We really hit the ground running as soon as we reached Tokyo. With only three full days there, I was keen to see as much as possible and our days were filled with early starts, tours and a lot of walking around the city. Needless to say that our non-stop itinerary, coupled with jet lag, left us rather exhausted.
A relaxing stay in the beautiful mountainous region of Hakone was exactly what we needed to reboot, rejuvenate and get ready to see more of this wonderful country. Hakone is only half an hour away from Tokyo by bullet train and the town can easily be enjoyed as a day trip. Here you can explore Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, take in views of Mount Fuji, sail Lake Ashino-ko and visit various museums and gardens. Sadly we didn’t do any of these things as most of the time we were there it poured with rain, but the main reason we were there was to stay at Gora Kadan, a traditional Japanese ryokan.
I was very keen to spend a night in a Japanese-style inn as it would allow us to immerse ourselves in the Japanese culture and fully experience ‘omotenashi’ or Japanese hospitality. I chose Gora Kadan, renowned as the very best and most luxurious ryokan in Japan and a former retreat of an imperial family. As soon as you arrive at Gora Kadan, your journey is an interesting one, we were greeted by an English-speaking host and introduced to a lady who would be our butler for the night and assist us with every aspect of our stay. We were led through the long and beautiful corridor of the hotel, gasping at the beauty of the views and the verdant mountains of Hakone.
We arrived at our suite and paused in the ‘agari-kimachi’ area, a small hallway where we removed our shoes before entering what was a totally breath-taking room. Following the traditional style of a ryokan the floor was covered in tatami mats, a low wooden table with ‘zabuton’ (seating cushions) sat in the middle of the floor and paper sliding doors known as ‘shoji’ separating the different parts of the room. The minimalist style was worlds away from the opulence of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo but there was beauty in the purity and simplicity of our surroundings, the perfect place to find peace and serenity. A gentle fragrance of flowers drifted throughout Gora Kadan, not only relaxing us but helping to engage the senses to fully appreciate the experience of being in a ryokan.
The bedroom area had similar neutral tones to the living room and while it’s traditional to sleep on a futon, I had requested Western-style beds. Sorry, I know it’s a cop-out but I really was struggling with the jet lag and keen for a good night sleep in the calm surroundings of Gora Kadan.
And now for the best bit! Hakone is also famous for its hot springs and our room had its on private onsen (hot spring bath) but I’ll come back to that later!
Our butler prepared us some tea and gave us a small Japanese rice-based sweet while we made our wine choices for our special dinner that night.
In the room we were provided with our own yukata (a casual kimono) to wear for the duration of our stay. A kimono is a very traditional style of dress and there are strict rules on how to wear them as it is considered a formal garment. The yukata is a less-formal and a lighter robe for summer and historically they are what the noble people wore after a bath. Our butler explained the correct way to wear it and that it was important to wear the left panel over the right as the other way is how the dead are dressed in Japanese culture. We were also given ‘tabi’, traditional Japanese split toe socks, and ‘geta’ which are shoes that are a cross between flip-flops and clogs.
Ready to go in our outfits, we left our gorgeous room to explore the rest of the ryokan. Gora Kadan is located in a beautiful valley, right at the foot of Mount Fuji and there were stunning vista views from various vantage points in the hotel.
We also admired the incredible architecture of the hotel which is in perfect harmony with the natural surroundings.
Throughout the hotel you can find little places to sit and relax or beautiful areas to stroll through.
There are beautiful water features…
And stunning rock gardens…
The perfect place to pause and put things into perspective.
As bloggers, we always so worried about being ‘Instagram-ready,’ not a hair out-of-place, perfect make up and eye brows on fleek…but the Japanese have a strong belief in Wabi-sabi. It’s a complex school of thought but put simply it’s about appreciating the beauty of imperfect and modest humble things, and authenticity should be revered above all things. Gora Kadan is an utterly beautiful place, but it’s a quiet subtle beauty and some of the best things about it are invisible. Like the feeling you have when you’re there, the connections you forge with your partner and the memories that you leave with.
The hotel also has a large spa and gym area offering treatments for the guests and large indoor pool leading to a jacuzzi in the Japanese garden. There are also public onsen (hot spring bathes); a separate one for men and for women. One thing I will say, is be aware that Gora Kadan is westernised; there’s a gift shop and rooms have a TV and high-speed WiFi but you really do still feel immersed in Japanese culture.
