What The World’s Oldest Hotel Looks Like Today
It’s hard to imagine that some buildings are still standing after hundreds, if not thousands of years. Most of our modern infrastructure is updated regularly and people love to enjoy all of the advancements that separate us from the ancient architecture of the past. With that being said, tourists still travel all over the world to catch a glimpse of many famous, historical locations that, at most, allow guests to briefly step inside. But there’s one spot in Japan that’s been around since 705 A.D. where you can actually spend the night.
Keiunkan Inn holds the Guinness World Record for being “The oldest hotel in the world.” It is located in the southern alps of the Yamanashi Prefecture and its surroundings are as beautiful as its construction. The inn is nestled inside lush valleys and features some amazing hot springs. While much of the actual hotel has been updated, references to its history are still available for guests to experience during their stay. Keiunkan boasts such notable former guests as daimyo Takeda Shingen, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, and numerous emperors of Japan.
Its full name is Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan and it’s advertised as being a hot spring hotel. It was originally founded by Fujiwara Mahito, and aside from being the oldest hotel in the world, it is also one of the oldest companies in operation. It has been continuously operated by 52 generations of the same family, including adopted heirs, for over 1,300 years. While the math definitely checks out, it’s still astounding to imagine that this type of consistently was able to survive and thrive over such a long period of time.
The Keiunkan lies at the foot of the Akaishi Mountains, a mountain range in central Honshū, Japan, bordering Nagano, Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures. The gorgeous scenery around the hotel offers guests an escape from the more urban environments they’re used to and want to get away from. And the Akaishis aren’t even close to being the most attractive aspect of the inn’s natural setting. Since its foundation the hotel has had all its hot water sourced directly from the local Hakuho Springs.
The hotel was last renovated a little over two decades ago in 1997. Renovations more than likely have never taken place in less than a 20 year window, with some probably happening centuries apart. It is a lot larger today than it was when it first opened, but the look and feel haven’t changed as much as you’d think. While modern amenities have been added throughout the years, the inn has made sure to maintain a similar design aesthetic that captures the natural surroundings and preserves its history.
Keiunkan has 37 rooms, ranging from small, less luxurious spaces to some that rival what any competitor has to offer. Keep reading this article to inside some of their amazing options to appreciate how ell they’ve balanced the old and the new. Some of the rooms have open-air baths and one even has a moon viewing platform. Guests can also enjoy a karaoke bar. Rooms start at around 52,000 Yen, or a little under $500 per night.
The Southern Alps
The Akaishi mountains provide a perfect backdrop for the inn, as well as the drive up, setting the scene for a quiet, relaxing stay. They get their name from the red stones that surround the river that runs through them. A long time ago, the mountain of red stone came to be called Mount Akaishi. Almost all major peaks of the Akaishi Mountains are in Minami Alps National Park that was established on June 1, 1964.
The inn is a part of the Yamanashi Prefecture, which is located in the Chūbu region of Japan. The prefecture is landlocked, featuring a fertile central valley, the Kōfu Basin, surrounded by many of the highest mountains in Japan including the highest, Mount Fuji, located on the southern border with Shizuoka. The capital is the city of Kōfu, which means “capital of Kai Province”. During the Sengoku period, it was famous as the stronghold of Takeda Shingen.
As visitors approach the historic hotel, they’re greeted by beautiful signs that show them exactly where they are. According to guests, the drive from Tokyo takes about four hours, and it’s definitely the scenic route. The Nishiyama Onsen Keikonkan is in Hayakawa cho, the town with the least population in Japan. It gets its name from the surrounding Mt. Hayakawa, which contains an awesome river that flows through the middle of the town.
The sign establishes the inn’s name, Keiunkan, and that it’s been around since 705 A.D. According to Atlas Obscura, it was originally the “brainchild of the son of the reigning emperor’s aid…The natural hot springs in the area allowed for the creation of a number of healing baths that drew visitors and military men from all around to come and relax. Among these early patrons were a number of samurai and famed shogun.”
As guests enter the lobby, they’re greeted by hotel staff while getting a taste of what’s to come, especially in regard to how well the hotel has upgrade while still showcasing its history. For the rest of the article, you will become the guest with a thorough tour of all the inn has to offer. For those of you who aren’t able to take the long vacation required to visit in person, read ahead to feel like you’re there…
This as another angle of the lobby, which straddles the past, present and future all at once. The employees are very proud of their Guinness World Record, and the service reflects the atmosphere of the inn. The hotel is clearly upscale, but whoever planned the remodeling made sure to incorporate materials that look like they could’ve been used centuries ago. The floors and the lighting are modern, but the woods in the walls feels ancient, in a good way.
The information desk has plenty of literature, from guides to information packets, that will help guests feel familiar with the inn and its history. It is believed that much of the hotel’s longevity is due to the fact that it is a family run establishment. This allows traditions to be passed down that ensure Keiunkan is run on the same principles as it did when it opened, that continue to allow it to sustain its success.
