My experience of Hakone Gora Byakudan in Japan
Wa is a Japanese cultural concept usually translated into English as ‘harmony’. It implies a peaceful unity and conformity within a social group, a designated area or the natural surroundings of a place. From the moment I walked into Gora Byakudan, in the hill-station town of Hakone, this notion felt ever-present. The elegant interiors and sense of place were very welcoming, calming and comforting all at the same time.
After being greeted by the owners, the Mikurubas, clad in their traditional matching kimonos, I was offered a small bowl of steaming matcha tea, with bubbles of green foam on the surface, which Mrs Mikuruba had prepared when she was alerted that a new guest was about to arrive. The floor-to-ceiling glass walls that curve around the whole ryokan almost form an optical illusion that the maple trees go on forever and ever. Beyond the trees, I stared out at the undulating valleys that curved up and down right to the horizon.
What I loved most about Gora Byakudan is that it strikes a perfect balance between comfort and authenticity. It has a very unique modern style and Western beds but also has all the essential features of a traditional Japanese inn, such as iconic paper shoji screens and stone onsen tubs on each balcony. The architect has cleverly managed to straddle the best of both worlds and create a haven for guests wanting to relax after exploring Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park or climbing Fujisan.
The 14-course kaiseki dinner here exceeded all of my expectations. Focusing on ingredients from Sagami Bay, chef Chikko lovingly oversees every single dish that leaves his kitchen. My waitress explained how natural water from deep underneath Hakone is extracted and used in the cooking process, offering a neutral water as a base, in order to allow the flavours and quality of the produce to speak for itself. Every detail had been meticulously designed, including the handmade ceramics and the 14 different sake cups to accompany each course – the shape and colour of which symbolised the plants and fish used in the dishes.
I was unsure what to expect of this new hotel joining some iconic, old-time properties that have occupied this town since the Second World War, but I left knowing that a couple of nights spent in the Mikurubas’ lovely home in Hakone would be a very special, lasting memory of our clients’ Japanese adventures.
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