Japanese hotel

This Japanese hotel is a glorious relic of a lost world


THE FOREIGNERS OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY who first ventured into the Japanese mountain town of Nikko came away enchanted by the scenery: ornate Shinto shrines amid rivers, forests and waterfalls. But those same visitors were less impressed with the accommodation options. Many complained about the local inns, furnished with futon beds placed on the floor and paper walls that offered no privacy. And the food ? Too exotic at best. British traveler Isabella Bird gave a typical review: “The abominations of fish and vegetables known as ‘Japanese food’ can only be swallowed and digested by a few, and that after long practice.” In 1873, in an attempt to cater to Western sensibilities, Zenichiro Kanaya, a 21-year-old temple musician, opened rooms in his family home, serving his guests poultry, rainbow trout, and simply prepared eggs. Two decades later, Mr. Kanaya established the first nearby European-style resort hotel, complete with two floors, mattresses and Western staples like bread, which guests had taught his chefs to bake. In 1896, the Kanaya Hotel was preparing 14-course French menus with beef in Périgueux sauce and mushrooms au jus – not a piece of sushi or a grain of rice in sight. Throughout the early 20th century, the hotel drew a parade of famous travelers, including japonophile Frank Lloyd Wright and, later, Albert Einstein and his wife, Elsa. The hotel grounds, carved by temple workers, fit into the local aesthetic, while the cuisine continues to appease American and European palates, with bacon and eggs for breakfast and mille-feuille after dinner.


FINICY WESTERN EATERS Would still be relieved to find filet mignon on the French menu at the hotel, now known as Nikko Kanaya, a 90-minute drive from Tokyo. The dining room itself looks a lot like it was when it first opened in 1893, and eagle-eyed diners may notice that the wooden pillars are decorated with echoing flower carvings. to those at nearby Toshogu Shrine. The views from the rooms are also unchanged – the forest-covered mountains in the background, the same carefully manicured gardens in the foreground that the Einsteins strolled in 1922. Other parts of the hotel feel slightly haunted, like a Japanese version of “The Shining.” The wood-paneled lobby is well worn, stairwells noticeably creak, and a shaded cocktail bar features faded black-and-white photos of forgotten 1920s parties, with men in tuxedos and dresses. women in dresses smiling at camera. There have been a few updates over the years. A labyrinth-shaped passage leads to a secluded swimming pool, for example, which doubles as an ice rink in winter. In the 1960s, a third floor and a new wing were added. And the hotel’s kitchen now serves a plethora of Japanese dishes, appealing to both locals and Western visitors with more contemporary palates. Chances are, Mrs Bird was alarmed by the Japanese breakfast – consisting of tangy pickled vegetables, salted salmon, and nori (dried and seasoned seaweed) – but, perhaps, soothed by the house wine from the restaurant, produced by the neighboring Coco vineyard since the 1980s. It goes particularly well with filet mignon.

How the West was conquered

A brief overview of Japan’s transformation from recluse to magnet to tourists, with the help of the Kanaya Hotel

The Nikko Kanaya hotel in the 1920s.



1600: Under the Tokugawa shogunate, feudal Japan was closed to foreign travelers and merchants.

1853: The American commodore Matthew Perry enters the port of Edo (modern Tokyo) and demands under the threat of a weapon that Japan open its doors to Western trade. Travelers remain limited to areas within 25 miles of treaty ports.

1868: After the so-called Meiji Restoration, foreign travelers are allowed to explore Japan on specified routes.

1873: Zenichiro Kanaya rents rooms in his house in Nikko for 2 shillings a day, creating the Kanaya Cottage Inn.

1878: Travel writer Isabella Bird visits for 12 days, declares the hostel a “Japanese romance” in her bestseller “Off the beaten track in Japan”.

1885: Hostel staff member Shotara Sakamaki travels to San Francisco to study hotel management.

1893: Kanaya is opening a full-fledged large hotel near its original hostel. The rates are 150 yen per month including meals (about $ 7,000 today, or $ 230 a night).

1899: Travel restrictions for foreigners are officially ending.

[1945:[1945 : The US military takes over the hotel as a recreation facility.

1952: The Kanaya hotel is resuming its activities for guests.

1999: Shrines and temples of Nikko designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.

2015 : The 1873 Cottage Inn has been restored as a museum.

The number of visitors to the Land of Ascension

How times have changed

Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium.


Kyodo News / Getty Images

The fascination of the outside world for Japan has hardly abated. Indeed, international tourist arrivals have exploded in recent years:

1964: 350,000

1977: 1 million

2013: 5 millions

2018: 31 million

2020:40 million (planned for the year of the Tokyo Summer Olympics)

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