Traditional Ryokan in Hakone, Japan
Here's where planning our entire trip just two weeks before we flew broke down a little. The Hakone Loop was something we really wanted to do, and although some people had told us that it was possible to do from Tokyo in a day, we thought we'd take a little extra time and spend a night in Hakone on either side of the loop so at least we had the whole day to do it rather than having to come from and back to Tokyo. I think all-in-all it saves about 3 hours but I could be wrong.
A step outside the larger cities seemed like a perfect opportunity for us to stay in a traditional ryokan. Unfortunately for us we were left with two options; somewhere really expensive that looked out of this world and had great reviews (totalling nearly £1000 for the two nights which we just couldn't do) or spending less (£400 for two nights) on a place with some not-so-great feedback. There didn't seem to be anything lower than that available so we opted for the latter. The place that we found looked great (and it did in real life too!) and was close to the main train station but the only room left for us was a half-board smoking room . We are definitely non-smokers and with one vegetarian and another who doesn't eat fish, we wanted to be in control of our meals....
The reviews warned us that it was a little tired which turned out to be true, and the staff didn't speak any English but we didn't mind at all - we had the Google Translate app which went a long way to help us and we all managed to find some way of understanding one-another. The staff there (and actually everywhere else that we went) were great; polite, friendly and couldn't do enough to host us.
Our room was more of a suite and was made up of three interconnecting rooms and whilst a little worn we thought it was a beauty; paper sliding dividers, tatami floors and a view right out onto the river where we watched a Heron and Kingfisher catching their breakfasts. Aside from the smell of stale smoke it was pretty decent and certainly more traditional than our previous hotel experiences.
As it was half-board we had to attempt to relay our dietary requirements to the staff and we had made sure to do that when we booked the room. The food was brought to us in our room and served at a pre-arranged time. It was a kaiseki-style meal so made up of multiple components and delivered on tiny individual dishes that looked INCREDIBLE. Visually the food was just so perfect and the time and skill that must have gone into preparing each part blew our minds a little. There was a slight mix-up in that I was given sea urchin in one of my dishes and though I spotted it before I ate it I then became quite suspicious of the rest of it and so that didn't do wonders for the experience. Honestly, I think that perhaps we need a little more training when it comes to this type of food because the textures are like nothing we've ever known. We tried absolutely everything though and there were certain things that we did like so not all bad and we are always happy to learn! Food in Japan was somewhat of a struggle for me but I'll comment on that properly in our round-up post.
Hakone is a hot spring town and so most of the ryokans have naturally-heated onsen and our hotel was no different. There were separate baths for men and women and a private bookable one that could be shared. We only managed time (30 minutes) in the private bath due to the meal-time situation and for some reason or another it didn't quite hold the same magic as in Nara or the Andon Ryokan in Tokyo.
Obviously we totally take the blame for our smoking/non-smoking situation and I think that if it hadn't have been for that we would have felt much more comfortable there, but as it was we just didn't. Add the unfamiliar (and not always in a good way) food experience and we considered that our late-booking a bit of a failure. It was nothing to do with the hotel itself but more that it just wasn't really for us. We learnt that we like the freedom of being able to eat wherever and whatever and also that the smell of a room really goes a long way to influence our experience of it.
We'd like to reiterate that we don't hold the hotel accountable for our feelings - it just wasn't to our taste.
We also made a short video of our trip to Japan, click here to check it out