A half-hour drive from Matsumoto city in Nagano prefecture, along snaking roads with countless twists and turns through densely forested mountain terrain, lies Myojinkan(明神館), a secluded Japanese-style ryokan, or upscale inn, with a difference.
Like many quality ryokan, Myojinkan offers spacious rooms tastefully decorated in a contemporary Japanese minimalist style, several communal baths and meals worthy of at least a couple of Michelin stars, served in elegant dining rooms.
The distinctive aspect of Myojinkan is its location deep in the mountains, where it is sandwiched between two streams, in an area known as Tobira Onsen.
Surrounded by lush trees, with only the sound of the wind and rushing streams to drown out nearby birdsong, Myojinkan feels remote even though it is only a short drive away from a thriving city, best known for the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival (formerly called the Saito Kinen Festival) in September and an annual crafts fair in the spring. (See our post on the Matsumoto Crafts Fair)
Another distinction is that guests have the option of eating in either the Japanese or French restaurant, both of which serve sophisticated dishes using fresh, local ingredients. For those staying at Myojinkan for two nights, as we did, it’s an added pleasure to have the choice of different cuisines.
My husband and I arrived at Myojinkan late one afternoon in the pouring rain. As we approached the entrance in our rented car, much to our surprise, we spotted a man with an umbrella standing outside, apparently waiting for our arrival.
Sure enough, when we opened the car door, he was ready with his umbrella so that we could enter the ryokan without getting drenched. I was so startled by this display of service that I failed to ask whether he had anticipated our arrival or just happened to be there by coincidence.
As soon as we had checked in and unpacked, we decided to brave the chilly air outside to soak in our room’s private, open-air rotenburo bath. From the terrace where the bath sits, it was possible to see, below us, one of the two streams which flow along either side of the hotel.
The heavy rain accentuated the surrounding greenery and made the hotspring bath all the more welcome after a long journey.
Several rooms, like ours, feature private rotenburo, but Myojinkan is actually famous for its communal baths, especially the Setsugekka standing bath, which is deep enough to stand in, and Kuza Neyu bath, which enables bathers to lie down.
While we enjoyed the variety of baths on offer, the highlight of our stay at Myojinkan was, without doubt, the Japanese and French cuisine prepared with local Shinshu ingredients. Shinshu is the traditional name for Nagano prefecture.
On our first evening, we dined in the Japanese restaurant, where chef Katsumi Suzuki serves innovative Japanese kaiseki (multi-course meals) in a tasteful, refined setting.
In addition to traditional fare, such as a clear broth with grilled eggplant and hamo (daggertooth pike conger), which is a summer specialty, chef Suzuki served creative dishes, such as an intensely flavored smoked Shinshu salmon with wasabi salt, and crispy grilled ayu (sweetfish) with a green vinegar sauce.
The cold takiawase – vegetables simmered in dashi broth – of kabocha pumpkin, snow peas and mini tomatoes, was outstanding.
Myojinkan’s pastry chef, Taketo Haryu, served a dessert of chiffon cake made with yuba (soy milk skin) and topped with whipped cream, kuromitsu (a molasses like sugar syrup made from black sugar), apricot and sweet azuki bean paste, which was so light and fluffy it was almost like eating a cloud.
On our second evening, we dined in the French restaurant, where chef Masahiro Tanabe serves French cuisine with a Japanese touch.
One striking combination was the shiitake mushrooms in nori (dried seaweed) with truffle sauce and thyme.
A fish dish of iwana (char), was perfectly crisp and married beautifully with an egg yolk and truffle sauce.
The high standard of the main courses were matched by an exquisite dessert of orange mouse with ice creams made of oolong and jasmine tea.
Myojinkan is close enough to Matsumoto to use as a base when visiting that city, but there are other places of interest in the neighborhood, such as Utsukushigahara Highland and Yashimagahara Wetlands. Both are best visited by car from Myojinkan.
Utsukushigahara Highland offers trekking and mountain climbing as well as an open-air sculpture museum, for the less athletic. The sculptures range from a gigantic steel swirl called “Swing of the Winds” by Ryoko Kawasaki, to the eye-catching and curiously named “Gun for Sparrow OSAKA PUNCH” by Bernhard Luginbühl.
We discovered Yashimagahara Wetlands, thanks to the advice of one of the staff at Myojinkan. The area is best visited from early spring to late summer, when it is possible to see a variety of alpine plants along a trail that offers easy walking around the wetlands.
Getting to Myojinkan from Tokyo:
By train – Take the JR Azusa from Shinjuku to Matsumoto (about 3 hours). There is a complimentary shuttle service from Matsumoto station.
By car – Take the Chuo Expressway to Matsumoto I.C. then local streets to Matsumoto city. Myojinkan is about 30 minutes from Matsumoto city.
For rates, check out the English-language website :