Since my twenties, I have been fascinated with Japan. While knowing basically nothing (I read Shogun and saw Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but that’s about it), I loved everything Japanese: sushi, eating with chopsticks, tatami mats, green tea, the minimalist aesthetic and impressive ability to design gardens out of rocks. I watched jealously while friends got to travel there, and my own husband started spending time in Tokyo for business. Then El Al opened direct flights from Tel Aviv to Tokyo, and suddenly, the faraway and unreachable was the same as a trip to New York. That did it. My husband scheduled some meetings. We booked our tickets. And I searched for a way to experience Japan in the mere 12 days we would be there.
“Hoshinoya Tokyo is a manifestation of an imaginary Tokyo where the ryokan culture has continually evolved instead of fading away.”
There is no sign on the Hoshinoya Tokyo, at least none that I can read. The discreet building, tucked into a side street of the financial district, looks more like a residence than a hotel. We are exhausted. Our direct flight from Tel Aviv had engine failure shortly after take-off, turning the 10-hour flight into a two-day ordeal. I arrive with three huge suitcases packed with clothes for every contingency, most of which I will never wear. As if to drive this point home, the resort staff appear and before we even leave the parking lot, take away all our shoes.
Hoshino Resorts was founded in 1914, with a mission to maintain traditional Japanese culture and hospitality. Yoshiharu Hoshino (who has an MBA from Cornell School of Hospitality) is the CEO of the family business, which has expanded to more than 40 locations in and outside of Japan.
All Hoshino properties are modeled on the traditional ryokan, or Japanese Inn. As opposed to the Western style of hotel, ryokan guests are invited in by their host and encouraged to treat the inn as their home. Lodgings are usually located in natural surroundings, where hot springs, mountains or oceans abound and the changing seasons can be celebrated.
A ryokan offers relaxation, intimacy and surprise. It is also exclusive. Outsiders cannot just enter. “There are many elements of traditional Japanese culture that are slowly disappearing,“ Hoshino reflects. “Hoshinoya Tokyo is a manifestation of an imaginary Tokyo where the ryokan culture has continually evolved instead of fading away.”
True to form, there is no long check-in at the lobby. Instead, we are welcomed straight into our room. There, tatami mats cover every surface. Paper shoji screens [room dividers] filter in soft light as if there were no office buildings outside.
A king-size futon rests on a low wooden platform, complete with fluffy white duvet and pillows. The bathroom has a deep tub for soaking, looking onto a rock garden, with the traditional Japanese low stool and bucket for washing.
Our room key is encased inside a simple wooden rectangle. “Understated” doesn’t begin to describe this experience.
I have waited my entire life to visit Japan, but now I am reluctant to leave the hotel. Why would I? After parting with all my footwear, I take off my socks as well and am soon padding around the entire hotel barefoot on an endless sea of wheat-colored mats that cover every available surface, including lobby, hallways and elevators.
To make my over-packing even more humiliating, no outside clothes are necessary. Guests are provided with “room wear,” a feature of all the Hoshino hotels we would visit. The Tokyo outfit is a deep brown kimono with under tunic and embroidered sash, complete with split-toed socks and sandals. I keep hiding mine, only to receive a brand new set on the bed every day.
EACH FLOOR has six rooms (84 in total in the resort) and its own ochanoma, a communal lounge with a reading platform, books, clay teapots and delicate cups, coffee, cold drinks, bite-size ice creams, flavored rice cakes and a daily offering of sweets.
I slip in and out of my room, which can be left unlocked to make bopping into the lounge easier. Doors slide. Openings appear. Koto music seeps out of the ceiling and walls. I am immersed in a bubble of relaxation. The hotel is fully booked, but for two days I see no one.
A millennium ago, Tokyo was covered by ocean, which became the source of a network of underground hot springs, and one of the most surprising features of the Hoshinoya Tokyo. The resort has drilled 1,500 meters underneath the building to reach geothermal water, which is now pumped up to the 17th floor.
This is the urban variation of the onsen, or traditional Japanese hot springs. Signs and a pamphlet make sure you understand the rules. One must remove all clothing. (“Don’t be shy!”) Wash thoroughly. Refrain from consuming alcohol while bathing. Do not contaminate the water by letting it touch your towel. The water is 41.5 degrees and faintly salty, reminiscent of the ancient ocean.
