Leaving Melbourne behind, we take a wellbeing escape to a Japanese-style ryokan in regional Victoria.
To mark the recent milestone birthday of a close friend, we decided to celebrate like the ‘real adults’ that we are, eschewing the boozy beach-side resort holiday, for a more wholesome adventure that would nurture our bodies and wipe clean our sense of fatigue.
A yoga retreat seemed a good option. But we had conditions. Nothing too heavily spiritual or yoga-mad, and nothing that would be too overly decadent or fussy. We were after an experience that would be honest and beautiful. And Shizuka Ryokan delightfully answered that complex list of requirements.
Shizuka, meaning ‘tranquillity’ in Japanese, and ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, is not your everyday city escape. Founded upon the Japanese concept of omotenashi, which refers to a deep respect for hospitality, Shizuka represents an escape, a cultural awakening, and a meditative appreciation of life’s finest details: leaves rustling in the wind, water trickling from a fountain, fragrant steam kissing your cheeks as you lean over your bowl of ramen.
Arriving at Shizuka Ryokan, located in Hepburn Springs, Victoria (about a 90-minute drive from Melbourne), is like shedding your city skin. Upon check-in you relinquish your shoes and adopt the traditional ryokan garb of slippers and kimono, or yukata. The reception and common area where guests share meals and yoga sessions (during the seasonal yoga retreats) is minimalist in aesthetic, highlighted by surrounding bushland and beautiful ikebana arrangements perched thoughtfully upon a table or windowsill.
You’re instantly wrapped in a sense of zen that only seriously takes hold of you, deep down, after you have spent three days practicing breathing, gentle yoga and sharing the most delicious Japanese dishes imaginable — made all the more exquisite by a sense of gratitude for life’s simple pleasures.
The ryokan contains six bedrooms only, sleeping up to 12 people, and guests are conscientiously quiet, allowing their fellow travellers to dwell peacefully within their private quarters, or venture out to admire the quiet beauty of the central zen garden around which the rooms are clustered.
A connection to nature permeates every aspect of the ryokan, and this is heightened by the guestrooms themselves, each delicately scented by the tatami straw mat flooring, and featuring beautifully appointed bathrooms with frameless showers and deep-soak bathtubs that overlook private gardens. An enclosed veranda, or engawa, between the interior and exterior offers a cosy place to sit and contemplate the bounty of all this natural beauty, while gazing out into the private garden, embellished with a tsukubai water basin.
During seasonal yoga retreats, Shizuka Ryokan welcomes up to 12 guests to take part in a an entirely extraordinary program which combines the ancient wisdom of seasonal living, yoga practice, Japanese food, and shiatsu massage.
The retreat begins with a welcoming circle and Japanese tea ceremony. If you’ve ever watched the first episode of Nine Perfect Strangers you’ll understand that sense of enormity as you come together with a group of strangers, each with your own histories and reason for seeking retreat. You sit, stretch, breathe and eat side-by-side for three days and it is both intimate and private: an experience in which you may choose to reveal as much or as little of yourself as you wish.
Mornings begin with rise and shine yoga followed by an entirely satisfying traditional Japanese breakfast, made all the more delicious because you’re ravenous and have earned it. A rhythm quickly emerges, starting with yoga, breath exploration and gentle philosophy discussions, punctuated by delicious, sustaining meals prepared using seasonal ingredients, free time basking in the fresh air, saying hello to the resident horse, or seeking deep restoration through shiatsu massage.
Yoga teacher Renee brings 12 years of teaching wisdom to the fore, leading participants of varying skill-levels through restorative and healing yoga sessions with infinite patience and sensitivity. Her experience is vast and her knowledge innate, but perhaps most impressive is her ability to shepherd each group of peaceful strangers through a journey that sees us disconnect and release from our original state, re-connect with our bodies, and ultimately awaken to ourselves. Alone, yet very much together.
I can’t emphasise enough how important the food experience is in this journey with breakfast, lunch and dinner time being the foundations upon which we nurture our bodies and also share in the beauty and enormity of it all: a gently structured setting that offers social connection should you crave it, while also demanding little of those who prefer to sit quietly with their own thoughts.
Meal highlights included Shiokoji chicken, Shizuka’s most loved dish. Shiokoji is a Japanese condiment used for seasoning or marinating poultry, fish or meat. The deep umami flavour from the meat is incredibly tasty.
Another highlight was the mouth-watering Nimono vegetables. These are simmered vegetables cooked in dashi (liquid soup with bonito, seaweed and lots of vegetables). Notably the food has low salt content, so while you’re seeking a mental detox, your body is experiencing a clean-food revival.
Shizuka’s seasonal yoga retreat is concluded with a walking meditation and forest bathing — a beautiful, quiet walk that reminds your feet to connect with the earth beneath them and grounds your body among the heady beauty of the Hepburn Springs bush. The metallic, fizzy taste of the deep spring water feels like a medicinal end to the whole experience, and you drive away with a sense that something deep within you has shifted.
It is the ultimate gift to offer oneself time without distraction and Shizuka Ryokan, whether for an overnight stay or a three-day yoga retreat, proffers this gift with open and welcoming arms.
The dates for Shizuka seasonal yoga retreats in 2023 are as follows:
Winter: July, Sunday 16th- Tuesday 18th (Fully booked)
Spring: September, Sunday 8th-Tuesday 10th
Prenatal Yoga Retreat: August, Tuesday 22nd -Thursday 24th
Baby Moon Yoga Retreat: September, Sunday 3rd – Tuesday 5th
Late summer: January, Sunday 14-16
Autumn: March, Sunday 3-5
Winter: June, Sunday 2-4
Spring: September, Sunday 8-9
Summer: November, Sunday 24-26
The Japanese Immersion package is $765 per couple/pair. When added to accommodation, the entire experience starts from $1465 per couple/pair (includes 2 nights B&B; the omakase banquet; Geisha Facial and Shiatsu massage for both guests).