From the moment you board the small cog train that winds up into the mountains to Hakone, you know you are in for a something special. So what is a Ryokan?
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese guest house, created to provide travelers with a place to rest, eat, and rejuvenate themselves on their journey. The concept dates back to 1600, and is still thriving today. Not much has changed in terms of what was traditionally offered: a spacious lobby, public baths, a kaiseki meal, and a room to sleep with tatsimi mats and shoji panels. But while ryokans were once popular around Japan and an inexpensive place to stay the night, the few that survive today offer a much fancier experience and look into Japanese culture for travelers.
Gora Kadan is a traditional Japanese Ryokan tucked away in the stunning little town of Hakone at the base of Mount Fuji. With it’s design and wooden facade, it looks at one with the nature around it. You feel a rush of calm sweep over you as you sip your first cup of tea from a clay cup and get accustomed to the way things work at a ryokan.
A night at Gora Kadan is a luxury experience in every sense of the word and comes with a pretty serious price tag. But there’s no way to quantify or describe just how special this place is or what just one night here did for my mind, body, and spirit. It was also the most authentically Japanese experience I had during my two weeks in Japan. So was it worth the splurge? Most definitely!
Experiencing Wabi Sabi
The Japanese term wabi sabi is apparently impossible to define, but easy to recognize. There’s no way better way to understand it’s meaning than to visit Gora Kadan.
While the hotel has a lovely, open glass and wood-paneled lobby and a few public sittings areas, most of your time will be spent in your room. Coming from Manhattan, our suite was larger than the studio I live in! The entire room is shades of neutral, with tatsimi mats covering the floor, simple wood furniture, and a bedroom with white mattresses and linens on the floor divided from the rest of the room by shoji panels. In terms of decor, there was one off-centered vase on the ground and a few books on a table near the glass door leading outside.
In your room is a small basket with your ryokan apparel: a kimono-style robe, toe socks, and traditional straw sandals. This is the only outfit you are allowed to wear in public areas.
Of all the places I’ve traveled I’ve never been required to put on the traditional dress, and as I wrapped myself in the lightweight, beautiful garment I felt a rush of adventure! Wearing this outfit made me feel out of element, but also like I suddenly belonged there. I couldn’t stop trying to wiggle my toes in the socks, master walking in the brick-like sandals, and laughing at how hilarious my husband looked in his kimono.
Soaking in Nature
The public bath areas are separate for men and women, since you are only allowed to enter completely naked. This experience, for a westerner is utterly bizarre. There were only a few other women inside when I entered, but I still felt shy and uncertain as I de-robbed from the beautiful garment I had just got accustomed to wearing. I wrapped a towel around myself, and moments later it was taken from me by the room attendant with a head-shake and some explanation in Japanese I couldn’t understand.
It’s an odd sensation, being totally naked in a room full of strangers, timidly walking towards the water while covering as much of yourself as you can with your hands. But my modesty slowly melted away with the heat of the hot spring, and being fully naked out in the middle of nature I began to feel like one of Cezanne’s bathers.
Everything you could need pre-and post-bath was there. A changing room, lockers, showers, fancy beauty products, and several little dressing table areas. Now in the spirit of the place, I sat down nude at on a little wooden stool in front of one of the vanities, next to an older Japanese women brushing out her thick black hair. I layered on every cream and tonic they offered before dressing and heading back to our room, just in time for dinner.
People with tattoos should note they are strictly NOT ALLOWED in the public baths. I have tiny j on my forearm, which they let slide. But anything visible, and you will not be allowed in the public areas.
Our suite had a private onsen outside, which was an upgrade from the standard room and certainly worth it – since men and women are separated in the public area. If you want to experience the bath together, and/or you have tattoos – this is the only way.
The Most Unique Meal of Your Life
Dinner at Gora Kadan is an experience worth the trip alone. If you’ve never had a kaiseki meal – it is like a gourmet version of ordering-in. You essentially get to eat in your room in your pjs. Each room has table on the floor and dinner is served at the time you request.
A traditional kaiseki meal is truly an art form. The placement of each and every garnish is thoughtful, each ingredient impossibly fresh. It’s a true seasonal chef’s tasting, lasting about two hours. It builds in heaviness and heartiness with each course, and is not for the the unadventurous eater! We ate fish sperm sacs, and other organs. But of course any allergies or dietary restrictions can be accommodated.
Sleeping on the Floor
Nothing sounded less-comfortable to me than a thin mattress on the floor, and yet the moment I laid down I knew it was going to be one of the best sleeps I’ve ever had. The soft, white, linens felt like clouds, and the tranquility of the empty room made me feel like I was in a spa-treatment.
When the morning came I didn’t want to open my eyes and begin a day in which I had to leave this heaven! Our breakfast was served in-room again, at our little table in our kimonos. This meal was served with equal pomp and circumstance as dinner the night before. Multiple ceramic jars arrived containing all the accoutrements and each food item was a little masterpiece, down to the toast.
While I could have certainly enjoyed several days at Gora Kadan, one night was enough to soak in the experience, and all our budget could afford. There are luxury hotels all over the world, and many offer experiences that are unique, lavish, and special. But a night in a ryokan is unlike anything else. At Gora Kadan I didn’t feel for a moment like I was a tourist in a hotel. That day I was a true traveler, invited to be a guest at someone’s home. I was given my own room, a clean pair of clothes, and rejuvenated with hot bath and a wonderful, home-cooked meal. While the traditional has certainly been modernized, it still feels authentic, and allows you to dip your toes into Japanese culture.
Have you stayed at a Ryokan or had another traditional Japanese experience? Please share in the comments below! Read Next > Everything You Need To Know Before Visiting A Japanese Onsen