Hot choice for a cold climate
The spa hotel in the Hokkaido woods at Jozankei reads like a sensuous haven - "a warm inviting ambience sure to highlight any getaway". And with thick snow falling through a sub-zero dusk, a cosy log cabin would fit the bill. So a concrete and glass edifice looming out of the gloom is a little unexpected.
I zip my jacket and scrunch across new snow to the foyer of Tsuruga Mori-no-uta, welcomed by a doorman in greatcoat and white gloves. My luggage wheels have clogged; it has become a sledge.
Through the sliding glass airlock, it is subtly revealed that I've entered a space that is in the forest, of the forest. Mori-no-uta means "sonnet of the forest" and refers to the way the indigenous wildlife - sika deer, white foxes, brown bears and flying squirrels - "compose their life stories in the lush forests of Hokkaido".
The spa-resort is committed to conveying the tales and energy of the forest to each of the five senses, and the cedar-scented atmosphere sets the tone. I'm shown my peaceful woody room (with massage chair), and invited to slip into something more comfortable - yukata or loose pyjamas. They are pressed and ready in my wardrobe.
Awkwardness about wandering in public in my jim-jams evaporates with the smiles and greetings I receive on returning to the lobby. The incessant good vibes are endearing, and all this bowing must be strengthening my core.
Green shagpile carpets the "forest lounge" which is dominated by a wrought iron "tree". In its circular plinth, a fire burns constantly, surrounded by beanbags and leather loungers.
Marshmallows are there for the toasting, and a Japanese father with three under-10 kids is enjoying some family time with crusty, gooey sweets. They're all dressed in green linen yakata with a felty wool jerkin for extra warmth. They're barefoot, in line with the sculptural wooden sign.
Relaxation at Japanese spa-resorts is taken seriously - guests are encouraged to put away their city clothes and don the yukata.
In this service-first country, I'm relieved of my bags - the next time I sight them will be in my room. When there is an below-zero snowstorm chucking it down outdoors - the default setting for Hokkaido from December to March - perhaps it's unsurprising that the culture excels at doing wonderful things indoors.
With a Seventies-chic design sensibility, this place of rest and seclusion in the hilly birch forests north of Sapporo, is like a paean to wood, jazz, whisky, hot springs, and relaxation. But mostly wood.
Hardwood parquet floors and soaring beams, wooden sliding shutters, marquetry cabinets and stools . . . everywhere is wood, exquisitely worked by invisible craftsmen. The whisky bar is a slab of hardwood, bark intact, in a woodlined cavern. With a collection of literature, hunting trophies and antler-legged sidetables, a panel on the wall extols American naturalist writer Henry David Thoreau's philosophy: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately . . ." from Walking.
The audio corner is hemmed with bookshelves, a pair of leather Eames egg chairs in front of its own fire, two electrostatic speakers emanate warm and cool jazz, creating the impression that Oscar Peterson, or Chet Baker, or Ella Fitzgerald is in the house. The hotel's mood-led compilation discs are in your room, and an accomplished harpist entertains the lounge guests during the early evening.
There are other touches of luxury: a cigar room with a humidor full of Macanudos and Montecristos, a pillow gallery, a wine wall stacked with vintage Bordeaux and Burgundy, and "a whole range of calming spaces to experience the healing power of the forest".
A curtain of rain forms one wall of the lounge; the other is a wall of glass six metres tall, with armchairs arranged so guests can watch the seasons change outside. Right now, Hokkaido is receiving its largest snowfalls since 1950, and the topiaried maples and birch groves are simply structural frames for fat pillows of freeze-dried snow.
All of this is a sensory delight, but a man's got to eat. Mori's buffet reflects the cosmopolitan clientele - well-heeled Japanese corporate refugees, tourists from Taiwan, Korea and China, a few Europeans and Americans. And the food - good god, it's delicious. The freshest fish from the icy waters just an hour north - fat prawns and tuna and scallops and lobster and crab, tiny morsels of seaweed and pickled onions and roots and leaves, bean and leaf combinations dressed in soy and mirin. Japanese cuisine is a natural health-food diet that makes fads redundant.
Of course, you don't want to overeat, it would upset your balance, and your enjoyment of the relaxation to come. I'm heading for the onsen - Mori-no-uta's indoor-outdoor hot pool, sauna and massage complex - when I'm sidetracked by the whisky bar's low lights and leather armchairs.
Although we share no common language, I learn from Yamada-san all about the whiskies, the wood and the salmon fishing in Hokkaido's north- east wilderness, where the sea-ice never melts. It's the perfect preparation for a long session in the steaming hot waters (38C-46C) of the onsen.
Now if you think wandering round in your pyjamas is unsettling, try taking them off with a dozen men you've never met. Leaving slippers at the door and choosing the locker near the wall, I nod to the one ancient and three middle-aged bathers, who laugh and chat while towelling down. The changing room is bright and carpeted, with dressing tables around the perimeter like hair salon seats - mirrors, hair dryers, ungents and ointments. Piles of large towels and facecloth-sized "modesty" towels are there for your use.
The men are on their way out, suitably soaked, but wish me a happy bathing as I ease through the steamed door onto the wet flagstones of the pool room. A row of shower stalls with squat-height stools enable a soapy scrub and hairwash, before easing into the shallow steaming inside pools with that satisfied "ahhhh" that releases all the day's tensions. Knowing smiles and nods from my poolmates, who come and go quietly, little white modesty towels sitting on their heads.
Within 10 minutes, I'm poached, and, with modesty towel leading, I leave the building through an airlock and step into an unreal sub-zero snowscape. My pores are instantly quarterised, my manhood retreats and I gasp involuntarily. Flakes are floating through the lamplights, dark bubbling pools are snugged among snow-stacked rocks and trees. I don't stop to check the temperature, but as soon as the water covers my shoulders I feel I'm floating, naked and defenceless, in a fragile balance among nature's most extreme elements: ice-cold air, frozen earth and scalding water. My pool mates seem to understand why I'm chuckling.
The writer travelled courtesy of Japan Information and Cultural Centre.
Getting there: The onsen town of Jozankei is about 70 minutes by road or rail north-west of Sapporo in Hokkaido. Many onsen run free shuttle buses.
Soaking there: A benefit of travelling to a string of islands on the fiery Pacific Rim is an abundance of natural hot springs. Japan has a well-developed onsen culture, and many onsen resorts to suit all budgets, visit onsenspajapan.com. Some of the best are run by Tsuruga group, which operates resorts in beautiful locations throughout Japan. More at tsuruga-g.com