In the realm of the Fujiya Hotel

by Chris Bamforth

Special To The Japan Times

It’s a different matter with ryokan, Japan’s traditional and often premium-priced inns, but outside the stellar class of regular hotels charging astronomical rates, their down-to-earth cousins aren’t usually the kind of places to feel too strongly about. You generally expect little by way of character and interior decor, and can only simply hope the Internet connection speed isn’t a throwback to antediluvian dial-up days.

But then there’s the Fujiya Hotel, which stands dinstintively apart from the pack.

Ever since Frank Lloyd Wright’s truly magnificent Imperial Hotel — which survived the awful 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and U.S. B-29 air raids, but not postwar urban developers — was shipped off from Tokyo to a theme park outside Nagoya in the 1960s, the Fujiya has had few rivals (other than, perhaps, the Nara Hotel) as Japan’s iconic grand old hotel.

The Fujiya Hotel is located in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, some 85 km to the southwest of Tokyo. With Hakone’s proximity to the capital, its hot springs, superb mountain scenery including close-ups of Mount Fuji, there can’t be many Tokyo residents who haven’t made the trip out there — perhaps even by the decidedly unromantic Romancecar limited express. But it really is worth the trek to Hakone again just to stay at the Fujiya.

Most people reach Miyanoshita, the station closest to the hotel, via Hakone Yumoto, the terminal of the Romancecar and other Odakyu Line trains. From there, brick-red trains of the Hakone Tozan mountain railway engagingly trundle up 8-degree slopes, relying on switchbacks to get them out of three gradient tight spots.

The ride is a majestic little one, with the high point — literally — being when the train spectacularly emerges from dense forest to traverse a deep ravine over an olive-green river. Twenty-five minutes of all this brings you to sleepy Miyanoshita Station.

For those with light baggage and time to spare, it is well worth dawdling around the shops between the station and the hotel. They mostly specialize in arts and crafts, notably items fashioned in the distinctive, handsome marquetry for which Hakone is renowned. But more interesting are old photos displayed in windows that show some of the luminaries who have stayed at the Fujiya: a dapper Charlie Chaplin sporting a tennis racquet in 1932 — around when he was almost assassinated in Japan; Yukio Mishima on his honeymoon in 1958 with his — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the writer’s sexual proclivities — conspicuously bored-looking wife; John Lennon in 1978 wearing the kind of hat you could get away with only in the ’70s.

At the top of the hill, the Fujiya Hotel dominates the scene. The main building, which was constructed in 1891, wears the utterly graceful East-meets-West style characteristic of that era — but which has now sadly been almost totally eradicated from the country’s cityscapes. The most attractive of the Fujiya’s buildings, though, is the Flower Palace, built in 1936 — an exquisite confection of verdigris gables, ocher walls and red templelike balustrades.

Though the hotel complex now includes more recent buildings, too, this elegant old dame of a hotel originally dates from 1878. And just by way of ensuring that not one of its guests could possibly overlook that fact, the Fujiya cheerfully emblazons the year on its chairs, towels, table napkins and anything else it can think of.

The venerable establishment wears its age with character: floorboards creak under foot, and it has an odd deserted sort of smell like a cross between a church and a museum that nobody ever really visits. Through the night, the pipes sibilate and groan as though the place is constantly eating something that disagrees with it.

Perhaps the most impressive spot within the hotel is the main dining room, built in 1930 and named — with a sparkling lack of imagination — “The Fujiya.” The food is classic French in the grand tradition. But long before the victuals have arrived on porcelain bearing hand-painted images of Japan’s most famous mountain, you’ve already long been gawking at the gorgeous details of the coffered ceiling, with its lovingly depicted alpine plants, wild birds and butterfly motifs. The place is stylish, charming, and on a December evening with the holidays just around the corner, it is quite hypnotically romantic.

It would, however, be a shame to stay at the Fujiya Hotel and not visit the splendid sculptures and other works at the nearby Hakone Open-Air Museum, which dates from 1969. The museum features around 120 works by some big names in modern sculpture stretched out across a site of over 7 hectares. Though its Japanese name is Chokoku no Mori Bijutsukan, which translates as “Sculpture Forest Museum,” that’s somewhat of a stretch since each display has an average of 583 sq. meters to itself — making that “forest” a tad on the sparse side.

But with its mountainous backdrop of the caldera wall of the Hakone volcano (nearby Ashinoko Lake sits in the same caldera), the open-air museum can claim one of the most dramatic sites of any museum in the world.

With works from mostly the 20th century and a focus squarely on Western and Japanese artists, the museum presents a captivating and diverse assembly of the plastic arts. Among the pieces, there are the elating, the profound, the moving, the humorous, the disturbing and the playful. There is the dramatic muscular tension and coiled latent energy of Émile-Antoine Bourdelle’s “Grande Hèraclés Archer”; there is the patent ludicrousness of “The Hand of God” by Carl Milles, which features a Gollum-like figure standing atop a bloody big hand (it’s symbolic, you know). Perhaps the most intriguing works are to be found in the Picasso Pavilion, with its scintillating ceramic pieces, and the Henry Moore works, one of the world’s largest collections of the master sculptor. Proximity to all this genius is positively therapeutic.

After the museum, you can eat sulfurously blackened eggs in Owakudani, you can take the cable car to Lake Ashinoko, you can cross the lake in a Disneyesque pirate ship, you can hope that Mount Fuji is not modestly concealed behind banks of haze. But the odds are that the memory of the Fujiya Hotel will remain as the highlight of the whole trip.

Getting there: Hakone Yumoto is about 90 minutes by Odakyu Line express train from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. Miyanoshita Station is some 25 minutes from there on the Hakone Tozan mountain railway. From the station, the Fujiya Hotel is around a 7-minute walk.