The marvel of Miyanoshita

Guests stroll through the Fujiya Hotel like wide-eyed tourists drinking in the sights in an exotic port of call. They gaze at the dragon spiraling around a banister, the snake slithering up a support atop which sits a monkey, the elaborately carved tableau of Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo hunting wild boars, the golden damascene reproduction of the Golden Pavilion in a case in the Magic Room.

Yes, the Magic Room, where prewar Chinese magicians performed sleight of hand, and today Japanese illusionists spellbind on a table beyond low antique chairs.

Sennosuke Yamaguchi, fresh from Keio University, had intended the Fujiya to wow. He founded the hotel in 1878 at the urging of philosopher Fukuzawa Yukichi, who said Japan needed a resort hotel for international visitors. Sennosuke chose the Miyanoshita area for its location in Hakone, a favorite spa of Tokyo and Yokohama foreign residents.

In 1883 the hotel was consumed in the Great Miyanoshita Fire. Sennosuke was undeterred. The next year he built in a mountainside a Western-style building named the Aerie where the writer Lafcadio Hearn stayed on July 28, 1894.

But the Aerie was a halfway house between the ashes of the original hotel and a fresh vision. Bucking the Meiji preference for brick and mortar, Sennosuke intuited his international guests would relish architecture with Nipponese flourishes. Architect Heijiro Kawahara found inspiration in native shrines and temples, roofing the new hotel building with tiles and crowning its entrance with a bargeboard. The wooden building withstood the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and looks now as then, save for a sun porch destroying the symmetry of the original design. Opened in 1891, Kawahara’s achievement is now the Fujiya’s main building.

Fifteen years later, Kawahara designed the Seiyokan, the collective name for a pair of buildings, Comfy Lodge and Restful Cottage, mixing Eastern and Western architectural styles, with bargeboards above the entrances and louver windows. Having undergone no major renovations, they are pure Meiji.

In 1936, the Flower Palace rose next to the Seiyokan. The building has a templelike roof and azekura (log cabin) style walls. Each of its 43 rooms has a distinct floral motif announced by the flower depicted on the door.

On a recent visit to the Fujiya I lunched in the Wisteria, the 1st-floor grillroom in the Restaurant House. Chicken curry was ¥2,200. The service was different in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. I savored the curry while contemplating a small rock garden enclosed by a faux castle wall.

After lunch I walked down a corridor between glass cases displaying wares of the half-dozen antique dealers who have shops on the slope to the hotel. M. Shiba touted “Old Screens, Old Scrolls and Antiquities.” Edo & Co. offered a Treasure Dragon Ewer for ¥525,000. But not all prices were in six, or even five, figures. A Seto saucer dish was ¥2,100 — less than the Wisteria’s curry. Specimens of yose-zaiku, the mosaic work in which Hakone specializes, were reasonable, a charming scene of a pack-horse driver gazing toward Mount Fuji priced at ¥1,890.

Nature called. I opened the tall door reading “Gentlemen” and felt I’d entered a large yose-zaiku box, the white porcelain fixtures set in a colorful mosaic wainscot.

The Fujiya is full of surprises. In a 1st-floor corridor I came across a photo gallery of the former International Mustache Club. Membership was open to men with beards or mustaches “at least two inches in length.” S.C. Brinkley sported an ankle-length white beard that gave the impression he was enveloped in a cocoon.

I joined the 4 p.m. hotel tour. Our docent, Tadayuki Suzuki, affiliated with the Fujiya since 1966, led us through a labyrinth of corridors to a reception area in the Flower Palace’s basement. He recounted the Fujiya’s history through the biographies of Sennosuke Yamaguchi and his adopted son, Shozo, the mustache club founder with a 73-cm handlebar.

Our cicerone guided us to the hotel archives — guest registers starting from 1884 read like a Who’s Who of modern times. I found the signatures of architect Frank Lloyd Wright (April 27, 1905), actor Charlie Chaplin (May 27, 1932) and author and activist Helen Keller (May 3, 1937). Photos of Chaplin with Shozo and John Lennon with Yoko Ono graced the wall. A guest album kept at the front desk includes a message from Keller and sketches of Mount Fuji by Chaplin and Lennon.

Suzuki next led us to the Cascade Room. This former ballroom, named for the tiny waterfall seen through the picture window, was built by Shozo, a scion of the owner of the Kanaya Hotel in Nikko. Shozo’s architectural achievements were hosannas sung to Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine.

Like Toshogu, the Cascade Room abounds in intricate carving. Wood panels along the top of walls depict the four seasons, famous places such as Matsushima, and such traditional events as the Tango no Sekku, today known as Children’s Day. Above the carvings on the west wall perch doves. The room was completed two years after the end of World War I; the doves embodied Shozo’s desire for peace.

We moved to the Fujiya, the main restaurant, in the Restaurant House, which the noted architect Kosaburo Kigo designed for Shozo in 1930.

The coved and coffered ceiling reveals Kigo’s inspiration in Toshogu’s hall of worship. The coffers each bear paintings of four alpine plants for a total of 636 different species. In the coving are depicted 507 wildfowl and 238 butterflies. The bottom of each totem-pole-like column bears a carving of a mustachioed demon. According to hotel lore, Shozo had demonic caricatures of himself carved in pillars to remind employees that the president was watching.

Our guide led us to the lobby. After a shower of applause, he distributed a certificate of participation in the tour whose reverse side listed five hotel buildings registered as Tangible Cultural Properties.

I asked him if the Fujiya had its own way of doing things. “Waiters always serve with the left hand from the diner’s left,” he said. “Sennosuke wanted to minimize the chance of a waiter bumping into a diner.”

Then I realized what had puzzled in the Wisteria grill: the waiter had gone the long way round to serve me.

I stepped outside. The hotel’s tiled roofs were floating on the mist-enshrouded mountains. The guests were doing what Fujiya guests do: They were marveling.

The Fujiya Hotel can be reached in about 40 minutes either by bus (¥660) or the Hakone Tozan Railway (¥560) from Odawara Station.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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