Shizuka Ryokan, Hepburn Springs review: A yen for relaxation

Read our writer's views on this property below

Annie Stevens discovers a way to experience the culture of Japan close to home.

It is surprisingly peaceful lying on a warm towel and having crushed and sterilised nightingale droppings set on to my face. The mulchy, earthy smell is pleasant and it doesn't take too long before I am asleep.

Nightingale droppings are thought to be a secret weapon against ageing and Japanese women have been using them on their skin for years. The nightingale geisha facial is just one factor that makes me so relaxed at Shizuka Ryokan, a Japanese country spa retreat. The ryokan is probably the closest you can get to Japan without a trip through customs and the journey starts as soon as you check in; leave your shoes in the cubby hole and don flat, white slippers for the duration of your stay.

There are six guest rooms next to each other on a verandah that wraps around a raked Japanese-style garden. The reception doubles as a dining and guest lounge area that is thoughtfully arranged. There is a roaring fire, paper lanterns hang from the ceiling and a well-stocked shelf has books on Japanese art and culture and a decent selection of board games. The intimacy of the retreat is not exclusive to couples hell-bent on being romantic either; it's the sort of place where time out, alone or with friends, is welcomed.

The attentive staff ensure you feel as though your every whim is taken care of, without being intrusive. We are led to the Iris Room, which is kitted out in the style of traditional Japanese accommodation, as are all the other guest rooms. There is haunting piped music playing as we open the door. The first thing you notice is there is no bed or television.

A futon is set up for us later. Sleeping so close to the ground is reminiscent of high-school sleepovers. However, the bed, with its cool and crisp sheets and plumped up pillows, is far more comfortable than the sleepovers of old.

In its simplicity, the room feels enormous. The floor is covered with fragile tatami mats, there are shoji rice paper sliding doors and a decorative tokonoma alcove complete with a pair of wicker chairs and a table that looks out on to a Japanese-style pebble garden. Surrounded by bamboo, there is a trickling water feature and a pair of wooden thongs for outside.

A highlight of the weekend is the food. A four-course banquet is served in the dining area or you can choose to eat bento box-style in your room. However, we opt for the izakaya, which is a more casual tapas-style option available on select nights. Favourite dishes are the kingfish sashimi and melt-in-your-mouth tofu. The flavours are fresh and delicate and the small servings are a reminder that slowing down to enjoy your food is something we often overlook.

While you can have eggs or pancakes for breakfast, we choose the tradition Japanese breakfast including teriyaki ocean trout, miso soup and pickles. Accompanied by plunger coffee and the Saturday morning papers, it is a twist on the usual breakfast ritual.

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After dinner, we play a gently competitive game of Scrabble on the low-to-the-ground table in our room and sip local chardonnay. It is a nice way of enjoying a small taste of Japan and each other's company in a total state of relaxation.

Shizuka Ryokan is a short drive from some good walking trails and the famed Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa.

VISITORS' BOOK

Shizuka Ryokan

Address 7 Lakeside Drive, Hepburn Springs.

Bookings Phone 5348 2030, see www.shizuka.com.au.

Getting there About a 1½-hour drive from Melbourne down the Western Freeway and the Ballan Daylesford Road to Hepburn Springs.

How much $350 for one night including full Japanese breakfast. Geisha facial is $120.

Summary An authentic and peaceful taste of Japan in Victoria's spa country.

Verdict 18

The score: 19-20 excellent; 17-18 great; 15-16 good; 13-14 comfortable.

All weekends away are conducted anonymously and paid for by Traveller.

Find more Hepburn Springs accommodation at Stayz.com.au