It's hard to over-emphasize how relaxing -- as well as
traditionally Japanese -- it feels to stay in an "old school" ryokan :)
Puppet Ponyo ready to call it a night by
snuggling into one of the futon laid out for us
The garden of Gora-Kansuiro is just one
of the Hakone ryokan's attractions
On my very first visit to Japan some three decades ago now, I stayed at a couple of ryokan as well as a number of more Western-style business hotels. But while I've returned to the Land of the Rising Sun more than ten times since, I didn't stay again in a traditional Japanese inn until this most recent Japan trip -- when two friends with whom I had previously had an Okinawa rendez-vous with in early 2012, my mother and I went and spent two nights and the better part of three days in beautiful Hakone.
Back in the summer of 2012, I made my first visit to this popular resort area up in the mountains. During that daytrip from Tokyo, I got to thinking how I'd like to return one day with my mother in tow, and for a more leisurely visit that would include an overnight stay in one of the traditional ryokan to be found in Hakone. But it wasn't until this past May, when hanging out with a Tokyo-based friend of mine at such as Sasagin (and she told me she thought it'd be great for not only my mother and I to spend some time together in Hakone but for her and her mother to hang out with us there!), that the possibility became pretty real that we would do so.
After some months of planning and back-and-forth emailing among various parties, and on the second day of this recent Japan visit, the four of us took the Odakyu's actually not particularly romantic "Romancecar" from Shinjuku to Hakone-Yumoto, then the slower and more toy-like Hakone Tozan Train up to the hot spring town of Gora, located 553 meters above sea level and in bucolic surroundings. A short walk later, we were at Gora-Kansuiro, the atmospheric 14-room century-old ryokan that would be our Hakone base.
Arriving just a couple of hours or so before that evening's kaiseki dinner would be served, our party elected to spend the rest of the day at the ryokan doing such as wandering about the place (in whose grounds could be found a traditional garden whose fall foliage was a truly lovely sight), resting in the suite of washitsu (aka tatami rooms) that our party of four were very happy to make ourselves at home, and enjoying bathing in natural hot spring water (like one's expected to do at onsen). It's not that we didn't know that there's plenty to see and do in Hakone. But we also really wanted to ensure that we'd get a major ryokan experience that'd be relaxed and relaxing, and not rushed nor abbreviated.
Having scored the second largest set of rooms at the inn (which for some reason were priced the same as some of the smaller ones), our party of four ended up spending the bulk of our time in the spacious main room -- where we had breakfast and dinner, but also ended up sleeping (on futon laid out in a row that made it feel like we were having a slumber party, but on which we all managed to get plenty of restful shuteye). In addition, we majorly lucked out in having the principal ryokan staffer attending to us being the very friendly Okinawan whose name sounded like "Henna" (but which I think is more probably Hina or Hana) and took quite a shine to Puppet Ponyo (so much so that she'd greet and pet Puppet Ponyo whenever she came into the room and spotted my small plushie)!
So comfortable were we made to feel at the Gora-Kansuiro that we quickly got used to clothing ourselves in yukata (which came complete with a coat to wear when feeling cold) and tabi (socks with a separation between the big toe and other toes) provided by the ryokan for much of the time that we were there. And there surely was some wishful thinking involved in my mother not realizing until 20 minutes before we were due to check out that our time at this wonderful inn was quickly drawing to a close!
Prior to our stay at Gora-Kansuiro, I did have some worries that the ryokan experience might be too foreign, the old traditional rooms would be overly cold, there'd be too many rules and regulations to have to deal with, etc. But all those fears proved unfounded. And while I must admit to still not wanting to stay in a ryokan by myself and in places where I'd want to spend the bulk of the day outside the walls of my chosen accomodation, I really can see now how a ryokan stay (with one or more friends and/or loved ones) can be a truly wonderful experience -- and a traditional Japanese inn (particularly one like Gora-Kansuiro with its lovely setting, fine furnishings, friendly service and super delicious meals) can be an actual attraction and destination in and of itself.