The Magic of Sekizenkan
The magic of Sekizenkan has touched a global audience through Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved Ghibli movie Spirited Away. Sekizenkan is a 320-year-old traditional Japanese inn that sits in the Gunma mountains of the town Shima Onsen. The hot springs are so numerous in this area and the waters so rich in minerals that it was once believed they could heal more than 40,000 diseases. This belief is still reflected in the name of the town which literally means the 40,000 Hot Springs.
Crossing the iconic red bridge leads to the oldest building of the three that make up the Sekizenkan ryokan. It is the Honkan, or main building, that was built in 1691 and still remains true to its original design. There are 22 rooms in total which come in three different sizes depending on the number of guests. The main building is one of the oldest designated hot spring resorts in Japan, transporting visitors back to the Edo era from its 17th century exterior to the sliding paper doors and tatami mats that greet you inside. Guests can experience first hand what inspires an artist like Hayao Miyazaki.
Walking through the mysterious tunnel that connects the main building to the next is another inspiration for a memorable scene from Spirited Away, where the protagonist walks into an enchanted land. Visiting Sekizenkan is also like seeing a new fantastical land. Here there are layers of Japanese history and tradition encapsulated in the timeless practice of bathing. Sekizenkan offers a tour of the bathing house based on the animated movie, where guests can follow the footsteps of the characters in the movie.
This fusion of time and history is perfectly evident in the second building, the Sanso building. Built in 1936, Sanso houses the famous Genroku no Yu bathhouse. This bathhouse doesn’t remotely resemble traditional Japanese baths seen in Spirited Away but has taken inspiration from the Roman baths, with lofty high ceilings, tall arched windows, and creamy white marble baths sunken into the cool tiled floor. It’s an architectural example of the period where the Japanese were exploring other cultures beyond their own in art and architecture. Sanso is also home to the Mori no Yu, a luxurious outdoor bath.
The third building is Kashotei, a point of solitude in the heights. It’s the most recent addition, being built in 1986, but it continues to fuse the modern, traditional, and historical spirits of the place. The deep pine forest changes throughout the year and views from the wide windows of Kashotei are never the same. Meals are served to the guestrooms here by nakai (traditional Japanese waitresses). Each dish is prepared keeping the essence of true Japanese cuisine at the crux and provided at the guest’s leisure.
Sekizenkan is a magical place to visit during a stay in Japan. It shows how a unique piece of architecture can house historical traditions while inspiring the artists of the future. Each visitor will experience a different story as they soak in the waters of this ancient place.