Smack in the middle of Hakone National Park, about 90 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, Gora Kadan is a ryokan-style luxury hotel and onsen tailored to those who are looking for both Japanese style and Western comfort. "It is plenty Japanese enough to provide a traditional inn experience," said one friend, describing the tatami floor mats, sliding partitions and kimono-clad nakai who make up your futon at night and stow it away in the morning. But it also includes the extras that international travelers demand, like en-suite bathrooms, minibars and televisions. What's more, another friend added, "the hot springs are awesome."
So I gave in and soon found myself on a 40-minute bullet-train trip from Tokyo Station to the city of Odawara and then a half-hour taxi ride through the mountains to the town of Gora. Masayo Matsuda, the hotel's chief of guest relations, greeted me by name when I entered the hotel's elegant, very modern lobby and, on the way to my room, patiently explained the customs I should observe to fit in with the predominantly Japanese clientele. In contrast to the stylishly austere public spaces, the enormous rooms are decorated in classic Japanese style, with low tables, zabuton seat cushions and kakejiku wall scrolls. Mine, the smallest offered in the 44-room hotel, had a six-tatami-mat bedroom, a 10-mat sitting room and a four-mat glassed-in porch overlooking a small rock garden. I changed into my kimono and let the tranquility of Gora Kadan's setting wash over me. After roaming the grounds (which include a spa, indoor swimming pool, conference room, sun deck, karaoke bar, restaurant and reading room), I figured I was ready for the hot springs. I found the best strategy was to cut the intense heat of the sleek black-granite indoor pool with periodic visits to the slightly cooler outdoor pool. After 30 minutes of alternating between hot and very hot, I was in an almost trance-like state of relaxation and ready to dine.
Meals are usually served on a low zataku table in the guest's room, but after one look at my nearly two-meter frame, Matsuda suggested that a private dining room might be more comfortable. There I was treated to a two-hour, nine-course feast of delicately prepared, beautifully arranged seasonal dishes such as boiled firefly squid and ostrich with Japanese mustard and vinegar sauce. After another dip in the springs and a shiatsu massage back in my room, I was positively drunk with relaxation. I let the masseur out of my sliding front door and immediately fell onto my futon and into a deep sleep that lasted until the nakai brought me breakfast, coffee and a newspaper the next morning. My concerns about coming here had long since evaporated. In fact, the only anxiety I felt came with the realization that at some point, I'd have to leave.
Kimonos should be wrapped left side over right; only dead bodies are wrapped right over left
Bullet trains depart Tokyo Station for Odawara approximately every 20 minutes throughout the day and evening, seven days a week. Unreserved seats are $26, and reserved seats cost $30. The taxi from Odawara will cost $40 to $50, or you can book one through Gora Kadan for about $42. Rooms at Gora Kadan go for $833 (double occupancy) on up to $1,250 for suites with in-room whirlpool and sauna [tel: (81-4) 602 3331], website: www.gorakadan.com
Room rates include room-service delivery of traditional (and exquisitely presented) breakfast and dinner, both featuring seasonal ingredients; the front desk can recommend lunch spots in Hakone if you're out hiking, boating, fishing or playing golf
The hotel also provides suggestions and detailed advice on a wide range of nearby museums and historical and natural attractions. Visiting an onsen is a favorite lovers' retreat, but if you don't mind looking like a loser (as I did) and going on a weekday, Gora Kadan features a "singles' plan" $500 for the room and meals plus a shiatsu or Swedish massage. The spa's other services are stellar as well