Perched on the hills of the Akaishi Mountains, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is an ‘onsen’ or hot spring hotel in Hayakawa, Japan. Founded in the Keiun era, it was named after the reigning dynasty; the inn was thus named Keiunkan. Nestled amidst numerous hot springs, framing the picturesque Hayakawa and Yukawa ravines, it is the oldest hotel and company in the world. Founded in 705 AD by Fujiwara Mahito with an intent to serve as a refuge, it’s been in the same family for fifty-two generations. Fujiwara Mahito was the son of an aide to the 38th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Tenji. Designed just a few years before Japan’s first coins were minted, the inn opened its doors to the public in exchange for bartering items – like rice and arrowheads.
Engraved at the foothills of the Kyoto Mountains, the hotel’s singular hot water source is directly from the local Hakuho Springs. Upon its discovery, the healing waters of the springs became instantly popular throughout Japan. The waters of these springs are infused with vital minerals such as sodium, sulfur, chlorides, and calcium nitrate. A unique milieu of these volcanic minerals in the natural hot springs is coveted for its healing properties. Present-day visitors have the privilege of visiting the same waters that once bathed royal families, shoguns, and samurais. It honors every traveler with over thirteen hundred years of opulent Japanese history.
The founder of the last shogun dynasty, the Tokugawa dynasty that ruled Japan from 1600 – 1868 AD, Tokugawa Ieyasu, visited Keiunkan twice during his reign. Takeda Shingen, one of his most formidable enemies and one of the most renowned shoguns of Japan, also spent many nights here. To the west of the hotel near the Bentendou Taki, there is a statue of one of his elegantly clad partners, Youjuin. According to historical speculation, Tokugawa’s multiple stays at the Keiunkan were to meet with a spy he had planted inside of Takeda’s army which may have ultimately led to his enemy’s demise and the unification of Japan.
The hotel was designed towards the end of the Asuka period. The style of architecture observed sees an overlap between the Asuka and the Heian period. The design witnessed some of the most significant architectural changes with the introduction of Buddhism. Also, Buddhism brought to Japan kami worship, the idea of permanent shrines which are in the sculpture gardens of the hotel. New sculptures have been added to the landscape since the first construction. These include odes to Sumo wrestler Hitachiyama Taniemon and Japan’s largest Matsuo Basho monument. These sculptures can be accessed after crossing a network of ravines through a wooden footbridge.
As generations went by, the hotel maintained its significance by incorporating new technology while retaining its prismatic charm and unique demeanor. Today, the site is significantly larger than it was over a century ago, but this has only furthered its draw. It underwent consequential renovations in 1997 to conserve the strength of its structure and ensure its notable hot springs flowed freely but preserved the traditional architectural style of the original onsen. In 2005, open-air hot spring baths were added to every room, providing a clear view of the stars only seen in the smog-free countryside. Water is channeled to each room with a hidden underground network of pipelines, connecting at the same spring.
During this renovation, the hotel deliberately retained its elements of low seating, traditional woodwork and preserved the original layout outlined by founder Fujiwara Mahito. They also ensured to keep the traditional Japanese architecture, better known as a washitsu, intact during the remodeling. The washitsu design includes traditional tatami flooring, sliding doors with wooden lattice work called shōji, and a tokonoma that includes historic handcrafted artworks – an alcove for decorative items. The interior rooms have futons laid on the tatami to sleep and cushioned seats known as zabuton. Minimal furniture, such as low tables, traditionally known as kotatsu, is incorporated for added convenience.
The hotel has a total of thirty-seven rooms, a restaurant or kaiseki, and a moon-viewing platform. Most of these rooms are expansive, with the smallest room boasting a size of twelve tatami mat areas. Tatami mat dimensions are strictly rectangular with a ratio of 1:2 with each mat measuring 0.9m by 1.8m, modeled anthropologically. The staff wears traditional Nibu-Shiki kimonos that find their origin in the eighth century. The hot baths’ machinery pumps one thousand six hundred and thirty liters of naturally heated water per minute. Steam rises from the mineral-filled water piped directly out of underground volcanic springs. The water temperature is consistently maintained at forty degrees Celsius.
Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan’s design, renovation, and service is an ode to Japan’s culture and lifestyle. It typifies the grandeur and elegance of Japanese architecture while preserving a culture that values intellectual generosity and humility above all else. It is a living relic of timeless architecture that educates one on the art of preservation; it is a source of validation to all those who wonder if good things are meant to last.