The symmetrical beauty of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, the meditative colossus of Kotokuin, and the Zen-inspired splendors of Kenchoji and Enkakuji may win Kamakura inscription on the World Heritage List. Comparatively unknown are its Western-style buildings constructed after Kamakura became accessible from Tokyo by rail in about an hour in 1889. Those meriting preservation receive the designation “Scenically Important Structures.”
One so designated in 2004 is the New Kamakura Hotel, which opened as the Yamagata Hotel in 1924. The building features neat rows of wooden sash windows set in mustard-yellow hand-textured stucco walls. The roof is hipped, and battens parallel to its slope anchor the copper roofing. This boutique hotel is too charming — like the set for a cinematic romance — for its location at the rear of a car park.
While its design charms, its semiotics surprise. The parking valets work out of a shack topped by an outsize sign reading “Motor Pool.” Billboards display drawings of the hotel over which are superimposed photos of writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa and poet Kanako Okamoto. The transom above the hotel entrance says “Vailkommen,” a Swedish welcome in combination with tall palm trees transporting you to a polyglot port in South America, an illusion strengthened by a mixed Francophone couple coming out of the white swing doors.
I pushed open the doors. A breeze from the back door rustled the leaves of the potted hemp palm in the narrow lobby where an elderly woman and goggle-eyed youth with hair dyed brown chattered. Opposite the low sofas on which they sat was a photo of Akutagawa in summer kimono, juxtaposed with a magazine spread of 23-year-old actress Haruka Ayase.
A sign at the front desk said guests should check in at the Motor Pool.
I give my name. “Ah, the photographer. Feel free to enter any unlocked room in the hotel.”
With a carte blanche surprising post 9/11, I returned to the hotel and climbed the stairs to the second floor.
The rooms were not cut by a cookie cutter; each had a distinctive theme. The “Sakura” room, for example, had pink counterpanes and windows opening on to the great cherry tree in front of the hotel.
Men’s and women’s toilets were beyond a transom inlaid with vintage stained glass from Yorkshire, England.
I descended the stairs to the lobby where the young man now sat alone. He had come from Tokyo to visit the grave of Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, writer and scholar of French literature, at Jochiji Temple. He held a copy of the writer’s “Heraldry of Thought.”
“Was our meeting fated?” he asked. Before I could answer, he began elucidating efforts by Japanese researchers to elude Russell’s paradox, the logical paradox discovered by philosopher Bertrand Russell.
I excused myself and wandered in search of lunch. A short way past the entrance to the Enoden Railway I dropped by the Cafe Rondino.
The triangle-shaped cafe widened from the entrance to the counter. Men were reading newspapers over a cup of java, and women with shopping bags were tucking into pastries with tea. I ordered “tuna cheese toast.” From my counter seat I marveled at the fluid efficiency of the short-order cook. A smoker plopped down beside me. The cook deftly shifted this regular to a newly vacant table. The delish open-face sandwich with potato salad and iced tea was good value for ¥750. This local haunt far from the madding crowd on the station’s east side was a serendipitous find.
I met Sumi Onoue at the hotel. She was dressed in a blouse and slacks, there being no uniform for staff of this homey establishment. The cheerful, matronly manager took me on a tour.
Of particular note was the second-floor Haikara-dori, a room tastefully remodeled on a Scandinavian theme using timbers from a building torn down to make way for construction of the new annex. The room won a Tokyo Television contest in which designers compete to create the most tasteful room in 24 hours within a budget of ¥500,000.
Onoue points to the “Komachi” near the top of the stairs. “This room was shared by Akutagawa and Okamoto,” she says.
Akutagawa escaped sweltering Tokyo for Kamakura on Aug. 7, 1912, and summered at the Hiranoya, a villa complex located on the present site of the Hotel New Kamakura. In the cottage across the garden from his lodged the Okamoto family — Ippei (1886-1948), later a popular cartoonist; Kanoko (1889- 1939); and son Taro (1911-96), a future avant-garde artist best remembered for the “Tower of the Sun” at Osaka Expo ’70.
Akutagawa was already a short-story writer of repute. Kanoko, an aspiring novelist, wanted him to read a manuscript of hers, but he couldn’t be bothered. She met him again 15 years later, in early 1927. The physically and mentally exhausted writer committed suicide in July. Kanako was haunted by the image of his gaunt body. In her first acclaimed story, “The Dying Crane” (1936), based on her observation of Akutagawa at the Hiranoya in 1912, she cast a pitiful eye on him.
In the public mind their acquaintance has blossomed into a romance. But an affair was unlikely. In 1912 she was a new wife with a baby — circumstances not conducive to a menage trios. Neither is there epistolary evidence of a relationship. And if storyteller and poet had trysted, it would have been in the Hiranoya, not in the hotel built 12 years later.
The Hiranoya was a branch of a venerable Kyoto restaurant. The Kamakura location was chosen because it was already the site of a teahouse where the Meiji Emperor dallied with concubine Naruko Yanagihara during sojourns at the nearby Imperial villa. Their son ascended the throne as the Taisho Emperor.
Onoue showed me relics of the Imperial teahouse including the umbrella now used as a ceiling light fixture in the Karakasa (Umbrella) Room in the new annex.
I thanked Onoue and walked to the station. From the platform I saw an illuminated rooftop sign in Art Noveau letters in relief against the silhouette of the mountains: “Hotel New Kamakura.”
The New Kamakura Hotel offers single-occupancy rooms from ¥4,200 and double-occupancy rooms from ¥6,000 on weekdays. It’s adjacent to JR Kamakura Station and English is spoken. Tel: (0467) 22-2230 www.newkamakura.com/index—en.asp