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Following the footsteps of the famed in Nikko

by Burritt Sabin

Behind the front desk of the Nikko Kanaya Hotel hang photos of an unlikely trio: James Curtis Hepburn, Isabella Bird and Zenichiro Kanaya. Hotel President Takayasu Akiyama connected the dots over a cup of java in the Maple Leaf Lounge.

Zenichiro was a ninth-generation player of the sho, a reed instrument, in the gagaku (Japanese classical music) orchestra of Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture. When Hepburn, a medical missionary, visited Nikko in 1871, he could not find lodging. Zenichiro put him up.

Hepburn repaid the strapped Zenichiro with a suggestion: Turn your home into a guest house for foreigners. Two years later, Zenichiro opened the Kanaya Cottage Inn.

On Hepburn’s advice, writer Isabella Bird stayed at the inn in 1878. In her “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” (1880), she described it as “a Japanese idyll; there is nothing within or without which does not please the eye.” She put the inn on the beaten track.

A kilometer down the road from the inn, Zenichiro opened the Nikko Kanaya Hotel, with 30 Western-style rooms, in 1893.

I asked Akiyama why the hotel was designated a Tangible Cultural Property. “It is a venerable example of the harmonious blending of Eastern and Western design,” he said.

Bird observed that Zenichiro was eager to meet foreigners’ needs, but “his good taste leads him to avoid Europeanizing his beautiful home.” Zenichiro, having intuited guests’ admiration of Japanese things, created a hotel with Japonisme flourishes such as a cat crouching above a lintel, inspired by Toshogu Shrine’s iconic nemuri neko (sleeping cat), a baluster capped by a symbolic Buddhist flame, decorative phoenixes and flowers in the coffers of the dining-room ceiling. On the menu was rainbow trout served a la Kanaya.

The trout had been introduced to Nikko’s Lake Chuzenji by anglers Thomas Glover and Harold Parllett in 1902. The Kanaya garnishes the fish in a soy and mirin sauce. Akiyama suggested this house specialty for lunch. I smacked my lips.

But first a tour. We walked down a corridor decorated with photos of notable guests who have stayed here — including Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (1956) and Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi (1957) — and entered the Dacite Bar, a cozy pub scented by the oak logs fueling the fire in the hearth. The mantelpiece was made of Oya stone, igneous rock from nearby Utsunomiya. According to hotel lore, the mantelpiece led architect Frank Lloyd Wright (who stayed here in April 1905) to use Oya stone in the facade of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, completed in 1923.

We climbed to the second floor and Akiyama showed me a guest room: steam radiator, original oak furniture, shoji-decorated glass windows, a headboard decorated with the Kanaya family’s bellflower-and-bamboo crest, and a view of snow-streaked Mount Nyoho.

Manager Kazuo Kosugi showed me hotel guest books. Flipping through their pages we found Hepburn’s, Wright’s and Albert Einstein’s signatures (Einstein was sightseeing in December 1922). More hotel lore: It was on a Kanaya letterhead that the physicist wrote his “Impressions of Japan” essay for Kaizo magazine in January 1923.

We climbed to the third floor, exited the building and ascended a flight of stairs to the roofed corridor leading to the Dragon Palace (built in 1921). The structure is as fanciful as its name, with a temple roof over the second story and a gallery around the ground-level walls, perched at the edge of a plateau. Picture windows looked out onto a skating rink with barely a skim of ice. The rink, which was completed in 1916, was closed. “Global warming,” muttered Akiyama.

We went inside. Dark curtains hung in windows and archival photos graced the walls. Three stood out.

Shimpei Goto, Tokyo mayor and later home minister, sits between setters and gun-toting mountaineers. Behind them a bamboo crosspiece sags under the weight of a covey of dead birds.

In the Senjogahara Plateau at the foot of Mount Nantai, Shinichi — Zenichiro’s eldest son — stands in Nikko’s first Ford Model-T. I was struck by the irony: Automobile exhaust fumes slowly roast the Earth, the rink no longer freezes, the skaters’ pavilion reopens as a showcase for the photo of a car.

A young Caucasian in a white linen suit stands before a garden holding a trout.

The last photo proved a visual analogue to psychologist Ivan Pavlov’s bell-ringing: My stomach growled. It was surely time for rainbow trout a la Kanaya. But Akiyama suggested we visit the former Kanaya Cottage Inn, normally closed to visitors.

We piled out of a van at the bottom of a slope and climbed a path through a gate in a bamboo fence to a two-story wooden house. We were greeted by 85-year-old Setsuko Ishida, docent in residence for a half century.

Bird’s “Unbeaten Tracks” is the template for Ishida’s commentary. “This was Isabella’s room; the one in the back was Ito’s (her guide’s).” She pointed out a difference: Bird described a stream that “passes under the house,” but the stream now goes around the building. And she highlights features outside Bird’s ken: The capacious hibachi (traditional heating device) are made of paulownia; verandas on opposite sides of the house enabled family members to circulate without violating the privacy of guest rooms; a panel in the corner of a second-floor room slides open for escape in an emergency.

Ishida is dapper and energetic. As I bid her goodbye, I reflected that mountain living is the elixir of life.

We walked up the road to Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park, where we parted company. Its jewel is the villa built in 1889 for Prince Yoshihito, later Emperor Taisho. The villa sprawls over nearly 100,000 sq. meters and encompasses several distinct architectural styles.

The Exhibition Hall gives exhaustive bilingual explanations of such arcana as kigumi (joints that do not use nails), the 32 steps in urushi-lacquering, and the grades of tatami-mat borders.

I noted the Imperial Privy’s zelkova toilet resembled an upturned bucket — not the sort of commode inducive to magazine reading.

At the Repository for the Sacred Sword and Jewel, His Majesty’s vade mecums, I asked what became of the third of the Imperial Regalia: the sacred mirror. “Perhaps it was destroyed in a war,” the staffer speculated.

Having checked my parka into the hotel’s cloakroom, I was shivering in the unheated villa in the late afternoon. Although I’d seen only a handful of the 106 rooms, I grabbed a cab to the hotel.

President Akiyama had left me an envelope containing articles from his pen and copies of guest-book pages with the signatures of novelist Soseki Natsume, poet Paul Claudel and British Ambassador Sir Claude MacDonald.

Buoyed by his many kindnesses, I tripped down the mountain, stopping at a shop for sandwiches for the homeward trip, and resolved to revisit this Japanese idyll to savor rainbow trout, which I never got to eat.

Getting there: Take the Limited Express train from Tobu Asakusa Station in Tokyo and change trains at Shimoimaichi Station. It takes less than two hours and costs ¥2,620. Double occupancy rooms from ¥10,920 per person. Tel.: 0288-54-0001; www.kanayahotel.co.jp/