It’s a crisp November night, and I’m strolling along a carless road through a dark Scandinavian woodland. Suddenly I hear rustling in the bushes. I shine my torch towards where the noise is coming from and see 12 big animal eyes staring back. I then watch as a family of five deer pops out, then skips across the road. The buck checks behind, as if to make sure nobody’s following, before bouncing off into the dusky forest.
I’m not on a late-night nature walk in rural Sweden. I’m a 20-minute drive from Stockholm looking for Yasuragi, a Japanese-inspired spa hotel located on the island of Värmdo. A friend who lives in the Swedish capital told me it’s where locals come for R&R, so I decided to check it out. After all, who wouldn’t like the idea of a Japan-style spa on a tiny Swedish island?
When I arrive at the hotel’s reception, I’m presented with a navy yukata (Japanese cotton gown) and a pair of black swim shorts. It turns out I won’t be wearing anything but for the rest of my stay. Yasuragi encourages its guests to wear yukatas everywhere, including in the restaurant. The idea is that there’ll be no judgement if everyone’s dressed the same. And early indications suggest it works. On the way to my room, I see gowned-up guests floating down corridors. Nobody bats an eyelid.
In my room, there’s another, more regal yukata adorned on a polished cement wall. As well as a low, modest seating area, a bathroom the size of a greenhouse, a futon bed and a small balcony overlooking the sea, obscured only by pine trees.
After dumping my bags, I head out to explore. The interior is what designers call “Japandi” style – a combination of Swedish functionality and Japanese design. Picture polished wooden floors, concrete-encased stairwells, curved salmon pink paper walls, subtle blue hues and giant glass walls framing views of the mossy pine trees. All 191 rooms, decorated similarly, reflect what’s outside: water, trees and stones.
Yasuragi is based on a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn used by Samurai warriors as far back as the 17th Century. Day guests come to use the facilities (Japanese baths, wellbeing treatments and yoga classes), although an overnight stay is encouraged. Rooms range from plush Ryokan Hanare suites with Nakai-san (service attendants) to modest spaces without balconies or baths. TVs aren’t a given either, and phones are best left tucked away if you want to do things properly.
Keen to explore the facilities, I head down to the Japanese baths located in an old gym hall and swimming pool. The building was a school and conference centre before Yasuragi turned it into a hotel in 1997. Once de-robed in the gender-split changing rooms, I carry out a traditional Japanese bathing ritual – a water ablution. Sitting naked on a tiny stool armed with a wet flannel, I lather myself in soap then mindfully pour water-filled wooden buckets over my head and body. The practice, designed to rid yourself of exterior stresses, turns a monotonous chore into a welcome meditation.
With a newly cleansed soul, it’s time to explore the Japanese-inspired baths, which opened in 2018. It’s like a theme park for wellbeing lovers — warm swimming areas, cavernous waterways, steam salt saunas, carbonated baths and cold plunge pools. My favourite is the timber-clad steamy bathing areas with knockout views towards Höggarnsfjärden Bay. Guests are supposed to be silent, and there are no telephones allowed, yet some people haven’t got the memo. Yasuragi is looking into how it can encourage people to stay silent, which would make the experience infinitely better.
Massage chairs and mindful activities
Pet peeve aside, it’s time to check out the ominous-sounding fruit room – an area offering complimentary bananas, apples, plums and oranges and matcha tea. Across the way, in a glassy cube that looks like a spaceship’s headquarters, robed-up guests are being rocked to sleep by singing massage chairs.
After a quick go, I head to a yoga class in the dojo, which looks like something off the Karate Kid. Yasuragi hosts most of its activities here, ranging from bonkers high-tempo Radio Taiso (a kind of Japanese HIT class) to sound journeys via Tibetan singing bowls. I go for yin yoga and arrive early to get a spot – those who came late didn’t. Yin is a restorative, therapeutic yoga practice with longer stretches (3-5 mins), making it the perfect pre-bedtime activity.
Dinner in a yukata
There’s no time for sleeping yet, though, as my stay includes dinner – Yasuragi offers various packages, usually including a three-course set menu. Tonight, it’s venison tartare in soy sauce and red wine, followed by cod in tomato dashi and sugar seaweed and Japanese cheesecake (vegan options are also available).
Service is slow, perhaps in keeping with the ambience, and the food, though aesthetically appealing, lacks flavour – though the cheesecake is sublime. Wine pairing is available for additional costs (make sure you check with the waiting staff), and the subtle pear-tasting sake helps to round off the Japanese-themed experience. After a long day doing nothing but unwinding, I’m ready for bed.
Quiet night’s sleep
Although I don’t think sleeping is going to be a problem. My room, which is somehow always the perfect temperature, is silent. So silent it feels like I’ve got a cabin in the woods to myself. I sink into the lowly bed and resist the urge to check my phone. I sleep better than I have in months and wish to stay forever.
Before it’s time to take the boat back to Stockholm (from the Hasseluden Bridge), I shun the outdoor gym for a quick mindful walk through the gardens. Then head to the reception to check out with drooping shoulders, a slow-beating heart, and a clear mind. I hand over my neatly folded yukata, swimming shorts and key and say thank you. Then as I’m about to head out the door, it dawns on me that I don’t know what Yasuragi means.
“It’s the long, deep exhale you make when you feel relaxed, like when you sink into a hot bath for the first time”. Satisfied with that answer, I smile, nod, then walk towards the door. As I do, 12 eyes are looking at me again, this time, it’s the new guests, and I feel immediately jealous of what they’re about to experience — time to get back to the real world.
An overnight stay with dinner at Yasuragi costs from about £140 per person (1750 SEK)