Auriole Potter explains why we love this soulful property

Whilst Japan’s boutique accommodation scene is gradually expanding, it’s rare to find somewhere that can combine exceptional comfort and cuisine with an authentic sense of place. One such property that achieves this holy grail of hospitality is Sasayuri-Ann, a pair of private villas reminiscent of the traditional rural homes known as kominka and located in the rolling hills of Nara prefecture.

The vision of businessman and Shugendo mountain monk, Tetsuji Matsubayashi, Sasayuri-Ann is a property with soul, where guests can enjoy the very essence of Japan, seemingly distilled in one place. Besides the interiors of the villas, which contain the elements and features typical of this type of dwelling (open fires, split bamboo ceilings and shoji screens), all the hallmarks of Japanese landscape design are showcased here too, from perfectly clipped pines and bonsai trees to painstakingly selected and placed stones dotted around the garden, meant to represent the mountains.

The two villas, Zao and Ozunu, both have their own distinct personality. Zao, a miscanthus-thatched kominka from the Jomon period, was discovered in a state of disrepair and quickly bought, transported and rebuilt in its current location to avoid being destroyed altogether. Offering views out over the surrounding rice fields and distant mountains, it exudes quiet elegance and sophistication. Ozunu was built from scratch but retains all the authenticity of its older neighbour. Floor to ceiling windows bring in light and offer panoramic views of the gentle curves of the surrounding landscape, while a round picture window on one side overlooks a fishpond full of shimmering carp.


Sasayuri-Ann floor to ceiling windows

The two villas are close enough to be taken together by a large family or group of friends, whilst equally being private enough to be booked by two separate sets of travellers. Whilst at Zao, guests feel at the heart of a rural community, Ozunu sits somewhat higher up the hill and provides the feeling of being removed from civilisation, perched high above the clouds which often roll in and swirl around the valley below.

This rural retreat is at heart a family business, with Matsubayashi’s wife and son both involved in the operational side of the property. Besides the beauty of the two villas, it’s this fact, the experiences on offer here and the reasons behind the property’s inception that make it truly stand out from other exceptional hotels and ryokans.

Kominka are rapidly disappearing from the Japanese countryside. The popular opinion states that they are dark, cold and damp (an idea quickly dispelled by a couple of nights at Sasayuri-Ann), and traditional building skills are being lost. In restoring Villa Zao and creating Villa Ozunu, Matsubayashi sought to prove what an important role culture and tradition can play today. His opinion, it seems, is catching on, with UNESCO recently adding kominka to its intangible cultural heritage list.


Traditional cooking at Sasayuri-Ann


Besides highlighting the beauty of the kominka, Matsubayashi’s mission is to open his guests’ eyes to the local culture, lifestyles and traditions of Japan. Whether he’s accompanying guests into the mountains to visit a series of stunning waterfalls, performing a Shugendo fire ritual or organising one of the country’s top players of the shakuhachi (a traditional musical instrument) to serenade guests after dinner, this is an individual working tirelessly to showcase some of the most exquisite, yet fragile, elements of Japan’s cultural heritage.

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