If there is one thing collectively we can all agree on, it’s that we’re missing international travel. Those long-haul flights that take us to foreign lands and give us a culturally immersive experience. But what if you didn’t need to get on a flight to experience an international culture?
The one country I’m missing the most is Japan. It has become a special place for my husband and me as it continues to inspire us daily. In the last few years, we’ve been lucky to explore Japan, typically in the fall (this week last year to be exact). We miss it all. The culture, the food, the slow travel, the architecture, and the passion for tradition.
Over the summer during a late-night scroll on social, I came across a photo of a place called The Gaige House + Ryokan in the Sonoma Valley. The word “ryokan” caught my attention as it translates to a “traditional Japanese inn.” The beauty of California is that we are diverse, with so many opportunities to experience different cultures.
It was that single moment that inspired this entire trip. The question came to mind: could we have a Japanese-inspired trip right here in Northern California’s own wine country? With the Gaige House + Ryokan at the core of the experience, I fervently started searching for Japanese-inspired experiences nearby.
Digging deeper, I realized there is a strong Japanese influence in Sonoma and Napa Valley. From botanical gardens that are home to one of the largest collections of Asian woodlands to a winery and restaurant with Japan at its core. It was the taste of Japan I was craving. It was the Japanese slow travel that focuses on fewer better. An opportunity to experience Japan through food, wine, and architecture right in my own backyard.
This is the Japanese-inspired trip to Sonoma and Napa Valley. Designed around Japanese experiences, the guide below is everything you’ll need for an immersive stay. At its core, an invitation to experience a culture that invites us to slow down and appreciate the details.
A Japanese-Inspired Trip in Northern California’s Wine Country
It’s good to note a few things about this trip. The design of it is slow travel. Meaning 1-2 things a day but with the majority of the time at the ryokan or out in nature. Most of this trip is in the countryside, so I’m pulling inspiration from our time in the Kiso Valley of Japan for the pace of travel.
The amount of time: two nights.
Locations: Napa and Sonoma
Time of year: Year-round. Each season offers different experiences, but collectively all of this can be enjoyed year-round. Winter may mean no pool time, but a welcomed soak in the bath or jacuzzi.
Stay: The Gaige House + Ryokan
When traveling through Japan, one of the traditional places to stay is in a ryokan. It’s an inn with a small number of rooms, creating an intimate experience where breakfast is often served to guests. The Gaige House + Ryokan is all of this and more. Tucked away in the small town of Glen Ellen in Sonoma Valley, it’s a private zen retreat. The property has its own meditation areas, with an outdoor yoga room and zen gardens to enjoy. The Gaige House + Ryokan is focused on relaxation and unwinding by either the pool or in your room.
Each of their 23 rooms at the ryokan has thoughtful details. Located near the Calabazas Creek, nature is beautifully woven within the rooms. For those looking for a traditional Japanese-style room, I strongly suggest their Ryokan Zen Suites. The 715 square foot suite has its own interior Zen rock garden atrium that is between the bathroom and bedroom. In the bathroom, the granite Japanese soaking tub awaits. Details like a hinoki bucket and two yukata robes with obi sash invite you to experience Japanese bathing culture.
The room design is modern Japanese architecture. Japanese shoji doors cover many of the cabinets (like where the Japanese cast-iron tea service is), creating a warm and intimate space. In the sitting area, there is a fireplace to enjoy in addition to the patio with lounge chairs.
In the morning, you send a text message to their team to receive breakfast. Served in a bento box, the full breakfast is delivered to your room with hot coffee or tea. In the afternoon, their wine and cheese reception is served in a small to-go picnic box, which can be enjoyed on the property or in the room.
Dining, Experiences, & More
Stroll Through Asian Woodlands at Quarryhill Botanical Garden
Only a 10-minute drive from the Gaige House + Ryokan is Quarryhill Botanical Garden. It is home to 25 acres of one of the largest collections of temperate-climate Asian plants in North America. From picturesque ponds to scenic viewpoints, the gardens provide a haven. You’ll find everything from magnolias to maples here, with plants hailing from China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet. The serene walking paths wind throughout and there are picnic benches for enjoyment.
Be sure to stop by their beautifully curated gift shop. You’ll find botanical curiosities here, things for the home, and wonderful gifts. They also have pieces from Fog Linen, a Japanese lifestyle brand founded in Japan that focuses on fine linen housewares + clothing. It’s a personal favorite of mine, we always pop into their store in Tokyo.
Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $8 for children ages 13-17/Active Military/Students, and children under 12 are free.
Travel tip: Grab lunch at Les Pascals in Glen Ellen and enjoy at one of the many scenic benches. Their classic French pastries and sandwiches are delicious.
