Traditional ryokan guests get forest views and tours of lovely lacquerware studio.

During his 156-day trek around northern Honshu, celebrated haiku poet Matsuo Basho was constantly on the move.

But he and his companion Kawai Sora couldn't resist the charms of the hot springs here, lingering several days in August, 1689.

"Here I have found the genuine joy of travelling," Basho wrote, praising "the balmy springs of Yamanaka."

This charming town of about 9,000 still attracts travellers with its healing waters (discovered more than 1,000 years ago), its art and craft shops, lovely river walks and ryokans, traditional inns, such as the Kayotei.

It has 10 suites; the long hallways are decorated with antique chests, traditional ceramics and hand-painted screens.

The rooms which can easily accommodate a family are spare but elegant, with tatami mats covering hardwood floors, sliding screens and low kotatsu tables. Futon beds are rolled out at night. The large windows look out on a forest.

The food is traditional Japanese, using fresh, local ingredients, although Western food will be served on request. But there are 21st century touches too the rooms all have the Internet, the bathrooms are ultra-modern and blessed with the warm-you, wash-you toilets that are one of Japan's great gifts to the world.

The ryokan has public hot spring baths for men and women and a private, open-air bath for those not inclined to bare all before strangers.

The Kayotei was built in the 1970s by the Kamiguchi family, which continues to own and operate the ryokan.

"They had a 200-room hotel but decided to go against the trend and open a small ryokan that offered traditional, personal Japanese hospitality," says Jiro Takeuchi, the ryokan's general manager and son-in law of the owners. "They sensed that people were beginning to travel privately and in small groups."

The inn is a good starting point for a lovely walking trail following the perimeter of Kakusen Gorge. There are several delights en route, the first being a simple hut and monument built in Basho's honour by haiku poets in 1918. There is a small image of the poet inside.

Then there is the extraordinary Cat's Cradle bridge, a metal structure that winds its way serpent-like across the gorge. It was designed by the multi-talented Hiroshi Teshigawa, the grand master of the Sogetsu school of flower arrangement and a filmmaker.

It's a peaceful hike, broken only by birdsong and the rushing river. A fisherman in traditional dress tries his luck on the other bank of the river.

At the end of the 1.3-kilometre trail is the Cricket Bridge, a lovely wooden structure that is still used by cars.

The town's main street has galleries, souvenir stores and lacquerware and pottery shops, plus the "Chrysanthemum Public Baths for Gentlemen" and another for "Ladies." There's also a free, public footbath for shoppers who need to take the weight off for a while.

Matsuura Sake Brewing, established in 1772, offers tastings for 200 yen (about $2) and homemade sake-flavoured ice cream for 300 yen.

Guests of the Kayotei get an added perk, the chance to tour the studios of lacquerware artist Satake Yasuhiro and buy his exquisite work.

But Yasuhiro, whose younger son spent some time studying wood turning on Salt Spring Island, isn't interested in producing museum pieces.

"I want to make things that can actually be used," he tells a group of visitors.

How should people take care of lacquerwork?

"You wash lacquerware in the same way as you wash your hands," Satake says. "Drain it dry or use a soft cloth. You wouldn't put your hands in a dishwasher or a microwave or in the fridge.

"It is not good in ultraviolet light or in sunshine. And it needs some moisture, once or twice a week. Don't have fear of hurting it. Just keep using it scratches and damage can be repaired."

There's also a small museum dedicated to Basho just off the main street.

The first things you see when you walk in are two pairs of sandals and two hats; upstairs are examples of his works and photos of more modern haiku poets.

Outside the museum, there's a lovely little garden, with statues depicting Sora bowing respectfully to the haiku master.

He's actually saying goodbye. Sora decided to end his trek in Yamanaka while Basho plodded on alone.
Robert Crew, Toronto Star