light. It was utterly beautiful in person, but I ended up with very washed out pictures on my phone. Of all the pieces of decor carefully placed around the garden, I liked the tiny slippers best. They were about the size of my thumb, and immediately brought to mind little magic-wielding elves.
We were shown to our room by a whole retinue of staff, including Liza from the Philippines, who's been living in Japan for over 20 years now. Tamaki doesn't see very many foreign customers, so we had Liza all to ourselves to serve as our guide and interpreter.
Our corner room was massive, and beyond the main sleeping area it also included an extra sitting room, a changing room with a vanity, a washroom and a bathroom. We've been so used to small rooms in Japan that when we saw everything for the first time that the three of us looked at each other and psychically projected "OMG WHAT IS THIS MAGIC?!" (Well, I did anyway.)
Liza took the time to explain everything, and after we got over our initial shock that dinner was going to be served in our room she went through all the documents that had been specially provided for us, including an English map of Ikaho that came with a 'Point-With-Your-Finger' communication guide. She also introduced us to Kurumi-san, who was to be in charge of our meal that evening.
Once we were left to our own devices, I ran around the room taking pictures of practically every piece of decor there was. I wound up having to delete all the music on my phone to free up memory space. Much of the decor in the room and the common areas were seasonal and had to do with the harvest moon, which meant many rabbits all over the place.
At the end of it I just sprawled across the tatami floor, stared wide-eyed at the ceiling with its three different kinds of wood panelling and said to M & D "Everything is too beautiful. I am overcome and I cannot move right now. Gosh, the tatami smells great, I'm just going to lie here and breathe." I had a mini giggle-fit while on the floor and messaged Q, because we used to watch Ouran instead of study for our Chinese O-Levels, and one of the main characters was also called Tamaki. Everything about him was also extravagant and fabulous and ridiculously pretty, and once my brain made that connection it refused to let it go.
Eventually I recovered enough to uncover the tea set and brew a pot, just to be able to drink out of the exquisite cups they'd provided for our use.
Not really knowing the correct protocol for in-room dining, we decided to pop down to the onsen area for a quick bath, mostly to get out of the way while they prepared the room for dinner. The men's and ladies' baths were going to be switched around later in the day, so in order to try both we had to get cracking. The first bath I tried was the smaller Haruguri no Yu where we could try Ikaho's famous Kogane no Yu (Golden Waters). There was also an outdoor tub made of Chestnut wood holding Shirogane no Yu (Silver Waters). The bamboo and wooden screens hiding us from the view of everyone going up and down Ikaho's famous steps seemed rather flimsy, but we figured that even if we did flash anyone, they'd never see us again.
Before we went back up to our room, I realized that instead of cold water, Mugicha (Cold Barley Tea) had been provided. Mugicha always brings me back to the two-week exchange programme to Fukuoka that I went on at the age of eleven, where my host mother would give me a huge bottle to drink on the walk to school. I introduced M to the wonders of Mugicha, and we stood there drinking cups and cups of it before we remembered we were having dinner right after.
After our truly excellent dinner, we went for a walk around the town area to digest everything, then back to Tamaki to check it out further.
There's a small liquor corner within the building with a Sakabayashi (Cedar Ball decoration) hanging outside. The Sakabayashi is usually used by sake breweries to let customers know that fresh sake is ready for sale.
The shelves and even the floor was packed with bottles of sake, including the ones we'd had at dinner, as well as porcelain dispensers like this one:
When we finally got back to our room, the magical housekeeping elves had cleared the table and chairs and laid out our futons.
In the sitting room, I found that our previous set of tea had been cleared away and we'd been provided with yet another box of tea implements.
This one came with a selection of green teas and plum tea, so I spent some time surveying the insides of each canister before settling on the plum tea, which was fragrant and salty, perfect after the heavy meal we'd just had.
The next day, we explored the Ikaho Onsen area before coming back to pick up our bags and claim our complimentary tea and coffee from the lounge. While M & I were at the gift shop, D had an entire conversation with the general manager of the hotel on how we were getting to Kusatsu onsen that was lost in translation, mostly because D had no idea what was going on and just smiled and nodded at everything.
This led to a fair bit of confusion as to where the minivan was to drive us to, because as it turned out, the general manager had tried to put us on a much quicker route to Kusatsu onsen by suggesting that we take the direct JR Bus. Unfortunately, we'd already booked our train tickets and had to be driven back to the same bus stop as the one we'd arrived at.
For a medium-sized establishment, we received really outstanding and personal hospitality at Oyado Tamaki, and the food was to die for. We're already planning to return, hopefully during another month to sample the food and to marvel at how they interpret the season in the decor.