A reputation so good it’s true

by Andrew Rankin

Few things are more disturbing for the traveler than splashing out on a hotel with a world-class reputation, only to find that reputation out of date by 50 years, and standards dismally lower than less celebrated alternatives. One feels deceived, insulted.

Even when standards are high, a supercilious air overhangs many “top class” Western hotels and restaurants, making superiority and snobbery appear inseparable. The fact that such places do not immediately lose their customers and go out of business says something about all of us. After disasters in New York and Barcelona last year, my wife and I steeled ourselves for a night at Horai, consistently hailed by just about everybody as one of the top three ryokan in Japan.

Like its rivals, the O-an in Kanazawa and Kyoto’s Tawaraya, the Horai seems, on paper at least, a good contender for “inflated reputation” status. From its establishment in 1849, it tended to a stream of aristocrats and fat cats who visited Atami on the Izu Peninsular for the fresh air, seafood and plum orchards.

Nowadays, guests are more likely to be expense-account executives and foreign dignitaries. The brochure bubbles with self-congratulation, promising “a beauty that does not stop with the flow of time, and [is] never to be seen again.” Musing over this on the train, I thought it sounded too good to be true.

I am happy to report that this inn fully deserves the praise it has received. The taxi driver’s indignant frown confirmed that Horai is located just a few minutes from Atami Station, and from the moment the staff came out to greet us, it was clear that our stay was going to be free of silly pretensions. A beaming porter whisked away our bags and led us into the main hall. The okami-san (manageress) was kneeling by the steps to welcome us as if she had been there all afternoon. Smiles all round: How happy they were to see us! What a glorious time we were going to have!

We had arrived two hours earlier than requested, and our room was not ready. But no matter: more smiles. They served us plum tea in the immaculate lobby while we waited — for three and a half minutes. Our maid politely introduced herself, and fought the porter so forcefully for the right to carry our luggage that I had to intervene to save my laptop.

The Horai perches on a hillside overlooking Sagami Bay, and the best views are from the second floor. There are 11 guest suites, plus five detached cottages situated lower down, nearer the coastline. Our midpriced room was a generous size: a living-dining area of 12 tatami mats, an eight-mat bedroom, plus separate toilet and bath. A wide tokonoma along the living room, and a long veranda fronted by six tall windows, gave an additional sense of space.

The pride of Horai is Hashiri no Yu, an outdoor bath reached via a steep lantern-lit path of about 100 steps. Few inns can offer such a spectacular view. While the maid prepared our room for dinner, we soaked in the waters of the hot spring, watching the island hills change from misty gray through pink, blue and purple to black, as the sun set over the bay.

The rule that inns must serve dinner as well as breakfast was first introduced in the late 17th century to prevent male guests from deserting their lodgings to sample the local brothels. If anyone had told me in advance that the six-course dinner, served in our room, was to consist of nothing but fish and plants, I might have headed in that direction myself. As it turned out, though, the meal was terrific, a real eye-opener.

The ingredients were extraordinary. An assortment of appetizers included fish livers, rape blossoms, birch seeds and a delicious twig of something called horsetail. This was followed by a plate of excellent sashimi comprising flatfish, trough shells and isaki (grunt). There was no doubt about freshness: The poor things had probably been minding their own business in Sagami Bay while we were taking our bath.

Next, a yellowtail, and then the speciality of the house: Horai-mochi, a rice cake mixed with ginkgo nuts. Flavors were simple and presentation understated. We were being invited to enjoy natural tastes for what they were, rather than marvel at the chef. A dish of boiled vegetables contained the only thing on the menu I did not like, the stalk of a butterbur flower, simultaneously bitter and oily. The dessert summed up Horai’s no-nonsense philosophy: fresh strawberries served plain, fatter than golf balls and dripping with juice.

Breakfast, again served in the room, was a model of simplicity. The miso soup, made with beans fermented for three years, was the best I have ever tasted.

One night for two at the Horai topped 115,000 yen. Not cheap. But why should it be? Service had a professionalism that puts most Western hotels to shame, and it must have taken a small army to collect all those ingredients. I can’t tell you whether the Horai deserves to be number three, or number two, or whatever. I can only say that it was wonderful from start to finish, and we were sorry to leave.