Gora Hanaougi Ryokan - A traditional hotel stay in Hakone
Updated: Aug 30, 2020
Japan is not a country that bumbles its way boldly into your consciousness. It does not proclaim its presence loudly, insistent on being noticed, proud with self-importance.
Rather, it gets subtly under your skin. Creeps gently into your heart.
From the gorgeous Japanese gardens - meticulously maintained and beautiful to behold - to the quality of the local craftsmanship and the abiding pride of the artisans. Or the artful way of dining - the food as visually enchanting as it is delicious - and the respectful way that every human interaction takes place.
Japan shows its style and its substance at every turn.
And nowhere was this more in evidence than during our 2 day stay at traditional Gora Hanaougi Ryokan in Hakone.
Being first-timers to Japan, we were keen to experience both a stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan, as well as try out the famous onsen hot spring baths. Gora Hanaougi gave us the opportunity to do both!
Everything about this gorgeous hotel speaks to its sense of tradition. From the moment we arrive at the entrance to the ryokan, and the doorman seems aghast that we have somehow missed the hotel's private lift and have had to walk (gasp!) 5 minutes along the road to the hotel, we feel welcomed.
(Tip: on exiting Sounzan station at the top of the Hakone Tozan cable car, turn left (south) away from the main road - the lift down to Gora Hanaougi is a 1 minute walk away, across from the sister hotel 'Gora Hanaougi Sounkaku'.)
On entering the ryokan, we surrender our luggage as well as our shoes, the latter replaced by the slippers we will use while on the premises.
Each time we leave the hotel during our stay our shoes are awaiting us, returned with a smile, and without us needing to identify them. It says something about the care and personal touch of this lovely ryokan that we were greeted by name throughout our stay, and any of our individual preferences were noted and remembered.
Next we are lead to the reception area, a peaceful room where we are served some tea while we relax from our journey and wait the short while as our room is prepared. We are also asked about our preferences for meal times, as well as given any information we need for sight-seeing around the local Hakone area.
The staff at Gora Hanaougi are all graciously and unfailingly polite, as well as gorgeously dressed in kimonos and yukatas. They fold gently to their knees each time they address us or serve anything. For westerners used to the somewhat more brash ways of the service industry in our home countries, this unassuming approach was just one of many touches that we loved about this ryokan, and its commitment to Japanese culture and history.
Once our room is ready for us, we are lead through the stylish halls of the ryokan - all warmly lit wood paneled spaces, filled with a mix of modern and traditional furnishings. We are shown the dining area, and the separate men's and ladies' communal onsen baths, for which we get instructions on opening hours and how to make use of them.
Bedrooms and Onsen Baths
We have reserved a bedroom type 2F at Hanaougi - one of the standard rooms in the ryokan - with western style beds.
The rooms here are tastefully decorated, but are far from ostentatious. This is traditional Japanese luxury - understated, simple and comfortable.
Even this entry-level room is spacious, with plenty of room to move around or lay about. The floors are all covered in the tatami straw mats typical of this style of hotels.
At the entrance to the room is a separate space with cupboards for clothing and belongings, as well as the usual modern Japanese toilet with enough buttons to make an uninitiated tourist nervous. While at the other end of the room by the private balcony is the shower - perfectly placed for taking those pre- and post-onsen rinses.
All rooms in this ryokan come with their own private open-air onsen baths as standard, views over the surrounding Hakone area and the mountains in the background.
Ours was large enough to fit both of us if we were prepared to get cozy, but was more comfortable individually. There are bamboo roller blinds which can be pulled down to give a more private enclosed feeling to the onsen, but we prefer to leave it open for the cherry blossom scenery below and the mountains in the distance.
It has been unseasonably chilly during our early-April visit to Japan, and here in the hills we even had a few bits of snow. Sitting in a steaming onsen bath looking out over the countryside while the snow comes down all around was one of those truly magical and ethereal experiences which will stay with us forever.
It is key onsen etiquette to rinse yourself thoroughly before entering the bath - onsen are for soaking, not for cleansing - and this is true even of a private onsen, as the water is kept clean for users further down the stream. In the rooms at Gora Hanaougi the showers are perfectly placed for this purpose, with their own door leading onto the balcony.
The onsen water itself is hot - almost uncomfortably so. It can be cooled down via a cold water tap if required, although these are normal water pipes not from natural springs, and so to some extent this will dilute the mineral content of the bath.
The supposed benefits of bathing in the natural volcanic hot spring water of an onsen are myriad, and Hakone itself is famous for the high quality of its onsen sources. These purported healing properties depend on the exact minerals in the water content, and include things like easing muscle pain or alleviating skin conditions, as well as increasing metabolism, improvements in arthritic conditions and general detoxification and anti-aging benefits.
We spend a good bit of time relaxing and gazing contemplatively out from the soothing waters of our hot tub, as the misty heat numbs our senses and lulls our minds. After each bath, we find ourselves wanting nothing so much as to lie down for a good nap. Whatever the alleged physical benefits, we can certainly vouch for the sense of mental well-being after a good onsen soak!
Dinner and Breakfast - traditional Japanese kaiseki cuisine
Meals at the Gora Hanaougi ryokan are as traditional and refined as the rest of the hotel experience.
