Ryokan are supposed to be about simplicity: simple furnishings, simple surroundings, simple schedule. I know this. But the second my young, English-speaking attendant left me alone in my room, I started having a conversation in my head, which went a little something like this: Should I go to the onsen now, or take a dip in the pool? Or do I go to the gym first? Or maybe the spa? I don’t really need a massage—I just had one at Aman Tokyo—but a facial? Why not? Maybe I should go to the library and download a book onto my iPad—reading seems like a ryokan-y thing to do. I obviously need to buy a matcha bowl in the gift shop. Can I get all this done before my nine-course dinner arrives in my room at 7 P.M.? There’s so little time and so much relaxing to do!
For I had found myself at Gora Kadan (rooms from $695; 1300 Gora, gorakadan.com), the former summer retreat of the Kan’in-no-miya imperial family in Hakone, a town in a mountainous region about a two-hour drive southwest of Tokyo. The inn-resort, which opened in 1989, has all the trappings of a traditional ryokan, but it’s layered with all the creature comforts and impeccable contemporary design of a Westernized Relais & Châteaux.
Joshua Cooper Ramo and I don’t see eye to eye on ryokan. He tells me, “I’m sorry but you missed the point of Japan.” (See his musing on the ryokan experience.)
To each their own, I say. Now, where were we?
Check-in begins at 3 P.M. Guests should get there right around that time to take advantage of all of the facilities. Arrival is on the main level, at the top of six floors. From there, the elevator (so modern for a ryokan!) goes down to rooms in the main building; there is also an annex next door. There are 21 guest rooms and 18 suites. A key difference between them is not the size (most are small, starting at 183 square feet) but rather the location of the baths—some are indoors, others are outdoors.
Gora Kadan has some rooms that are very traditional, but my standard one was minimal yet hotel-like enough, with a platform futon, a two-cushion couch that faced a TV, a dinner table, and two chairs. Through a bamboo door, the low-ceilinged bathroom had a deep soaking tub and a low-set shower with a bath bucket and stool; the least Western-friendly thing in my room was the Toto toilet with buttons all in Japanese. I had a small, private outdoor patio.
Shortly after I settled in, my attendant delivered tea and wagashi (a pink mochi filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a cherry blossom leaf) before she told me to put on my purple-and-white yukata robe and purple obi. Everyone wears the yukatas around the property. This felt way too institutionalized for me, but when in Rome...
The stylish onsen is the main attraction. There was a sign in English pointing genders to the right baths. The onsen’s dressing area has a wall of wicker baskets for guests’ clothing and a line of vanity stations. There’s an indoor room with a hot spring and a row of showers with stools and buckets, and an outdoor onsen is in a perfectly landscaped garden with rocks and a tiny waterfall.
After I onsened, my dinner was served with an English menu, so I knew what I was eating: mountain vegetables (warabi, urui, and kogomi); jellied sakura masu (cherry trout), sushi topped with cooked shrimp and sea urchin; mashed usui green pea soup; toro and crab sashimi; grilled nodoguro (rockfish) and scallop; roast wagyu beef with asparagus, bell pepper, and burdock... I could go on and on. Any foods I didn’t recognize, I could Google, thanks to the property’s Wi-Fi.
On the other hand, simplicity is definitely what I experienced at the far more traditional five-room Tsukihitei Ryokan (rooms from $290; 158 Kasugano-cho), in the middle of the beautiful but horror-film-evoking Kasugayama Primeval Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Nara, an hour’s drive from Kyoto. While I was there, it was pouring rain, which sounded pretty throughout the single-level, ancient wooden edifice, but it left me confined to my sparse room: three ground-hugging chairs, two ground-hugging tables, and no bed. There was no cell phone service, and the Wi-Fi didn’t work. The staff didn’t speak English well, which made my two-hour kaiseki dinner, with an all-Japanese menu, a unique experience. I have no idea what I ate, other than I’m pretty sure I was served jellyfish. As I was going to sleep—around 8 P.M.—a three-inch-long, skinny forest bug with a million legs skittered underneath the tatami mat on the floor by my futon. All I knew was that my colleague was in Kyoto staying in a townhouse that JFK and Jackie had slept in. Thus the only contemplating I found myself doing was questioning how much a cab to Kyoto in the middle of the night would cost.
In the morning, my breakfast, lovingly prepared by my gray-haired room attendant, was fish soup and (I think) raw squid, the latter of which I buried in my white rice to make it look like I ate it. I checked out at 9 A.M. I appreciated all the tradition, and the staff was so sweet. But if I’m being honest, the experience left me feeling claustrophobic and lonely—I didn’t see another guest the entire time I was there. Simplicity, at least as defined by my stay at Tsukihi-tei, just might not be my speed. (Not the case for my colleague, however, who took great pleasure in a similar experience at three-room Sakamoto, an hour’s flight from Tokyo in the Noto Peninsula.)
But Gora Kadan? I’m already planning my return trip—gym, pool, onsen, spa, library, dinner, and gift shop before departure.