Less than 45 minutes by train from the buzzing centre of Osaka is the restful haven of Nanten-en ryokan in Amami.
With its culturally significant architecture and enveloped in a beautifully-designed garden, this fine example of a traditional Japanese inn offers excellent cuisine, peaceful walks in the surrounding forests and, somewhat unexpectedly, an open air swimming pool.
Nanten-en Ryokan, Amami (Osaka) Review
by Rob Dyer
Osaka - but not as you know it
You'll find Nanten-en in the village of Amami in Kawachinagano, a small city in Osaka Prefecture.
So, although the hustle and bustle of Osaka city is merely 40 minutes away by train, Amami could just as easily be in another part of Japan altogether for the similarities between the two. Even many Japanese don't know where Amami is.
The great news for the potential guest is you have all the convenience of being so close to one of Japan's most entertaining cities, and yet surrounded by the forested mountains that cover over 70% of Japan.
A ryokan designed by the architect of Tokyo Station
Nanten-en ryokan is a rare example of a special style of work by Kingo Tatsuno, the Japanese architect famous for the design of Tokyo Station. Tatsuno studied in London under the British architect Josiah Conder, and it was this the led him to integrate western architectural motifs into the more familiar traditional Japanese ryokan design.
Consequently, the main building is listed as a national tangible cultural property specifically because of its architectural design.
Curiously, Nanten-en hasn't always been in its current location. The inn's main building was originally located in a resort area called Shiou Onsen, in Ohama Park, Sakai City, but was moved here for rennovation after being damaged in a strong typhoon.
This unique history makes a stay at Nanten-en extra special for anyone (like me) interested in architecture.
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Getting to Nanten-en from Central Osaka
Nanten-en ryokan is located in Amami, a small village around 40 minutes south of Osaka city centre by train on the Nankai Koya Line. It sits on the Koya-Kaido road, the main pilgrimage route from Kyoto to Mt. Koya, headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism.
There are a few ways to get to Amami from central Osaka, but the route we took by train was the quickest.
Take the Osaka loop line towards Nishi-Kujo. You travel on this line 94 around 16 minutes then change at Shin-Imamiya station. From Shin-Imamiya station take the Nankai Line Express for Hashimoto. Stay on this train for around 35 minutes and after 9 stations get off at Amami - station number NK 73.
The ryokan is about 70 minutes by car from/to Kansai International Airport. So you could relax here before heading to the airport either for your flight home or on to your next destination.
(See the Location Map below.)
Amami station and the local village map
Stepping off your silver Nankai Line train you'll find a quiet Amami station surrounded by trees.
The station has one entrance and exit with the platforms accessible by a bridge. There is a small waiting area where you can buy my tickets for travel from a machine and is covered to shelter you from inclement weather. Directly outside the station there is a map highlighting the main points of interest in the neighbourhood in the village, including the Nanten-en ryokan.
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What is a ryokan?
Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns, used by travellers as points of rest in Japan for over 1,000 years.
Signs for the Nanten-en ryokan guide you from the station to the front entrance of the building. The ryokan is just a few minutes walk from the train station. Turn right out of the station exit, follow the signs and turn left and head down a short incline towards the ryokan. On the way, look left out across the village and towards the tree covered mountains beyond.
Surrounded by trees at the base of a mountain
Ahead of you lies the attractive entrance to Nanten-en.
It is surrounded by many green trees and bushes and behind it is the base of a forested mountain. Indicative of the delights on offer is the entrance to the ryokan which is over a small arched wooden bridge with red handrails which as you step over leads to the genkan entrance.
As you walk up to it the building never fully reveals itself. In winter the deciduous trees and shrubs have dropped their leaves, replaced by snow. Perhaps only then is the grand building more fully visible from the approach.
A family business
Nanten-en is family owned and has been run by the Yamasaki family for over 70 years. The owner, Kazuhiro Yamasaki is a master of the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony and ikebana flower arranging and sometimes holds classes with guests. Several of the front desk staff speak English and are happy to guide any guests new to the ryokan experience and answer any questions they may have about the ryokan way of life and culture.
A large outdoor swimming pool
Nanten-en has a large 25 metre outdoor swimming pool in its grounds. I'm not sure if it's actually unique but it's certainly unusual. Never before have I seen this at a traditional Japanese inn. It's free for guests to use.
When you think about how the architecture of this building is renowned for being a blend of Japanese and western styles, a large rectangular swimming pool, which would be incongruous in most other traditional Japanese inns, here at Nanten-en, tucked away in the local landscape, seems somehow appropriate.
