When visiting Japan, there are two sides to the country that most visitors want to see. The vibrant, busy sights of Tokyo or the traditional, serene areas outside of the city. While the modern version of Japan is often associated with craziness and fun, the traditional customs of onsen, staying in a ryokan or meeting geisha is usually seen as a much more relaxed, quiet set of activities rather than a fun one. However, a trip to the fantastic Ichinoyu ryokan that I recently visited in Hakone will certainly change your mind about that. Relaxing and enjoying the scenery and baths are, of course, encouraged, but this historic hotel has exciting twists perfect for visitors. Whether you’re a Japanese culture pro or it’s your first time setting foot in Japan, you will enjoy yourself.
For those who are unfamiliar with Hakone, it is a town in western Kanagawa prefecture, known for its gorgeous nature and many onsen options. Most people who make the 90-minute trip from Tokyo to Hakone stay in traditional ryokans to enjoy the healing baths that Hakone has to offer. However, one ryokan offers quite a lot more than the usual experience.
Ichinoyu is a hotel founded in 1630, making it a Tangible Cultural Property of Japan. According to the staff, the building itself has been around since the Meiji Era. The hotel has also been depicted in several historical paintings that hang on its walls, showing just how long Ichinoyu has been a part of Hakone.
Now that you know about Ichinoyu’s impressive history, let’s take a look inside. After coming in the entrance, the large reception area welcomes you along with the English-speaking staff who will brief you about the hotel as you check in. There are also pamphlets available in English at the reception desk. Ichinoyu goes above and beyond the usual to make its English-speaking visitors more comfortable. The beautiful tatami rooms each have information provided in English about basic bath etiquette, how to put on your yukata, and other important things to know about the ryokan and its facilities.
There are several rooms available for guests, even the smallest of which is still quite spacious and comfortable. All rooms include free use of yukata and green tea. After settling in, you can also enjoy setting out your own futon on the tatami mats for a fully traditional Japanese stay.
Some guests (like me) may be a bit reluctant to share bathing facilities with other people. Normally a public onsen is a little embarrassing but Ichinoyu had the perfect option for me! Several rooms have their own outdoor baths attached. My room was one of them so I was still able to enjoy a real onsen experience.
Men’s and women’s onsen are available on opposite sides of the first floor. The washing areas are also spacious and clean, with the onsen overlooking the beautiful trees and river close by.
The ryokan staff are also aware that some guests may be uncomfortable with the idea of sharing the indoor onsen, and if you are, you can reserve the private bathroom provided on the first floor. This bathroom is meant to be used by families, so for those who are traveling with kids, this is a great option.
Also on the first floor, there is a duty-free souvenir shop, so you can buy plenty of souvenirs for much cheaper than the usual price! There are several traditional handicrafts unique to Hakone such as the beautifully designed Yosegi-zaiku crafts or the Ashigara tea famous for its aroma and flavor. I definitely recommend both as souvenirs for your friends or family!
After relaxing in the bath and putting on your free yukata, Ichinoyu has some special things to offer. They provide separate plans to guests, giving them 2 different dinner options. The first of which is held in the dining room pictured above. The dining room has a pleasant atmosphere and several tables, each with the name of its corresponding room. All of the rooms are named after a flower in Japanese, so once you’re familiar with your room name, you’ll know your table. The ryokan’s kitchen staff make the meals and after your arrival in the dining room, they will kindly bring you the main dishes once you are seated.
While the food has traditional elements, it is made with flavors that will appeal to guests who are unfamiliar with Japanese food. So if it’s your first time trying Japanese cuisine, this is definitely something to look forward to. The menu changes depending on when you stay, but some of the food I enjoyed included miso-zuke-yaki, shabu-shabu, tuna and avocado salad, tempura, steamed vegetables, and seafood as well as sake. All of the food was delicious and suited my American palate nicely! The delicious meals and service that Ichinoyu provides exceeded my expectations.
The second dinner option is an excellent and fun opportunity to continue immersing yourself in Japanese culture. In a separate area from the dining room mentioned above, you can sit at more Japanese-style tables in a traditional tatami room.
The best part is the entertainment that accompanies this dinner choice. Guests can enjoy geisha performances of traditional dances as well as songs. Their performances are also narrated in both Japanese and English by the friendly staff so that you can understand the background behind these beautiful songs and dances! But the entertainment doesn’t stop there!
There are games that you can participate in with the geisha as well, including the traditional game set to the rhythm of music called konpira fune-fune, or the energetic and competitive ohirakisan, an interesting version of rock paper scissors where the person who loses each round has to spread their feet out three steps. The first person to fall over is the loser. And whether you win or lose the game, you can still receive a lovely prize of a tenugui (a type of Japanese handkerchief).
After enjoying games with the geisha, you can also talk with them while enjoying your dessert. Some of the geisha are able to speak English and are more than happy to answer any questions you may have. The atmosphere of this option is extremely fun and the geisha and staff are all incredibly friendly. Please note that you do need to make a reservation in advance if you would like to spend time with a geisha.
Ichinoyu is really an excellent place to stay and enjoy the many charms of Japanese culture. With the reasonable distance from Tokyo, you could even stay here for just one night, have two meals, one with the excellent entertainment, use of the onsen, and a great stay with rates starting from 11,880 yen.
Ichinoyu has multiple inns in Hakone and on weekdays, they offer a lower rate of 8,640 yen per person for an overnight stay with two meals included!
This special ryokan with its history, food and fun even offers an extensive collection of souvenirs for you to purchase before you leave! Make sure to stop by this gorgeous location even if only for a short stay! You don’t want to miss out on this perfect mix of tradition and fun.