This is the key. Key to my room at the Morinouta resort at Jozankei Onsen. I only stayed a night – but that was enough to give me a quick insight into the understated and discreet ways of pampering and service that the Japanese have elevated to high art.

The Morinouta may seem like a big hotel but it is anything but impersonal. Small touches of whimsy give the hotel personality. With a forest theme running through the hotel, the carved wooden bunnies everywhere give the place an interesting touch and saves it from being just another faceless large hotel.

The lobby’s centrepiece is a soaring iron-work chimney set amid cushions and lush carpet. Small wooden bare feet indicate that we take our footwear off when we lounge around the hearth. In the stiff cold of winter, the fire in the hearth is welcome sight. A small nook behind the hearth supplies deep armchairs, reading material and your choice of music.

Interesting and cute though these touches are, what struck me most were the subtle, unobtrusive elements of service amid the mundane, like:

1) TWO types of toilet paper in the bathroom. Smooth and smoother. Er, my big Philistine butt could not tell the difference but the thought was much appreciated.

2 ) Disposable, sanitised insoles for the footwear for very clean people. We all had to leave our footwear in lockers provided on every floor and change into slippers for use throughout the hotel. This is typical of most ryokans – the many changes of footwear. But what was different this time was the thoughtfully provided packets of insoles – for those who prefer that fresh layer of cleanliness next to their pampered feet.

3) Birdsong in the corridors. Call it contrived or not, I thought it was part of the need to go the extra mile in setting the relaxation mood, fuelling the perception that you really ARE in a woodland setting – except with all the bells and whistles of a luxury spa. And in case you’re wondering how much attention is really paid to detail? The birdsong stops at night and resumes in the morning.

It’s these thoughtful touches that make the difference. Good service need not always be in the grand gestures. But when a hotel provides an environment of service so discreet that the guest barely notices it, that’s when the immersive escape becomes complete, that is truly great service.

Big brand name western hotels have a leaf to pick from the book of service rules written by the traditional Japanese ryokan. Mori-no-uta is an extension of the discreet hospitality offered by the traditional inn. Its current incarnation may be the high-end luxury spa retreat, but it still abides by the same hospitality rules written a long time ago by ryokan culture – to make the guest  feel like this is home, for service to be so seamless you take it for granted.

At Mori-no-uta, the rooms are very generously sized. For those used to the perception of travelling in shoebox size Japanese business hotels where there’s barely room to swing a cat, the rooms here are so huge you can probably fit four to five shoebox rooms in one.

I actually wish I had more time to spend in my room (left) which was huge even by standard western hotel room comparisons, probably more like a suite than a room.

All that space, all to myself!

For someone used to sharing space with a large family, this was a luxury – although out of sheer habit, I found myself thinking about where the kids could bunk in. I think the best room for a large group or family is probably the ‘cottage’, a double-storey loft-style room which Richard was allocated to. Enough beds in the loft area and in the sitting area for at least five to six people. It even came with its own outdoor onsen!

I think I would have just died and gone to heaven to have a room like this but Richard said it was too cold to bathe out there. Ack, what a waste!

Luckily for me though, I had my own in-room spa experience with the hot stone spa that came with it. This is not standard feature in every room, but certain rooms have ‘themes’ and this was one of them.

Looks uncomfortable right? (below, right) but looks are deceiving. Maybe the hermits in cave sleeping on stone had something right after all. I tried a short nap, which quickly turned into more than an hour of blissful sleep as the heat from the stone seeped into my bones.

Just put on the robe, set the heat – 40deg is about the max you can go. Then just lie back and relax. Put a CD on from the selection thoughtfully provided and just doze.

Thankfully all this was after a great dinner and a couple of hours at the onsen. Mori-no-uta has indoor and outdoor onsens and as usual, I was game for both.

The outdoor one was magical. I had the pool to myself. Steam rose from the hot pool of water giving off a surreal mystical air. Sitting there with outdoor temperatures of -9deg, body immersed in 40deg water, with snowflakes lightly falling on your damp face and hair is a sensual beautiful experience no one should miss. Looking up, there is nothing but a black night sky. This is the key to the beauty of onsens in the snow and in the cold and certainly one of my favourite onsen experiences.

Warm and toasty after the onsen, the finishing touch to the night was to toast marshmallows at the central hearth in the lobby.


This was one advice I chose to ignore (top left)! Quirky signs in fractured English – one of the joys of traveling in Japan. You never know what you might find.

I could spend days holing up in the Mori-no-uta but a night at Mori-no-uta does not come cheap with prices averaging upwards of 25,000yen per person per night. But if an understated top-class onsen-spa splurge is what you’re looking for, this is a good place to start.

dinner with a gentle snowfall outside - picture-perfect setting

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