It's certainly an extra attraction during the summer season (July - August).
Our beautiful room
As is typical of staying in a traditional Japanese Inn, waiting for us in a room was Japanese tea and sweets, a welcome refreshment to begin your stay. Our ground-floor room consisted of four main rooms surrounding a small central entrance. The main living space was an 8-tatami mat room but it felt considerably larger as it had verandas on two sides overlooking the beautiful surrounding gardens.
Rooms at Nanten-en each have names rather than numbers (often the case in traditional Japanese inns). Our was called Izuminada, but it actually has different references across different websites. But if you think of it as a 'Japanese Style Superior Quadruple' room you'd be about right. Normally this kind of room is for 3 or more people, and it can sleep up to 6.
Everything in the room appeared essentially authentic period details, but in the corner was a small air conditioning unit, a welcome concession to the modern era. One of the verandas contained two chairs and a table. The sliding screens opened out directly overlooking the pond in the garden.
From this position one could see the bridge spanning the pond with its red posts and handrails. The pond was covered entirely by lily pads and white flowers. On the far side of the bridge you could just glimpse the red torii gate enticing you to explore deeper into the garden.
The second largest room was 4.5 tatami anteroom which we used as our bedroom. (Staff will ask you which of the two largest rooms you want to use as a bedroom if only two people are sleeping here.)
Again it afforded excellent views out over the garden. There was also a small bathroom with a hand basin, plus a separate toilet.
In the corridor outside our room ikebana flower displays decorated the walls and, at the far end, a glass door overlooked a path leading deeper into the garden. At the end of this area lies a smaller self-contained, private guest accommodation (sleeping up to six guests) which can be rented by those wanting more seclusion.
Expertly translated ryokan guide
Like most ryokan, Nanten-en has a welcome/information folder in all guest rooms. These typically include all the basic information you need to know, including essentials like the fire drill. Others explain a little more about the facilities available, such as how to operate the air conditioning, the opening hours of any onsen on site, local attractions, etc.
In more out of the way places, these may only be in Japanese, perhaps with just a handful of English words by way of translation.
The guide at Nanten-en was not only one of the most extensive I've ever seen, but was available entirely in English and expertly translated too.
Standout inclusions were a step-by-step photographic guide to wearing yukata and a guide to nearby gardens and temples (again with photos of each). But the best was a delightfully hand-drawn and coloured illustration of Amami village, highlighting landmarks.
Using this alone you could make a self-guided tour of the village and have a greater understanding and appreciation for where you are staying.
The dining hall and a map of the world
The dining hall, where breakfast is served, is large and one side is completely covered in glass providing relaxing views out across the garden. The interior is in the traditional Japanese style, enhanced with modern comforts of air conditioning (a godsend in the summer months).
Red carpets cover the main public areas, while most of the visible architecture is wood in a variety of shades.
In the entrance by the reception desk there is a map of the world with a sign asking: “Where are you from?”. On the map are dozens of flags of different countries from which guests have travelled to stay at Nanten-en, a nice touch.
A stylish lounge and bar
A little way along the corridor, and just a few steps from the reception desk, is a beautiful period lounge and bar. It is a magnificent example of the blend of Japanese and western interior styles that this ryokan is justly famous for.
Western style armchairs, sofas and tables are complemented by various objects of Japanese antiquities including large vases and figurines.
Art nouveau lamps sit atop dark wood Japanese cabinets, and the wood-panelled walls are decorated with black and white photographs of the ryokan in years gone by, and a striking, four-panelled painting of a Japanese pond with blue flowers dominates the room. There's even an upright piano.
A small library contains books and tourist information, and illustrations and photographs of Nanten-en in years gone by are displayed on the walls. Although the bar was closed when we visited we still stopped for a while to sit and relax in such attractive surroundings.
Strolling Nanten-en's magnificent garden
Nanten-en's large garden is a major asset. Not all ryokan have gardens. Some have only modest ones. Others (like Aburaya ryokan in Takahashi) have a small central courtyard.
The delightful garden at Nanten-en is cleverly designed, making the most of the space available, and is a fine example of utilising the ‘borrowed landscape’ technique. That's when the garden has been designed specifically to use local scenary, making it difficult to determine where the garden boundary ends and the neighbouring landscape begins.
At the rear of the property the gardens are designed around a large central pond surrounded by a variety of native species including Japanese acers delicately leaning over the water. In the centre of the pond is an arching wooden bridge with vermillion red coloured posts and handrails.