One of the best surprises for us was that each group of visitors to Gora Hanaougi is given their own individual cubicle for their meals, surrounded by traditional Japanese shoji panel dividers, as well as the same member of staff at each meal time, awaiting our arrival at the entry to the dining space. This gave a real sense of occasion and exclusivity to our meal times - each one felt like a private dining experience in a high-end restaurant.
And so, dressed in our chosen Japanese yukata or jinbei (both of which are provided for men), we made our way to dinner at our preferred time.
Our stay here was on a half board basis - dinner and breakfast all-inclusive, with the exception of alcoholic drinks. We ordered some sake to get us started, and the food began to arrive.
Meals at Gora Hanaougi are kaiseki - the Japanese haute cuisine once described by CNN as 'the world's finest meal'. At the epitome of Japanese dining - this is food fit for an emperor.
Kaiseki is multi-course dining, and as the plates roll out sequentially before us we are transfixed. Everything about these meals is considered and beautiful.
Julien at one points says that this is the first country he's visited that rivals France for its art de table - the idea that a diner's senses should be engaged beyond simply the taste, the visuals as important as the flavours - and here it is on full display. These meals are a bit of dining theatre, from the delicately crafted dishes to the colourful and varied ingredients, everything is elegant presentation.
There is seafood and seaweed, various soups and exotic sauces. Vegetables - pickled, steamed, battered, raw - every which way. There is sushi and sashimi. Pork, duck and dumplings. Steamed rice, boiled rice, sweet potatoes and yams. There is Hida beef - the best beef in Japan! - every night: first with our own little hot stone burner to grill it to our liking, and the next night a typical Japanese shabu-shabu hotpot to boil it in.
There are flowers for decoration, flowers to be eaten. Traditional mochi sweets to accompany some dishes, fresh fruits to finish, and green tea to drink it all down.
And by the end of it all we are thoroughly sated.
Breakfast the following morning brings more exotism, not least because this is very far removed from anything you will find on a breakfast buffet in a western hotel. Fussy eaters be warned. Rice porridge, sashimi, tofu or grilled fish - all are par for the course during these extensive and filling breakfasts.
And while we loved the novelty of the traditional dining experience, it is fair to say that being eyeballed by your breakfast fish first thing in the morning as your empty stomach rumbles can be a little disconcerting.
Our meals at Hanaougi exceeded any expectations we might have had! While eating in this way is certainly an acquired taste for western palates, and it is fair to say there were quite a few moments where we dubiously tried yet another odd tasting unidentifiable morsel, to us that is part of the experience and joy of travel and of new and exotic cultures.
We would be hard-pressed to come up with many better hotel food experiences than that offered at Gora Hanaougi - the sheer spectacle and quality of everything that was put before us is hard to overstate.
How to get to Gora Hanaougi
Make your way to Odawara train station, at the foot of Mount Hakone - direct trains are available from both Tokyo and Kyoto, many of which are included in the JR Pass.
Traveling onward around Hakone from Odawara station will require purchasing additional tickets, and the Hakone Free Pass is the best value - we simply purchased it on arrival at Odawara.
Next catch a Hakonetozan line train to Hakone-Yumoto Station, where you will change platforms for another Hakonetozan train to Gora station. These trains climb sedately through some gorgeous scenery, and the journey is a pleasure in itself.
On arrival at Gora station, it is possible to request a pickup from the hotel. However, unless you are weighed down by luggage (in which case, consider using the Takkyubin service), rather jump on the Hakone Tozan Cable Car (which is actually not a cable car at all, more like a funicular train running up a steep-ish incline), and ride it to its destination at Sounzan station. This ride only lasts a few minutes, but is a fun way to end the trip. Gora Hanaougi ryokan is a quick walk from the station.
One thing to note: the various trains and actual cable cars on these Hakone mountain routes are sometimes closed due to weather or for maintenance, so do check in advance.
How we spent our 1 day in Hakone
Being a geothermal area famous for its hot springs, naturally one of the main reasons for which tourists visit Hakone is to experience its onsen - and of these there are numerous options spread all around the region.
Since we were staying locally, and had all the onsen access we could want right in Gora Hanaougi ryokan, we also wanted to get out and about a bit during the day to discover the surroundings.
In Hakone there are plenty of alternative things for a tourist to do, comprising various museums, many temples and shrines, a visit to the volcanic valley itself at Owakudani to see (and smell!) the active sulpher vents, or riding the mountain cable cars and pirate boats, all the while surrounded by the beautiful mountain scenery.
Most of these activities can be done by following the so-called Hakone Loop, which is exactly what we decided to do. For some more information on that, have a look at our review of our day itinerary following the Hakone Loop circuit.
Happily inspired by our Hakone adventures and slightly footsore, we were back at Gora Hanaougi late-afternoon for the perfect antidote to an active day out wandering the hills: another soak in our blissful onsen!
We had many great hotel stays during our 3 weeks honeymooning in Japan, but easily our favourite was our 2 night visit to timeless Gora Hanaougi. This traditional ryokan is elegant and serene, the service second-to-none, and the food of the highest standard. We were made to feel welcome and cared for from start to finish by the attentive staff, and we came away feeling peacefully relaxed after a stay that had also lived up to all our onsen expectations.
Luxury ryokan do not come much better than this!