After checking in, meeting the staff and getting all the info you need from the front desk, the option to relax in the lounge. This also comes in hardy if you arrive early or are waiting for friends and family. From this angle the futuristic lighting is much more visible. The purple fabric on the chairs looks comfortable and catches the eye. There’s also the gift shop over to the left.
A Place To Sit
From the other side of the room, the gift shop appears to be a much bigger part of the lounge. But what’s much more impressive and interesting than the clothes, souvenirs and supplies, is the view out of the window on the left of the image. Make sure to read through the rest of the article to see the rooms, the hot springs, and some incredible shots of the inn’s natural setting.
Here is a much better sneak preview of the mountains that hold the hotel. This part of the inn can be seen after walking through the lobby, past the front desk, around the gift shop and beyond the lounge. The simple design in this hallway prepares guests to transition to a much more laid back part of their stay. While the area immediately inside the entrance is busier and more modern, what follows is pretty different.
The rooms have almost no sense of modern design, except of course for the cleanliness and newness of everything used in their construction. They’re clearly kept in great shape, which helps visitors to worry less about the quality and comfort, and instead really be transported to a different time. In addition to the space seen above, there is also another area connected, which allows the relatively small hotel to offer big rooms.
This is a kumade, which, according to Muza-chan, is “a wide rake made of bamboo, traditionally used to sweep the fallen leaves or grains. During the Edo period, people started decorating kumade with good luck charms and selling them at shrines, to help “raking in” success, wealth, safety and happiness… Apparently, using the Otafuku mask rakes in the happiness and the prosperity. Also used very frequently are replicas of gold coins or treasure chests, for good luck in business.”
Here is a hangin scroll and ikebana, which means “living flowers.” Ikebana, also known as Kadō, or “way of flowers,” is the Japanese art of flower arrangement. The tradition dates back to the 7th century when floral offerings were made at altars. Later, they were placed in the tokonoma, or alcove, of a home. It is counted as one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, along with incense and tea.
Above is one of the drinking stations, which filters onsen water through a cooler that’s hidden on top of the space behind the doors. While this is drinkable, other forms of hot spring water can be quite dangerous. The volcanic nature of Japan provides plenty of springs. When the onsen water contains distinctive minerals or chemicals, the onsen establishments typically display what type of water it is. Some are more susceptible to diseases and bacteria.
The double rooms come with double sinks, another luxury offered by the hotel. There’s a lot of space and the staff wants to make sure guests are able to enjoy their stay as much as possible. Having double sinks in the bathroom speeds up the process of getting ready in the morning so that visitors can take full advantage of their vacation.
All of the bathrooms are stocked with KOSE brand toiletries, a nice touch to add to the already stellar service maintained at the inn. Kosé is a Japanese multinational personal care company, whose products include cosmetics, skin care and hair care products. Kosé’s products were advertised over the years by renowned models like Kate Moss, for its Decorté brand photographed by Mario Testino, and Yui Aragaki, for the Esprique line of makeup.
Hot Spring Bath
This is one of rooms private baths, which is, of course, fed by the hot spring. But guests should remember to be careful and take not any risks associated with using them. Although millions of Japanese bathe in onsens every year with few noticeable side effects, there are still potential side effects to onsen usage, such as high blood pressure or heart disease.
This is definitely thick onsen water. There are different kinds depending on where the hot spring is located. Sulphur onsen, sodium chloride onsen, hydrogen carbonate onsen, and iron onsen are the four most common variations. In recent years onsens are increasingly adding chlorine to their waters to prevent infection, although many onsen purists seek natural, unchlorinated onsens that do not recycle their water but instead clean the baths daily.
From the first part of the room, seen before, through the luxurious bathroom and into the second space, pictured above. This is where guests can sit and visit, or enjoy the delicious food items that the hotel serves. Stick around to the end of the article to see some amazing images of the gourmet options prepared in the inn’s kitchen.
Keiun No Yu Fountain
Before stepping outside into one of the giant hot spring baths, it’s worth checking something the hotel has in the very front of the inn. This is a drinking fountain, called a “Keiun no Yu” which means “fortune onsen.” Guests are immediately made aware that this is a hot spring hotel, and they can even have a drink of the water before stepping foot inside.
Mochitani No Yu Bath
Now back to the room, or more specifically, Keiunkan’s famous bath, “Mochitani no Yu.” This bath is so big and beautiful it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to use the small one in the private bathroom. The only acceptable reason to opt out of this amazing setting and view is if the weather is bad and guests are legitimately forced inside.
Here is a better shot of the natural setting around the Mochitani no Yu. Traditionally, onsens were located outdoors, although a large number of inns, like this one, have now built indoor bathing facilities as well. Onsens by definition use naturally hot water from geothermally heated springs. Onsens are different from sentō, indoor public bath houses where the baths are filled with heated tap water.