The pools are segregated, accessed through separate changing areas. An inner pool is lined with black slate. It connects to an outer pool, where the ceiling suddenly rises several stories, becoming a dark obelisk with a square of open sky above. It’s like being inside a volcano, a mountain, a geological formation of night and ocean and cool air.
At the other end of the hotel, the very bottom floor, is the dining area, split into a meandering series of private rooms. Three hundred years ago, a high-ranking samurai lived on this property, which is a short walk from the Imperial Palace. Now the walls are inlaid with stones from his fortress. Relics and reminders of the Edo period are laid into the floors.
Dinner is an elaborate combination of Japanese and French cuisine, where presentation and taste are equally revered. We are served the “five flavors of delight” (sour, salty, bitter, spicy and sweet) presented on green onyx stones, to be eaten from left to right. And that was only the first course.
Greater Tokyo is home to 39.1 million people, making it the largest city in the world. So with mixed emotions, I eventually venture out, choosing, of course, the day it is pouring rain. Luckily, I had engaged a guide, and since I have no shame, I immediately confess, “I really need to do some shopping.”
We enter the vast underground subway system, Tokyo’s lower kingdom with its own shopping venues, sushi bars, barbershops and shrines. We surface to wander, wet but determined, through temples where bad luck fortunes are carefully tied away, into stores where clerks still use an abacus. The streets are immaculate, yet there are no garbage bins in sight.
Tourists parade in elaborate kimonos they rented for the day, while the Japanese have their own uniform of perfectly tailored slacks, black shoes and sleek haircuts. I buy kitchenware until I can’t carry any more and beg my guide not to abandon me on the maze of subway lines. I’ve had enough of the busy outside world. I hand over my dripping hiking boots and step back into the hush of my urban ryokan, my Tokyo home.
And now I must discuss toilets, a topic on which I previously had no opinions whatsoever. But like all objects in Japan, the toilet is a work of art.
At first, I thought it was only the luxurious design of the Hoshinoya: the automatic lid lifting, the heated seat inviting me to relax, the numerous bidet options I had no idea what to do with, even a sound princess with its selection of background noises. [The Japanese sound princess is a device that emits a sound to cover any noises from the toilet stall.]
Then I discovered that every restaurant, department store, jazz club, train station – in short, any and every public venue – was thus equipped. Off the highway at a public rest stop was the most elaborate (and bewildering) facility of all, complete with a recording in Japanese and English that sang out “Thank you for using our toilet.”
The country of Japan is 3,800 kilometers long, roughly the distance between Seattle and the tip of Baja, California. From Hokkaido (north) to Kyushu (south) is a sophisticated network of shinkansen, or bullet-trains, that can travel up to 320 kilometers per hour. We are aboard one now, on our way to Kyoto.
In addition to the (now expected) luxurious toilet, there is a snack cart, individual wash towels, uniformed attendants and, most surprising of all, absolute silence. Not one person is on the phone or talking above a low whisper. The passenger seated in front of me asks my permission to recline his seat. What can I say? We’re not in Kansas anymore.
In fact, we are pulling into Kyoto station, a huge urban terminal that has me bewildered. Where are the quaint alleyways, the geishas, the temple gardens and Buddhist monks from the pictures? This is a city of 1.5 million. We grab a cab, give the driver the address of our next Hoshino destination and hope for the best.
Despite Kyoto’s large population, it is a landscape of single-story cottages, narrow streets, tiled roofs, children on bicycles, and schoolgirls with leather satchels on their backs. The city is surrounded by mountain ranges on three sides, creating a wide valley crisscrossed by rivers.
Home to 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, Kyoto somehow made it through WW II intact. Was it because secretary of state Henry Stimson had honeymooned here? Or because on the day that Hiroshima was bombed, Kyoto was covered in clouds?
Whatever the reason, we are thankful as we move through the gentle bustle of the city and reach the Togetsu-kyo Bridge. There, a wooden boat takes us 15 minutes up the Oi River, where we find that time can indeed be made to stand still.
Originally the retreat of a wealthy lumber merchant in the Edo period (there is one remaining structure that was his sake warehouse), this riverside property was rebuilt as a ryokan 100 years ago. While the Hoshinoya Kyoto opened in 2009, the gardens and many of the buildings date from long before.
There are 25 guest rooms all facing the river, nestled in a series of waterfalls, moss gardens, and gravel paths lined with wild iris. Across the river is Mount Ogura, where the spring leaves of Japanese maple are interspersed with purple wisteria. White egrets fish from the rocks below.
