A tranquil onsen hotel on the scenic shores of Lake Poroto in northern Japan combines a serene stay with discovery of the area’s native culture.
For all its beauty, Shiraoi, a forest-fringed village in Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, wasn’t always an obvious holiday spot. But the opening of the National Ainu Museum and Park (known as Upopoy) in July 2020 has shed a light on the coastal settlement and the indigenous Ainu people of northern Japan. Now there’s a new place to stay, which may tip the balance of the area’s desirability.
Kai is Hoshino Resorts’ hot spring-centred hotel brand and its latest venture, Kai Poroto, opened in Shiraoi in January. The 42-key hotel, situated by Lake Poroto and the museum, is a partnership with the local government. “The idea was to create an onsen facility for the locals,” says general manager Misato Endo.
The hotel’s design nods to the Ainu people’s culture and heritage. Architect Hiroshi Nakamura placed the fireplace at the centre of the building as in traditional village life. The lobby and rooms are decked out with intricate embroidery and patterns by designer Nobuko Tsuda. There are modern touches too: the restaurant and guest rooms are kitted out with pieces made in Hokkaido by Japanese furniture-maker Time & Style.
The biggest attraction is the moor hot springs. These plant-derived geothermal baths are much rarer than regular hot springs and promise to leave bathers’ skin silky smooth. The triangular bath – sankaku no yu – is inspired by ketuni, a hut the Ainu used while hunting. Finished with copper plates on the outside, the wooden structure is made from solid todomatsu (fir timber). Guests stretch their legs in the cosily dim indoor bath, then pop out to the outdoor area for some fresher air and lake views. When Monocle visits in frosty February, many people are ice-fishing for wakasagi from small tents on the frozen lake. The cave-like domed bath, which is open for locals as well as guests, is equally well attended.
Every guest room has a lake view, while some come with an outdoor bath on the terrace. As dinner comes around, guests are treated with seasonal Hokkaido feasts that might feature crab, Shiraoi beef and colourful vegetables. While not bathing, eating, walking or enjoying another dip, guests gather around the fireplace and take in the spectacular scenery.
“Shiraoi has long been a day-trip destination. We built a hotel to attract people to come and discover more of the area”
When the thaw arrives, guests will be able to walk by the lake and canoe on the water. The Poroto recreation forest near the hotel is also home to a rich variety of plants and animals, such as the Ezo squirrel, deer, foxes and Ojiro-washi (white-tailed eagles), while the adjacent Ainu Museum offers a rich collection of crafts, clothing and rigorous research of the people’s history and culture. There are also live performances of songs and dances by the Ainu people.
All this is a mere 45-minute drive from the main airport in Hokkaido. “Shiraoi has long been a day-trip destination,” says Endo. “We built a hotel to attract people to come and discover more of the area.” If this doesn’t convince people, we’re not sure what will.