The inn is located right by the riverside, which can be heard running even from the inside. This is the Hayakawa river, a tributary of the Fuji River, which arises from Mount Nokogiri in the Akaishi Mountains in northwest Yamanashi as the Kamanashi River, and meets the Fuefuki River at the town of Ichikawamisato. There it changes its name to the Fuji River.
The banks of the Fuji River was the location of the Battle of Fujikawa in 1180, one of the most important early battles of the Genpei War. The Sengoku period warlord Takeda Shingen built extensive dikes along the Kamanashi portion of the river, which allowed water to flood buffer zones to control damage. These dikes still exist, and are called the Shingen-zutsumi.
Hinoka No Yu
Back inside, and here is a gorgeous shot of the incredible bath called “Hinoka no yu.” Traditionally, men and women bathed together at onsens, but gender separation has been enforced since the opening of Japan to the West during the Meiji Restoration. Mixed bathing persists at some special onsen in rural areas of Japan, which usually also provide the option of separate “women-only” baths or different hours for the two sexes.
The bath is made with 2,000 year old Japanese cypress. Chamaecyparis obtusa is a slow-growing tree with dark red-brown bark. The leaves are scale-like, blunt tipped, green above, and green below with a white stomatal band at the base. The cones are globose with scales arranged in opposite pairs. The related Chamaecyparis pisifera can be readily distinguished in its having pointed tips to the leaves and smaller cones.
According to their website, “the history of the Keiunkan inn dates back to when Fujiwara Mahito founded the inn. Because it was founded in the Keiun era, the inn was thus named Keiunkan. The hot spring has flowed freely without interruption since then and is loved by many townsfolk, military commanders and cultured peoples as a secluded place deep in the mountains of the Kai region.”
Here is an awesome outside walkway that leads to another one of the inn’s most special features, which will be discussed next. This part of the property is a great example of the hotel utilizing its architecture while also incorporating its surrounding in a way that brings balance to the guests and provide a holistic experience. This walkway leads to…
This is a reservable open-air bath called “Kawaoto.” At an onsen, all guests are expected to wash and rinse themselves thoroughly before entering the hot water. Bathing stations are equipped with stools, faucets, wooden buckets, and toiletries such as soap and shampoo, as well as removable shower heads for bathing convenience. Entering the onsen while still dirty or with traces of soap on the body is socially unacceptable.
The construction of this bath is clearly meant to mimic that of how it must’ve looked centuries ago. With other parts of the hotel obviously utilizing more modern design, this is a great example of how rooted it still is in its rich history. The stones and the wood go perfectly with the green of the natural surroundings.
This is a spot where guests are both at the inn and in the mountains. The Japanese Alps bisect the main island of Honshū. The name was coined by English archaeologist William Gowland, and later popularized by Reverend Walter Weston, an English missionary for whom a memorial plaque is located at Kamikochi, a tourist destination known for its alpine climate.
Hakuhou No Yu
Guests who are lucky enough to visit the inn and enjoy the open-air baths must love how relaxing and peaceful their stays are. The seasons in the area follow typical patterns, with the spring and summer being perfect outdoor weather, and the fall and winter presenting a few more limitations. But that’s the beauty of the design, no matter what you can always go indoors.
Here is another one of the reservable open-air baths, this one is called “Seoto” and it’s a larger than the previously seen “Kawaoto.” Onsen guests generally bring a small towel with them to use as a wash cloth. The towel can also provide a modicum of modesty when walking between the washing area and the baths. It definitely comes in handy if you’re outside.
Some onsen allow guests to wear the towel into the baths, while others have posted signs prohibiting this, saying that it makes it harder to clean the bath. It is against the rules to immerse or dip towels in the onsen bath water, since this can be considered unclean. People normally set their towels off to the side of the water when enjoying the baths, or place their folded towels on top of their heads.
5 Star Dining
As promised, here is a picture of some of the amazing cuisine offered at the inn. Some of the delicious menu items include trout sashimi, suimono clear soup, chinese cabbage and koshu beef narutomaki or yakiniku, yamame yuanyaki, a huge breakfast served directly to your room, as well as acorn soba, which is provided as a free extra.
This is one of the inn’s delicious desserts, known as Hatsuyuki Tofu. Hatsuyuki means “first snow.” This is a sweet tofu dish served cold on a beautiful platter covered in amazing designs. The chilled theme of the tofu is more than likely a reference to the crisp mountain air that creeps over the warm water of the hot spring baths.
It’s a proper farewell to the Guinness World Record-holding Keiunkan Inn to leave with one final shot of the mountains. In the same way the guests drove through the beautiful southern alps on the way to the hotel, they will also navigate them on their way back to civilization, returning to the busy lives they got to leave for a bit…