Thing is, British Tom is in Vancouver these days, so instead of inquiring about how he could participate, he got in touch with some positive anecdotes about his experience with akiya. Apparently, a few years back he found a guy who had bought an abandoned retreat next to a spectacular river in the middle of the woods and mountains of Nikko city in Tochigi prefecture, and had converted it into a minpaku (or, Japan’s domestic equivalent of an Airbnb, just not nearly as contentious) called Zen Hostel. According to Tom’s impeccably posh taste, the place was an absolute gem.
Tom’s proven himself an extremely reliable critic over the years, so I generally view his recommendations as a sure-shot. As I hadn’t been to Nikko for something like 17 years (though we had recently been to Sano City in Tochigi to view a property) , and love secluding myself in expansive nature reserves, it wasn’t hard for me to take his advice. I went to contact the Zen Hostel about a reservation with haste.
But there was a problem: there is no Zen Hostel. Not anymore, anyway, or at least not that one, because there is a new, different Zen Hostel under construction as we speak, right near the old one! But there were traces of it on Japan Travel and Japan Today, so at least it looked like it existed. There’s also one in Nagano. It has not one, not two, but three Facebook pages. There’s one in Kyoto on Instagram, too.
I’m being a bit facetious as it wasn’t really that hard to track down. Sure, domain registration and social presence are a bit wonky, but this is Japan, the land of absolutely atrocious digital infrastructure management, so that’s par for the course. Fittingly, a simple Google search for combining the keywords “zen hostel”, “Tochigi”, and “Nikko” produces a lot of old as well as irrelevant content, but (and here’s the kicker) it also provides a big, bright listing on the righthand side of the search results for the current iteration, Earth Hostel: The Riverhouse. Success!
Introducing Earth Hostel: The Riverhouse
Now with branded resources to look through, I got to work and quickly loved what I saw! Earth Hostel has about four major themes at work for them: the river itself, the secluded property, wilderness exploration, and homemade, frequently vegetarian food. All of these resonated very highly with me, given my passion for ill-advised solo trips into the woods and retaining cooking habits I had when I was a practicing vegan, so it was a no-brainer to reach out and inquire about heading over to experience what looked like a really excellent time.
In our communications, the owner and current sole staff (COVID-19 caused a reduction in staff), Scout, got back to me rather quickly, and using an email format that I view as completely failsafe and absolutely adore: segmented, colored, elevated quotes with relevant responses in regular text immediately below. “This is gonna be great,” I thought to myself.
Spoiler alert: I was right.
After only a little back and forth, we determined a weekend for me to come up on, and I booked a room. Nikko’s a bit of a trek by train, either local or shinkansen, and so I opted for the local route to take in some of the sights. Bullet trains are wonderful, and certainly allow some excellent views themselves, but there’s something a little more charming about riding around on local trains that I find a bit irresistible, and I acquiesced to the call of the local trains almost immediately.
Local versus bullet?
Another thing I have always loved about trains, but especially now, is the opportunity to get shit done. I think it’s probably a combination of the repetitive sound of the train on the tracks, the constantly changing scenery, and the anonymity or unapproachableness that riding a train affords which really allows me to open up my laptop and dive in head first.
With the ascent of telework — which isn’t unfamiliar to me but does appear to be so to many — this makes riding sparsely populated train cars even more appealing. Sitting in an empty booth next to a wide open window and a constant dose of fresh air while corresponding with clients and reviewing presentations, I couldn’t be much more in the zone.
But like I said, it’s a bit of a hike, and I believe the total time in transit from Tokyo Station to Nikko Station was about 3 hours. I definitely didn’t plan the trip very much at all, so it could easily be shorter than that, but I like to live adventurously, so whatever.
Thickly forested with pines, heavily mountainous, frequently misty, and with a unique ability to hold on to the golden hour longer than most places seem able, Nikko has a very unique atmosphere. Pulling into the station, I was very distinctly aware of this… ephemeral?… quality that the region possesses, and it really helped to set the stage for the weekend.
The closest station to the Earth Hostel is Nikko, but that doesn’t mean that it is actually physically close, just more so than others. Scout offers shuttle services to and from the hostel, and over our correspondences, we had decided on a time that he’d pick me up at the station, and sure enough, there he was waiting right outside of the gate with his taxi-yellow hatchback!
The backstreets of Nikko
I threw my gear into the back and grabbed shotgun for the 20 or so minute ride to the hostel. I feel like this is sometimes considered an overly-aggressive move on part of a customer, and am even myself usually a bit hesitant to do so in “normal” circumstances. However, just as I like to sit front row in lecture halls to increase my chances of engaging with speakers, I find that it works just the same when looking to chat up experienced owners of akiya about their experiences.
We started talking almost immediately, first about how I had discovered the place, which I had only briefly outlined in our emails. Over the course of my 2 day stay, Scout proved time and again to have pretty impressive powers of recollection, however on this initial conversation about British Tom he wasn’t able to recall. It was only when I was leaving 2 days later and mentioned that it was during the Zen Hostel days that Tom had visited that Scout would remember. Context is everything, folx, don’t forget it.
Also, we got to chatting about metal musicians in Japan and he totally knew all about Napalm Death’s long history with this country, which is super cool lol.