A variety of mature trees along the garden’s boundaries lend it a secluded and secret air.
Like the best of Japanese garden designs, the garden at Nanten-en is designed to be viewed from a number of different vantage points as you stroll through winding paths. Japanese stone lanterns are peppered around the perimeter of the pond to stop the garden taking on a different appearance and aspects as you wander around it.
I'm no expert when it comes to flora, but the variety of planting is both numerous and attractive.
Particular attention has been taken to ensure planting of different sizes from the very small plants on the edges of the pond, through to the largest trees surrounding the property. So many different types of leaf shapes and sizes make walking through the garden a constant delight.
Guided tours of the village and mountains
A nice touch offered by Nanten-en is the chance to book guided tours of the surrounding village and mountains. These are provided by Gary Luscombe, an Englishman who relocated to Japan in 2014 and who works in the ryokan.
There are a number on offer to choose from or varying lengths and difficulties. We opted for one lasting around 3 hours, taking us up a quiet trail into the surrounding mountains.
Our walk began by strolling along the small road that passes through Amami village. Many of its properties are working farms, and on our right one farmer was tending to his rice paddy on his tractor.
In the photo above you can see the path we followed to the edge of the village before turning left and entering the forested mountain directly in front of us. As we neared the edge of the village we came across a local bird enthusiast who had spotted a rare bird in a large tree. He spoke some English and pointed the bird out to us, telling us about it. A nice chance encounter.
Once on the mountain we were covered by the high tree canopy. This was quite welcome as although the temperature wasn't as hot as it had been recently, it was rising again today and for most of the 3-hour walk we were in a welcome shade, making it a comfortable journey.
Along the way, Gary our guide told us about the religion of Shugendō (a way of life that draws from folk traditions, Shinto mountain worship and Buddhism), and the Yamabushi - monks who live in and worshipped the mountains of Japan.
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In contrast to those seeking to live in harmony with nature, during the afternoon we also came across examples of where mankind has left its mark by abandoning vehicles, machinery and buildings that were once used to live off and profit from the land. For me it didn't detract from the hike. It was merely an honest picture of sometimes how man and the earth interact, for good or bad.
After winding our way up and down the mountainous interior and beginning to feel tired from our travels, the sight path leading back into the village was a welcome sight. As was the knowledge that both a warming onsen and a kaiseki meal await our return.
Back at the ryokan - onsen time
Back at the ryokan, I changed into my yukata (a lightweight summer kimono), its design an indigo blue background with a bamboo motif in white on top. This design is unique to Nanten-en and is a registered cultural property of Kawachinagano City. Kawachinagano used to have a number of cotton mills (now gone) but a pattern book was found in an abandoned one and donated to the city.
If you're new to the ryokan way of life, you should not feel either self-conscious nor 'touristy' about donning yukata. Most everybody does it, and it all adds to the immersive experience of staying at a traditional Japanese inn.
The natural public hot springs (onsen) at Nanten-en are rich in radium which supposedly helps to reduce blood pressure, ease muscle and joint pain and help boost the metabolism. Those who paid attention in chemistry class will note that radium is a radioactive material. But the quantities in the water here are so low that there are no ill effects. You can soak and relax.
There are two separate onsen, one for males, one for females. Both baths face large glass windows that slide back and overlook the trees in the garden outside.
They're modestly sized and there is just one pool in each. So, if you want your onsen to be a major part of your ryokan experience you'll want to look elsewhere. However, if this is your first time staying at a ryokan or taking an onsen isn't a big part of the experience for you, they'll give you want you need.
Kaiseki - the quintessential luxury Japanese meal
Having taken a relaxing bath, we were ready for dinner.
Kaiseki-ryōri (or kaiseki for short) is a traditional style Japanese dinner meticulous prepared and careful presented over multiple courses. These are a key attraction (especially for the knowledgeable Japanese) when choosing which ryokan to stay at. Foreigners can be less informed and still get as much out of sampling one of these unforgettable meals.
Uncommonly, aside from meat and fish-based kaiseki, Nanten-en also offers a vegan option. Something I was keen to try out to compare to all those traditional kaiseki I've had down the years. My wife had to the traditional one, and I had the vegan option. (Although we did agree to share dishes between the two as neither of us are vegan.)
Dinner at Nanten-en is served by o-hakobi-san, ladies in kimono who have a specialist knowledge of the dishes served and the way they are supposed to be presented.
And that presentation was stunning!