Taste Wine at Kenzo Estate — A Napa Winery With Japanese Roots
A scenic drive from Sonoma to Napa Valley brings you to the award-winning Kenzo Estate Winery. It is created by Kenzo Tsujimoto, the founder of Capcom, an iconic Japanese developer and video game creator. In 1990, he purchased this stunning 3800-acre mountain valley in Napa and set out to create the best wine imaginable.
Kenzo collaborated with Heidi Barrett, the famous winemaker behind Screaming Eagle, and David Abreu, the viticulturist behind Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate. After much work and replanting of the vineyards in 2002, 2005 brought their first vintage. Kenzo Estate’s dedication to producing only the finest of grapes ensures quality of wine unlike any other.
Experience the Wines:
Kenzo Estate is open to be experienced by private appointment only. With ample outdoor space and private tasting rooms, it’s an intimate and elevated wine tasting. Set in their tasting room designed by architect Howard Backen, it’s an idyllic setting. There are three wine tasting experiences: (1) a flight of four which samples the Kenzo Estate wine collection, (2) tour & tasting which explores the winemaking process with a flight of four, or their unique tour & (3) a tasting & tour with Bouchon Plate — a special partnership with Chef Thomas Keller that pairs the wine with a luncheon plate by Bouchon Restaurant.
The Kenzo Estate wines are refined and meticulously created. Each of the names of the wine is carefully chosen words in Japanese that tie into the wine itself. Like their “asatsuyu” which translates to “morning dew” — an ode to the mist that covers the valley and speaks to the purity of the wine itself. It’s the only dry Sauvignon Blanc that was created by Heidi Barrett (96 points by Wine Enthusiast for 2019 vintage).
Tip: Book an appointment for the late afternoon to catch the glowing end of day light.
Discover Edomae Sushi and Kaiseki Cuisine at Kenzo Napa
Part of the Kenzo Estate family, Kenzo Napa is an ode to elegant Japanese dining located in downtown Napa. Kenzo focuses on two styles of traditional Japanese cuisine while sourcing the freshest ingredients from Japan. Their fish is flown in daily from the renowned Toyosu Market in Japan.
The two styles of cuisine at Kenzo are Edomae Sushi and Kaiseki. Kaiseki cuisine is traditionally a multi-course meal that embodies all that is “omotenashi” which means wholehearted hospitality. With exquisite attention to detail, the meal is an expression of fine dining and seasonal flavors. Edomae Sushi is a style of sushi from the Edo Period (1603-1868) in Edo, now Tokyo, where the fish is preserved and paired with marinades and served.
Kenzo currently offers two ways to experience their food: in-restaurant dining (in accordance with county measures) or their refined takeaway menu. We opted for the bento box takeaway and selected their “sushi bento box” to bring back to the ryokan (order here). Inside there were 10 delicate pieces of nigiri featuring five selections of fish and small sides like their poached spinach with sesame. Their takeaway menu also has a Kaiseki bento box and several other traditional Japanese dishes like chicken katsu donburi.
Tip: The sushi traveled very well. I recommend picking it up on your way back from a wine tasting at Kenzo Estate Winery.
Partake in Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing)
You may have heard of the Japanese word “Shinrin-Yoku” which literally translates to forest bathing. It’s a practice of taking in the forest atmosphere around you through walking. In the 1980’s it was developed as a therapy in Japan, shown to help reduce our stress hormones by spending time in nature.
Shinrin-Yoku can be experienced quite simply — find an area to get outdoors. Wander through nature, disconnect from any distractions, and soak it all in. Listen to the sounds of trees, the birds, the wind. It’s about being present and noticing the natural world.
At the Gaige House + Ryokan, they do offer guided Shinrin-Yoku experiences to help guide you. You can also go on your own as well — I recommend the trails at Jack London State Historic Park. It’s a quiet, wooded area with a few paths to choose from for a leisurely walk. See this link here for the trail guide.
Meditate, Soak, and Have a Tea Service
During one of our trips in Japan, we spent two nights at an onsen ryokan. Much of our time alternated between quiet moments for meditation, soaking in the tub, and then enjoy a tea service. At the Gaige House + Ryokan, you can partake in all of these things right in your room.
I’d highly recommend setting some time aside here to relax. It’s part of the experience and your room comes with everything you need. Salts for the bath, a full tea service, and plenty of areas to just be. Pack a book, sit poolside, partake in yoga, or meditate to the sounds of the creek.
This slow travel at the Gaige House + Ryokan is an unique opportunity to disconnect.
Other Travel Notes
You may find yourself needing another meal or two while visiting in addition to those listed above. I highly recommend Glen Ellen Star for dinner just next door to the ryokan. Everything is wood-fired and focused on local, seasonal ingredients. Their wood-fired vegetables remind me of a lot of the wood-fired cuisine in Japan. It’s an excellent restaurant, one of our favorites in Northern California.