On a sacred mountain overlooking Japan’s largest freshwater lake is a shrine to living well
The doors of the private shuttle bus close, leaving behind the extraordinary bustle of Kyoto Station at the height of sakura season. I have with me a heavily dog-eared language guidebook called Survival Japanese, but in a bus full of Japanese people — all of them looking especially elegant and reserved — I feel more self-conscious than usual about mispronouncing even the simplest words. All I manage is a feeble-sounding “Sumimasen…” before showing my seatmate my phone, browser flashing the hotel logo, and looking at her questioningly. She gives me a small, pursed smile that crinkles the sides of her eyes and nods vigorously, confirming that we are indeed bound for L’Hotel de Hiei.
As the bus winds up Mount Hiei, famous largely for the Enryakuji temple complex, I realize that this is the recharging retreat I didn’t know I badly needed. I have just spent a week navigating the dense and complex subway systems of Tokyo and am on my way to Osaka for another packed week of work. I’m in a riveting country at the trailhead of spring, a glorious season of powder-pink cherry blossoms, but I barely have time to look up from my phone.
That is, until the bus pulls up at an exquisitely spare glass-and-concrete building sprawled on a thinly wooded slope near the summit, the lone structure around for miles. Outside, uniformed hotel and restaurant staff stand in a line, warmly welcoming guests as we pile off the bus — a young couple, a group of elderly women and a young woman in a neat chignon and oversized dark glasses, like a celebrity going half-heartedly incognito. L’Hotel de Hiei is a self-styled auberge, a French-style country inn that usually features a restaurant where food preparation is given near-reverential attention, and where self-care finds expression in eating well, drinking fine wine and indulging in unhurried activities like enjoying the view or getting a massage. The hotel, where the French concept melds perfectly with its Japanese location, is one of the more distinctive properties operated by Hoshino Resorts, whose portfolio includes Hoshinoya, a clutch of luxury retreats across the country, and Kai, a group of onsen resorts. The selection of three different kinds of local roasted tea that I’m offered at check-in, along with a serving of three delicate pastries, one of them a bonbon covered in roasted sesame seeds, drives home the Japan-meets-France point subtly but surely.
The service is warm and friendly as the weekend possibilities are explained to me: Did I want to join the wine lecture? Cocktail hour was fast approaching, but was I interested in visiting the spa before dinner? After ceremoniously switching off my phone, I request for a facial, something I very rarely indulge in away from home, and before I know it I’m on the facialist’s table, looking up at the smiley face of my bus seatmate, before cool pads of cotton are gently laid on my eyes and the tension and strain of the past week slowly melt away.
After the facial, I dress up for dinner (an earlier peek at the restaurant suggested some effort in looking pulled together was not just necessary but also polite). Here I find the other guests who, between the bus ride and dinner, I had only really sensed in the faint chatter wafting from the cozy library, filled with art books, or espied out on the deck.
Dinner, a bravura performance of French nouvelle cuisine-inspired cooking, local fermentation techniques and ingredients from Shiga Prefecture — most notably minnow and salmon from Lake Biwa, which has been a bountiful resource for the area since time immemorial — unfolds over several courses. Each delicately plated dish issued from executive chef Ryosuke Oka’s kitchen is earnestly explained, and I consume everything in silence, relieved to be alone in the company of other diners who speak to each other in hushed tones. It takes nearly two hours; the time it takes for the panoramic view of the mountainside through the glass walls to fade from a misty blue to complete darkness, until the entire restaurant is reflected back to us.
After breakfast and check-out the next day, I board the shuttle to find the “celebrity”. Just the day before, she had looked quite somber, but now, she radiates a new glow, down to the sunny yellow top and wide-brimmed straw hat. What I feel at the moment, I see in someone else — a kind of renewed vigor from just 24 hours of being gadget-free and quiet. I make my way to Enryakuji temple, one of the most sacred sites for Tendai Buddhists, once Japan’s most influential sect of Buddhism, and from there walk the mountainside trail towards the Sakamoto cable car. Opened in 1927, it’s Japan’s longest cable car route (2,025m) — heading down the mountain through tunnels and past views of the lake. At the other end is the scenic town of Sakamoto, once primarily a temple town for monks serving at Enryakuji. It is a quiet morning, barely anyone in sight, but here and there are cherry blossom trees in full bloom. In a week or two the ethereal pink blooms will disappear and move northward, up the country to places like Nagano and Tokyo, only to return the following spring. I feel incredibly lucky to have looked up from my phone — and work — long enough to enjoy them.
Photos courtesy of Hoshino Resorts