We didn’t have any interest in using the public onsen as we had our own private one in our room. We headed back and cracked open a mini bottle of champagne ready to take a dip in the hot spring. As Japan is a volcanically active country there are a large number of hot spring baths throughout the country, Hakone is one of the most popular places to visit the hot springs. Now traditional onsen etiquette dictates that you enter the bath nude, and as I’m not a fan of public nudity a private spring bath was the ideal way to test out the healing powers of the water, heated by volcanic rock. Japanese people believe that soaking in a onsen can cure a number of ailments, and I can definitely confirm that my jet lag was alleviated by the soak.
Meals are served in the privacy of your room and we were asked to confirm our dinner time when we arrived, punctuality is incredibly important here and our butler turned up exactly on time setting the table and laying out our wine and some sake to try.
At Gora Kadan, luxury comes in the form of meticulous attention to detail and once again our wedding anniversary was noted and we were given a glass of champagne to start. Our butler had taken a picture of us as we strolled around the hotel earlier and at dinner she presented us with a framed print of the picture. We sat on the floor, in the traditional Japanese style, and at first it was a little uncomfortable but we soon got used to and found less awkward ways of sitting.
Our meal was kaiseki, a fine dining multi-course dinner often served in ryokans but also in restaurants throughout the country. Our appetiser was two pieces of asparagus, one wrapped in salmon and one in fresh yuba (tofu skin), along with prawn, parsley and sesame cream.
Next came the Hors d’oeuvre which included Japanese steamed egg custard with edamame beans and lily bulb, shushi mixed with sea urchin wrapped in oak leaf, myoga ginger, lotus root mixed with sea bream roe, omelet, kidney bean tempura, boiled spinach with soy and steamed abalone with abalone liver vinegar. As you can see each dish was incredibly intricate and everything is there for a reason, even the crockery, all with the intention of balancing the taste, texture, appearance and colour of the food.
Next, green pea soup with egg and wakame seaweed tofu, sliced carrot, udo and kogomi mountain vegetable and topped with pepper leaves.
Next up, always one of my favourite courses, the sashimi. At Gora Kadan they serve the fresh catch of the day with the usual soy sauce and wasabi.
Our next course was an absolutely delicious grilled trout with chopped pepper leaves, candied new sweet potatoes and a ginger stick. The principles of kaiseki emphasise fresh and seasonal ingredients prepared in such a way as to emphasise their flavour. The kaiseki dinner also follows the aesthetic wabi-sabi principle, the meal is simple and uncluttered and the dishes are supposed to be savoured so that all the senses are engaged and the meal is fully appreciated. I’ll go into more details about kaiseki traditions in another post, as this one is already getting very long!
Next, a steamed dish of aubergine, pumpkin, octopus, radish and yuzu flakes. Dish after dish that was presented to us was simply wonderful prepared with such care by the chef. If you’re not staying at Gora Kadan, there is a separate restaurant which you can visit for the day and sample Chef Makoto Kobayashi’s cuisine.
Following on was harvested cabbage, roast wagyu beef, dried bonito flakes and a light drizzle of mustard soy sauce to enhance it.
Yes, it’s a lot of food but served in very tiny portions so you don’t actually over eat and we were not left feeling uncomfortably full. Unlike in western cuisine, in a Japanese kaiseki meal, the rice is served at the end along with some miso soup and Japanese pickles.
And finally, as we found was the standard tradition, dessert was very light and usually fruit-based. Three beautiful simple fresh cherries were presented to us with soft sweet bean jelly; the ideal way to finish such a lengthy meal. Having our meal served in our room meant we could just roll into bed! Once again, our butler was very specific about what time breakfast would be served and we confirmed she would come to our room at 9am.
True to her word and on the dot of 9am our butler knocked on our door.
At Gora Kadan you are offered the choice of a Western breakfast or a Japanese breakfast based on rice and fish. Of course, we went for Japanese (I can have toast and yogurt anytime) with Mr S choosing trout as his main dish, and black cod being my choice. As our butler bought in the breakfast dishes I didn’t know when it would end as she placed dish after dish on the table!
Admittedly I didn’t know what all the seasonings and condiments were for but the cod was utterly delicious and though it was a little odd to have fish for breakfast, it was a really interesting change.
Sadly I don’t have too many words of advice for exploring Hakone as bad weather meant our best course of action was to head for Kyoto the next day but check out the Japan Travel Guide for things to do in the area. Also one of my favourite chefs Nobu Matsuhisa has a Kobe beef restaurant near Gora Kadan called Itoh Dining by Nobu.
Needless to say a day and night of total relaxation at Gora Kadan was the perfect cure for our jet lag. We left the ryokan feeling relaxed, refreshed and ready for our next adventure in Kyoto.
Have you ever stay in a ryokan? What did you think?
PIN FOR LATER: