Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture – I was tipsy, sure, but so I should have been. I was nine-and-a-bit hours into a stay at the Bar Hotel Hakone Kazan, a Rubin’s vase of a retreat that can be viewed either as a bar-themed hotel or a hotel-themed bar. Throughout my stay it vacillated, sometimes resembling an inn with a drinking motif, other times a bar with beds.
The lines were blurring the moment I entered through grand doors fashioned from oak, and met Ryuichi Yanagi, a bartender role-playing as a receptionist. His front desk was a droll creation: a posh leather writing mat and fancy brass pen plonked, for the duration of the Champagne-fueled check-in process, on one end of a 13-meter teak bar counter.
Farther along the counter stood bartenders mixing drinks for guests who, on this Sunday evening, were nothing like the ragged barflies I was expecting. They were all young, female and had arrived in pairs. I had arrived in a pair, too, though my teammate had been anxious about the trip, worried she wouldn’t have adequate stamina. I was more confident. I had been training for it my entire adult life.
The most unusual of many unusual things about the bar/hotel is that you pay your drink tab before you arrive. More specifically, it is included in the price of your room. Because those rooms — spacious, chic and located in deepest Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture — are less expensive than those in some neighboring inns, I had assumed the drinking options would be ungenerous, to put it politely. They weren’t, though.
The menu was extensive and impressive. I counted 108 cocktails, from classic to experimental, categorized playfully under headings such as “Cocktail in the movie,” “Memories of Summer” and “World’s Best Cocktails 2021.”
Those first nine-plus hours on the premises involved a green apple and lavender fizz that released a forest aroma perfectly suited to the view; a Corpse Reviver #2 (gin, lemon, Cointreau, dry vermouth, absinthe) garnished with a cloud of mint cotton candy and instructions to dunk it to sweeten the taste; a Martini using vodka infused with lees from Kikkawa Jozo, a brewery run by the same real-estate development company that dreamed up, designed and operates the bar/hotel; a shiso-and-cucumber riff on the Tommy’s Margarita (tequila, agave syrup, lime); and a convincing alcohol-free Negroni. Yanagi, who had finished his reception duties and was now bartending, explained that low- and no-alcohol cocktails were popular with guests who want to make the most of the deal without getting too untidy.
The “Let’s Wander All Over The World” page offered a drinker’s tour of the globe, from Monte Carlo (whisky, Benedictine, bitters) to Acapulco (white rum, white curacao, lemon, sugar) to Singapore (the sling). My aversion to adventure led me to pick Tokyo, the city I had left earlier that day. Bar-hotelier Jun Moue served the obscure My Tokyo (whisky, Grand Marnier, lime), a cocktail invented in Osaka to coincide with the 1964 Olympics and now rarely spotted outside its city of birth.
There is no restaurant at the bar/hotel, so we dined at the bar counter. A duck from Hokkaido had given one of its legs to be stewed in wine for my friend. Bartender Hiroki Mitsuyu paired it with a Paper Plane (bourbon, amaro, Aperol, lemon), the bitterness of which sliced through the sweet sauce.
On the night we stayed, the bartenders were running a contest to choose a new permanent item for the menu. They had evidently found that 108 options were insufficient and had devised seven more. The winner would be decided using criteria impossible to understand. My friend favored a drink inspired by and named carpaccio, which used white wine infused with a blend of bonito and kelp broth. I chose a pistachio-infused Moscow mule, simple but superb. When I learned the winner weeks later, it turned out to be neither. Instead, it was a creamy dessert thing called Rare Cheesecake.
Around this time, my friend opined that the bar/hotel was the best bar and best hotel we had been to. “I can relax here,” she said. “Not like in those hoity-toity places.” That’s more damning of her than those places, but her point was this: The bartenders are skilled at scaling their presentations up or down to suit their audience. Nobody felt intimidated, nobody patronized.
Moue said the free-flowing drinks system inspires many visitors to order tasting flights, so we did. He brought his four favorite gins, including a 1990s bottling of Beefeater that was liquid silk and a fifth anniversary edition of Kyoto’s Ki No Bi that had Japanese red pine where the hinoki (cypress) usually goes. That led to a Ki No Bi flight. That triggered a Glenfarclas whisky flight. And then, at half past midnight, our bath was ready.
The bar/hotel has two large communal open-air baths, and two private-rental ones that have minibars, glassware and Champagne on ice. As I sat in the infinity-style private spring with a view of Hakone foliage, I thought about all the aristocrats and emperors who had visited the area over the centuries, and how they probably didn’t have minibars in their changing rooms.
At 3 a.m., Mitsuyu was alone in the main bar. Everyone else had retired for the evening, and the only thing preventing him from doing likewise was me. I ordered a Sidecar.
And all this was how, after nine-and-a-bit hours, I was tipsy all right and still plundering the minibar. The contents of that fridge depend very much on the price of the room. The bar/hotel’s website shows a Krug room, in Krug colors, with bottles galore of the namesake Champagne. There is also a 132-meter-square presidential suite with a bar that looks like a destination in its own right. Our superior deluxe suite had two bottles of Kirin Heartland lager and two of Sri Lanka’s Lion stout. That was all I needed to settle onto the gargantuan daybed and watch the late-night televisual treats.
One of the channels was playing a recording of a bonfire to the sounds of Debussy’s Reverie, another had footage of a tram slithering the streets of Prague. Both captivated me, but neither as much as the B SkyPer channel where a quartet of women in heels and cocktail dresses were sharing dating advice as they demonstrated exercises for a bigger bust. Always choose a hard-working man, they said, because it makes you work harder, and grab your stilettos as you arch your back.
In the morning, after a brunch of galette and all the Champagne our hangovers could accommodate, all that remained was to sharpen up for the journey. “We have four styles of coffee,” said the barista at the bar counter. “You can choose beans that have been soaked in gin, rum, red wine or a blend of sake, shōchū and awamori.”
And so, I realized, it must be a bar, but one you can go to sleep in.
Bar Hotel Hakone Kazan is at 507-4 Kowakudani, Hakone, Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa Prefecture. For information, visit barhotel.com.
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