There were approximately 12 courses to the meal for both options. The inventiveness of the chef, particularly for the vegan option, was impressive. Courses looked spectacular, and some paired with drinks. In the photo above several dishes were served at once so I could take the picture(!). Usually, the dishes would be served one at a time.
There is a saying: 'you eat with your eyes, before you eat with your mouth'. This was the perfect example of that approach to cooking and presentation.
The centrepiece of the vegan option was a picture perfect, multi-coloured display play of nature's natural bounty sitting atop a long rectangular, handcrafted blue dish. White radishes, edamame beans, micro tomatoes, mini courgette, full-sized tomatoes, onions, plums, adzuki beans, leaves, plum and pumpkin purees and edible flower garnishes all featured in this dish alone.
It was one of the most visually appealing meals I've ever had in Japan.
Intense umami flavour
A tempura course included kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), shiso leaves and peppers encased in an incredibly light white batter. A course of mushrooms sitting on a reduction of miso paste had intense umami flavour. Yuba (tofu skin) was served on a leaf.
Meanwhile, the non-vegan option included wagyu beef, sashimi, boiled fish prawns and more.
A night walk before bed
We took the opportunity in the evening to walk around Nanten-en's garden as it is lit up at night. We weren't alone either. A few artfully placed uplighters give the garden a different feel in the evening, but it's no less photogenic.
As you'd expect at a ryokan, your futon beds will be set out by staff for you in the evening when you are out of the room.
If you have a single room, the table in the middle of your room is set to one side making space for the futons. However, as we had a larger room, we were able to use the anteroom as a bedroom and keep the largest room effectively as a lounge.
There's something indescribably cosy about sleeping in a thick heavy futon in a ryokan in wintertime. In the warmer seasons a lighter cover is used.
Don't be surprised is you hear the odd creaking floorboard caused by guest staying above you, after all these are hand built wooden buildings. Likewise the occasional low murmur of other guests chatting. It's rarely intrusive. But just to be sure, Nanaten-en has a 'Quiet hours' policy when guests must be quiet between 22:00 and 07:00.
Breakfast is served in the dining hall
Ryokan breakfasts focus on local seasonal produce. Fish is a staple. You'll sometimes get some meat. Other times, like here, the emphasis was on vegetarian dishes (although not exclusively so).
Japanese breakfasts usually include rice and miso soup (and they featured here), but we also got grilled fish, stewed vegetables, omelette, pickles and Japanese tea.
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Included facilities & extra activities/services
There are a number of services included in your stay at Nanten-en, here's just a few:
- Free Wi-Fi
- TV (ours was tiny), clothes rack, towels, slippers, free toiletries and telephone in room
- Air conditioning/heating
- Pool towels and sun loungers
- Non-smoking throughout (although a designated smoking area is provided)
Some activities and facilities available at an extra charge include:
- Guided walking tours
- Tour or class about local culture
- Bike hire and tours
- Massage treatments
- Drinks vending machine
Pricing / Paying for Your Room
Prices for the room we stayed in starts at ¥25,000 per person per night, meals included. Smaller and larger rooms are also available, along with the previously mentioned private accommodation sleeping up to 8 people.
Some ryokan only take payment in cash, so it is always worth checking in advance so you don't find yourself in an awkward situation. At Nanten-en they do take payment by credit card, with Visa and MasterCard accepted.
Although only 45 minutes from central Osaka by train, Nanten-en ryokan feels far more rural and secluded. It's just 2 minutes walk from Amami train station, and even though the sound of the train can sometimes be heard, it's never instrusive.
Rooms are attractive and spotlessly clean. The food looked stunning and tasted great too. Having a full vegan option for a kaiseki meal is still a rare thing. So if you're vegetarian or vegan that availability will be especially appealing.
The onsen is modest but serves its purpose.
Beyond the usual comforts of a traditonal Japanese inn, the building offers additional interest to anyone keen on Japanese architecture and, particularly, an uncommon blend of western and traditional Japanese elements into a single building design.
The garden is one of the best I've seen in a ryokan of this size and is an extra attraction. The guided walks (bookable in advance with your reservation) are an uncommon and recommended bonus.
Places of interest nearby
The focus of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage route, Mount Koya, is 60 minutes away by train.
Mt. Iwawaki sits on the border between Osaka and Wakayama Prefectures and is good for year round hiking for all abilities.
Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu Betsugu a small Shinto shrine with a large ancient ginko tree is an annex to the well-known Hachiman-gu Shrine in Osaka.
Book Nanten-en ryokan
Nanten-en does have its own website which is available in English and takes bookings.
If you'd prefer, you can also book Nanten-en via Booking.com.
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