As I said, the ride was a long and winding one, beginning in the humble townscape of Nikko proper, transitioning into a forest jaunt, into a more open if still hilly tour through some of Tochigi’s better hidden rice fields, and finally to a straightaway along the Kuro River, on which the Earth Hostel stands.
Much like riding trains around Japan, driving also provides you with a magnificent glimpse of the variety of terrain and climes that abound in the countryside, what are quite easy to forget when holed up in the city. While I can’t recommend going out for a drive just to see the sights as that’s just a waste of gas, having such wonderful scenery accompany you to a relaxing weekend out in the sticks just adds to the appeal.
Finally, after a day traveling in trains and cars, across plains and mountains and forests, we pulled up to Earth Hostel, which appears rather abruptly around a bend and stands humbly between the inviting waters of the Kuro River and a deep, evergreen forest that goes on and on. Its outpost vibe, if not DIY castle, hits you immediately, and I’m willing to say that most, once hit, will have a hard time resisting the urge to explore the premises.
Exploring a former akiya: Earth Hostel
The Nikko property’s main building itself is quite large, and has a relatively unique layout. The first floor opens up via sliding glass doors to 2 bathrooms to the left, a door that I believe leads to the kitchen beyond those, a split walkway straight ahead leading to one of 2 gargantuan shower rooms, and to the right is the stairway that leads up to the second floor.
The shower rooms are impressive, with their probably 5 meter high ceilings, and view over the river. There’s a huge wooden partition bifurcating the room into 2 separate shower spaces, which is cut to fit the massive stones jutting out of the floor, itself a natural feature of the terrain that the building was built around.
Originally, this was an onsen as well, but the baths are not filled, due to the high operation costs and a reduced number of patrons during Coronatime. But even without, it serves its purpose, is a really cool room, and whatever there’s a river out there for you to swim in so quit complaining.
The second floor houses most of the sleeping quarters, some of which are private, individual and family rooms with futon, and others for backpackers just looking for a bunk. It also has a banquet hall, complete with stage (though it’s not that big a stage), which doubles as a lounge and has a desktop for public use.
Sliding fusuma doors, beautiful carved ranma transoms, and tatami flooring are the name of the game across the second floor, which makes for a relaxed and (obviously) more traditional atmosphere. It is Nikko, after all.
Opposite the entrance of the main building, there is a large wooden veranda overlooking the river that houses a few refrigerators, countless tables and benches, bluetooth speakers, and a grill. It goes without saying that this is an awesome spot and I want to eat all of my meals here listening to the steady hum of the river below.
There are also 2 train cars on the property that have been converted into private standalone rooms. I’ve stayed in similar situations around the globe via airbnb in retrofitted vintage Airstream trailers and the like, and always enjoyed the experience, and can’t imagine that this is any different. This time around, though, I stayed in one of the private tatami rooms with futon.
Nikko’s 100% all natural refreshment
But let’s get to the meat of this story: The River! The first time I went for a swim, I was actually too excited to get in that I completely missed the actual staircase which leads lazily down to a rocky little beach from which you can gradually wade into the deeper parts, and instead just kind of awkwardly but safely scaled one of the small cliffs that run along its edge. This ultimately worked just fine, though I highly recommend the stairs.
Although I’ve inexplicably corona-evolved to take cold showers this year, that’s not to say that the initial shock of cold water has subsided much at all, and this river is much the same — Its a river, so if it wasn’t brisk I’d be a bit concerned.
Once adjusted, though, well, again, its a river. There’s a noticeable current at some spots, considerable variation in depth which goes up to my chin, and rocks and boulders of different sizes strewn about. The river gurgles incessantly, the birds sing intermittently, the trees creak with the wind. The smell of soil, cedar, and whatever you call the scent of fresh running water permeates the air. Occasionally, and especially if you dunk your head, you’ll taste the cool, mineral-y water as it drips down your face.
Its a wholly refreshing and invigorating experience, one that I think, like many of the experiences I have had exploring akiya and inaka, highlights one of the more difficult to enunciate issues of modernity that corona has brought to the forefront: visceral sensory interaction, or lack thereof.
A suit, an office, a car, an apartment, all of the things frequently associated with modern, metropolitan life have certainly provided those lucky enough to have them with numerous benefits. However, with “corona fear”, self-isolation, limited options for outdoor recreation within city limits, etc., I suspect one of the things gnawing at so many people world-round is the conspicuous absence of experiencing the full-range of human sensory faculties.
Reflecting on Inaka Life in the the cool waters of Nikko
It might sound minor, but swimming in a cool river — or hiking a forest trail, or bike trekking in blistering summer heat, or even falling asleep to the ambient sounds of the flora and fauna — provides what I imagine is an incredibly important experience for the human subconscious, that of recognizing its existence within a greater, sublimely complex, natural ecosystem on a small speck of dust amidst an unimaginably massive cosmic background.
Or at least that’s what went through my head late that night as I floated alone on the river gazing at the stars above.
Just at face value, Earth Hostel provides an exquisitely secluded experience to patrons, but when considering that he did all this with an akiya, its impossible to not start imagining what else might be done with properties like this that are scattered across Japan’s multifaceted landscape.
Editor’s Note: This article has been published with the consent of Earth Hostel, but Akiya & Inaka does not have a business relationship or promotion affiliated with this establishment.