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Tuesday, June 12, 2001

At ease in a Miyanoshita time capsule


Most visits to the Hakone area of Kanagawa Prefecture begin at the heavily touristed town itself, from where numerous well-trodden routes head off through the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park of which it is the official center.

All the comforts of the Meiji Era at the Hakone Fujiya Hotel

Although Hakone is jam-packed with souvenir shops and resort hotels, it enjoys the saving grace of excellent hot springs, making it an option to return to for an overnight stay. However, many visitors instead press on straight through the area, taking the Hakone Tozan Railway which starts at Hakone Yumoto.

Twenty minutes up from Hakone Yumoto is Miyanoshita, one of the area's oldest and most prosperous spas. The village is located along a ravine and is riddled with sulfurous streams, many of them piped there from several kilometers up in the hills.

Getting around the area is made easy by its excellent bus service, with narrow country roads leading from Miyanoshita across the Ashinoyu mountains to the shores of Lake Hakone.

Now much improved, the roads in the area, including the main road through the village, were, by all accounts, deplorably rough even at the beginning of the 20th century. Visitors described them as being strewn with waraji, the straw sandals worn not only by pedestrians, hikers and pilgrims, but also fitted to horses' hooves to protect them from being cracked or split on the stony routes.

It is just a short walk from Miyanoshita Station to the Fujiya Hotel, Japan's first European-style accommodation and one of the most charming places to stay in the area. Opened in 1878, the Fujiya remains a veritable time capsule with its 1930s wood-paneled dining room, a library full of old books and waitresses in Agatha Christie-period uniforms to complete the picture.

Although afternoon tea in the Orchid Lounge is the thing to do at the Fujiya, visitors also stop by for morning coffee on the first floor, which overlooks a section of the hotel's fine garden.

Miyanoshita is also the home of the famed Naraya Ryokan, used by the Imperial family on special occasions.

For many years, the two establishments competed fiercely for guests. Then, in true Japanese fashion, they decided on a compromise: The Fujiya would cater to Western tastes, and the Naraya would remain strictly Japanese-style. It was also agreed that the Fujiya, which seemed to have the better deal, would pay a fee to cover the Naraya's losses.

An antique waterwheel turns in the Hakone Fujiya Hotel's spacious gardens.

Over the years, the wealthy and famous have chosen to base themselves at the Fujiya on their mandatory Fuji-viewing excursions from Tokyo.

The hotel suited the leisured classes, including Europeans and Americans who were charmed and mollified by its familiar, unexpected comforts. So much so, in fact, that many who had intended to stay for just a few days ended up staying for weeks, and poured retrospective praise on the hotel. Colin Simpson, in his travelogue, "Japan: An Intimate View," opined that "the Fujiya is a quite exceptional hotel, and, after staying there, I saw no reason to down the claim that it is one of the best hotels not only in the Orient, but in the world."

This influx of foreign visitors reached a peak during the immediate postwar period, when the Fujiya was requisitioned as a rest and recuperation center for personnel and families working for the Allied Occupation forces. Two lodges in the older wing of the hotel, aptly named the "Restful Cottage" and "Comfy Cottage," continue the tradition of relaxation for which the hotel is famous.

The Fujiya's guest register makes fascinating reading. Among its many famous patrons have been Emperor Showa, the king and queen of Sweden, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. Photographs in the hotel's museum and along its corridors also show other guests, including Charlie Chaplin; John Lennon and Yoko Ono; and Yukio Mishima.

One early guest was the photographer Herbert G. Ponting, who recorded his impressions in his 1911 publication, "In Lotus-Land Japan." A master of the light, though contrived, style of his day, Ponting was happy to recount how Oko-san, the proprietor's daughter and one of the managers of the hotel, was "ever ready to chaperon the pretty little waitresses to distant spots to pose and give a touch of beauty to my pictures."

One of those features an image of a secluded village "in a cool ravine with a cascade such as wood nymphs love." Other beauty spots within 30 minutes' walk of the hotel, such as the waterfall at the Kiga and Jakotsu (the "Stream of the Serpent's Bones") rivers, can still be visited.

Meanwhile, despite the addition of some newer wings, tastefully designed to harmonize with the original building, tradition and continuity are as highly regarded by the Fujiya's present owners as they were by its founders.

Chrysanthemum as well as phoenix crests can be seem carved, embossed and modeled onto transoms, lintels, doors and gates both inside the hotel and on buildings on the grounds. If the former emblem, a symbol of the Imperial family, conveys a certain authority, it also represents a seal of quality and an association with tradition.

A former Imperial residence acquired by the hotel after the war is named the "Chrysanthemum Villa." The large outdoor swimming pool at the back of the rear garden, up a flight of steps and surrounded by potted plants and trellises, is still in much the same form as it is in many old photographs and accounts of stays at the Fujiya.

Indeed, the garden that visitors stroll through to reach the pool, with a number of original greenhouses, can have changed little since Meiji times.

As recently as 1999, Robin Gerster wrote in his book "Legless in Ginza," that "the Fujiya is actually a pretty docile, even dowdy establishment." This visitor took its dowdiness and docility as additional charms, well in keeping with its Victorian-Meiji image.

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