As we pull up to the boat dock, a bevy of Hoshino maidens wait to escort us. We climb the worn stone steps past the water garden, where we are welcomed with the music of temple bells, singing bowls and an iron drum.
The sound of water is everywhere. The river rushing over rocks, the gentle fall of water into a pond. Even the dry moss garden is arranged in a pattern of waves. Our room has black floors and blue walls, wheat-colored tatami mats, low chairs, futons on a wooden sleeping platform, and a wall of windows, open to the scent and sound and sight of the Oi River. A deep cypress tub waits in the bathing area. We are supplied daily with a different packet of herbs for soaking – lemon bath, yomogi bath, even a sake bath.
THE NEXT morning, I am up by 6 a.m.. Gone are the floor-length kimonos and sashes of Tokyo. The room wear is now a rough cotton tunic and pants. I never take mine off. In search of coffee, I head to the lobby, where I climb onto the floating tea room – a wooden deck with cushions and low tables suspended over the river.
I drink Nespresso and write bad haiku: Bamboo grove inside/my bowl remember not to/bite the forest floor or Mother Nature please/tell me what to leave behind/teach me how to pack.
When I’m not hypnotized by the sound of running water, I seem to be pursuing food. On a visit to a temple tea room, I spend a few minutes contemplating the gardens (“Window of Suffering,” “Window of Enlightenment”) and the rest of the time trying to convince them to sell me another chocolate-dusted mochi – the national sweet of red bean paste covered with sticky rice dough to which I am now addicted.
The frothy matcha tea is sublime, so we find the local tea shop that supplies it and stock up. We meet a Japanese friend in the Gion Quarter for a Kyoto specialty – yundofu, an entire meal consisting of tofu cooked more ways than I ever imagined.
We hear about Tenryu-ji, the local temple of the Heavenly Dragon, where Zen Buddhists serve a Michelin-star vegan lunch. After 14 courses of pickled, chewy, crispy, stewed, marinated and baked fare, I wonder how many rules of Japanese etiquette I will be breaking if I just lie in the middle of the tatami room and moan.
“Kyoto is a region with not only antiquity and tradition,” states a Hoshino press release, “but also an avant-garde character that actively takes in and creates new things.” So that explains it.
In our meanderings, I begin to notice that there is jazz music everywhere. In the dining rooms of the resort, the lobby, any restaurant we enter. We hop in a random taxi. Jazz. We enter a store. Jazz. Gone are the five-tone scale and plucked strings that broadcast “You’re in Japan!”
And for a town which is the center of green tea in all its forms, there are is astonishing number of coffee venues. I’m not talking about Starbucks or Tully’s or even the ubiquitous 7-Elevens. These are small, well-worn coffee shops with hand grinders, their own roasters, sepia photos of “back when” and vintage barstools. Playing, of course, jazz. In Tokyo, I only saw a smattering. In Kyoto, there are a few on every block.
On the cliff above the Hoshinoya is a Zen temple whose bell we hear at regular intervals. One day we decide to return on the narrow path along the river instead of riding the boat. Handwritten signs from the monks are posted along the way advertising the GREAT VIEW, the need to leave behind ego, the challenge of awakening the formless self.
The recent rain has discouraged other walkers, swelled the river, and sent most of the pleasure boats back to their dock. The forest ramps up its soundtrack of rustling leaves and birdsong. Up ahead, a gardener is patiently smoothing the waves of gravel next to our room. While the river rises and lowers beside us, always moving on.
We have moved to the KAI Sengokuhara, a mountain resort in the Fuji-Hakone – Izu National Park, where Mt. Fuji rises in the background and the active volcano Owakudani rumbles and smokes. KAI is the “Boutique Hot Spring Ryokan” brand of Hoshino Resorts, focusing on location and experience. And so far, it’s lived up to every part of that description.
There are 16 rooms at this resort, each with a balcony overlooking the valley and mountains. The hot springs water here is provided by the local volcano, of course. And while the hotel has a main onsen facility on the ground floor, there is a small private tub on every room’s balcony.
Gone are the Westerners. It is the second weekend of a national holiday, and for the first time we see families with children and grandparents.
Name tags of staff are in Japanese characters only. Breakfast is full-on local cuisine: yam pancakes cooked at the table, roasted tea, light breakfast miso, smoked fish, decorative leaves, and the arrival of nato the “stinky bean” (the Japanese equivalent of Marmite). There is a rather miserable coffee maker in the lobby, where the caffeine-addicted gather before breakfast. But coffee is not allowed in the dining room, lest it overpower the traditional aromas.
To get here, we left our sleek bullet train behind at Odawara station and transferred to the local Hakone-Tozen line. This bright red mountain train has three cars and the steepest climb in Japan. On the 40-minute ride of ascents and stops and switchbacks, a cheery voice points out historic attractions in the valley, engineering feats and places of interest.
From one small art museum established in Gora in 1952, this sleepy mountain town now hosts dozens of galleries and sculpture gardens, as well as a museum for just about everything. There are traditional crafts, photography, ceramics, woodcuts, Venetian glass, impressionists to Dutch masters to surrealists and contemporary painters, even a doll house museum.
In this spirit of creativity, and probably because it’s just fun, the KAI Sengokuhara has an open art studio of its own. There await 3,000 colored pencils, shelves of brushes, sketch books, easels, blank canvases and tanugooi – the traditional Japanese towel – to be colored with bright brush markers.
Two walls of paint are arranged by morning colors and the darker shades of night. Guests are encouraged to wander in, sit down and dabble away to the calming sounds of a small waterfall nearby. On an airy floor above is a gallery that showcases a different Japanese artist every four months, offering their work for sale.
The look of this hotel is contemporary, with sleek, almost Scandinavian, furnishings. The luggage carts are molded from one piece of light wood. The dining areas separated not by opaque shoji screens but honey-colored slats. Even the room wear has been pared down to lightweight cotton with a loose jacket.
It is as if the resort is itself a blank canvas. The eye is meant to be drawn to artwork on the walls or the changing palette of nature outside. The current palette is spring: an iridescent canopy of leaves, bursts of wildflowers, and hillsides of new grass. Reluctantly, I leave my half-painted towel, and we head out.
IN ADDITION to providing the healing waters of local onsen, Mt. Owakudani is a smoking sulfuric spectacle of its own. We take the gondola from Gora over the crest of the mountain, where smoke rises in the distance, until suddenly we are crossing a bubbling cauldron of fire and ash. Only Frodo is missing.
It’s the halfway point, but everyone disembarks. Here you can buy a sulfur-baked black egg (an omen of good luck) or better yet, be memorialized in a photograph next to the six-foot-tall egg sculpture. (The line is long, but patient.) It is freezing, with not a souvenir sweatshirt in sight, only stacks of black eggs and bottles of sake. Below are the sapphire waters of Lake Ashinoko, and hovering serenely in the distance, the snow-capped face of Fuji-san, waiting for its turn to erupt.
There are plenty of tourist attractions below (a pirate ship that tours the lake, an aquarium, a zoo) and more families on vacation. But we head off to the Forest Therapy Trail – a three-kilometer hike along the lake, which, true to its name, is peaceful and almost empty.
Throughout this trip our, inability to speak Japanese never seems to be a problem. We stop random passers-by who patiently seek to understand, then escort us to the correct train track, bus stop or temple entrance, waiting to make sure we are all right. Restaurant owners walk us to our taxi at the curb, then stand in the dark empty street until we have safely been driven away. And those were total strangers. The exchange of farewells and thanks-yous with someone we knew could go on for a good 10 minutes.
While looking for a hiking trail on our last day, we approach one gentle soul who isn’t from the area. So he searches out a policeman for us. Together they find maps, draw directions, and then insist we take their pen as a gift. I’m not even sure what language we spoke. The eight-kilometer trail is so successfully hidden, that we seem to be the only ones on it.
A few hours later, we emerge sweaty and rumpled in the middle of (surprise) nowhere. But what is this on the other side of the road? We have stumbled onto the restaurant and members club of the Hakonekohan golf course. There are signs at the entrance warning of inappropriate clothing (no sandals or jeans allowed), but they are way too polite to kick us out.
Instead, we are seated at the far end of a room where waiters with bow ties and white gloves serve the Japanese corporate presidents who can afford this sport. There is a pro shop, changing rooms, snacks for a long day on the course and, thank God, coffee. We so obviously don’t belong here, but politeness rules. We thank the waiter. He thanks us. We thank him. Arigato. Arigato gozaimasu. Thank you. Thank you, Japan, for taking us in.
The writer was accorded complimentary amenities by Hoshino Resorts. www.hoshinoresorts.com/en/