April 5, 2015
While there are onsen (hot springs) all across Japan, open-air ones are less common and often located in the country’s most rural locations. We visited one such onset in Okayama Prefecture, the “Western Yokozuna (Sumo grand champion)” Yubara Onsen (湯原溫泉), so called because it is deemed as the best open-air onsen in western Japan.
Hakkei has a very distinct decor and Room E is no exception. On the one hand the bedroom section is unmistakably Japanese, with futons, tatami and a low table. The living room however is a eccentric collection of worn out western furniture and carpet. The overall colour tone is dark brown, and the overall impression of the room is nostalgia. The room’s appeal depends very much if you were born before the 1960s.
No complaint here. The hot spring is not particularly strong in mineral content; it falls under the “Simple spring” category. The water is at a constant 42°C with a 9.3 pH. The water is smooth and doesn’t dry up the skin even after prolong soaking. Overall quality is on par with Kinosaki’s and Kurokawa’s.
The kaiseki dinner was served at the dining hall on the main floor. Chef Masahara Seiya’s specialty is vegetable that focuses on using seasonal local ingredients. Appetizers were mainly root vegetables, followed by tofu soup, grilled amago (Japanese trout), grilled beef and a chicken stew. Most of the dishes were banal but passable, except for the chicken stew, which was under-seasoned.
Owner Uwashio Hiroko and her crew were warm, hospitable and attentive. I felt welcomed the moment I stepped into the ryokan and throughout my stay all my requests were sufficiently addressed. The only issue was that Hakkei was understaffed. Service was slow and used plates and utensils remained on dining tables long after the patrons had finished their meals.
During dinner Ms. Uwashio, after finding out we were from Hong Kong, named dropped one of my city’s most prominent food critic as a frequent quest of hers. I can see that – the critic, who is well into his 70s, is known to have an antiquated taste. Hakkei very well might appeal to people of that generation, with a strong selling point in the professional and passionate service. But given its price point it doesn’t quite measure up to what’s on offer at more popular onsen towns elsewhere in Japan, and I much prefer my two previous onsen ryokan experiences at Takefue and Nishimuraya Shigetsu.