Old habits die hard. Whenever I travel, I take at least one carefully selected book with me. Either one of my unread volumes at home, or one bought especially for the trip. The idea is that I will have lots of opportunities to read while on vacation. That was a reasonable thought when I was a habitual solo traveler. Since I have become a family man, however, travel brings me all kinds of new joys. Quiet moments with my books, alas, are not among them.
Fortunately, my dear wife is sympathetic. Last Christmas, she gave me a solitary trip to Hakone Honbako: a book hotel devoted to the needs and desires of book lovers, idyllically located in the famous mountainous hot-spring region not far from Tokyo.
All You Can and Cannot Read
Hakone Honbako means Hakone bookshelf and there are quite a lot of those at the hotel. There are around 12,000 books on the premises, most of them located on the seemingly endless shelves lining the two-floor lobby. However, you’ll also find little reading isles hidden in the corridors and a small selection of handpicked books will be waiting for you in your room. Then there’s also a store selling more books and book-related accessories, along with the usual travel memorabilia.
I still brought my own reading material, correctly anticipating a mostly Japanese selection at the Hakone Honbako. Admittedly, I am very (or at least moderately) determined to improve my language skills, but trying to decipher proper literary texts for grownups in the language of my chosen home country didn’t seem the most reasonable way to make use of my short retreat from urban and family life. I even brought an electronic reading device for backup, which might be considered a sin at this temple dedicated to the written word in print. I’m happy to report I didn’t take it out once.
So, you will find books in your room and your own private onsen on your terrace. What you won’t find in your lodgings is a TV set, which is admirably consistent with the hotel’s theme (the iPad provided to guests feels a bit like cheating, though). If you absolutely must watch a film rather than read a book, you can visit the movie theater in the basement, equipped with large cozy sofas. I didn’t stay there long since I was torn between reading and bathing, but I noticed an Italian film with Japanese and English subtitles was playing.
Nourishment in Between Reading
By default, dinner and breakfast are served as sumptuous course meals at a large counter in a restaurant that, like other parts of the hotel, aims for an interesting clash of old-school elegance and rough industrial charm. You can also opt for a private dining space or room service, if you really can’t tear yourself away from your book. The cuisine is Italian-inspired, using seasonal and local ingredients. There’s a large selection of good wines, spirits and well-chosen craft beers. I opted for beer and found my drinking experience almost as pleasant as the excellent food.
If you want to cleanse your palate between meals and fancy alcohol, a makeshift supermarket is just across the street. The owners, however, know about their singular appeal in the wilderness and apparently added hefty luxury or laziness taxes to their prices. If you’re a person of principle, you’ll do like I did and make the descent down into the valley. There you’ll find the only convenience store near and far. It’s a pleasant walk from the hotel and a somewhat more harrowing experience walking back up the hill. By which point, a dip in a hot spring seemed like a perfect remedy.
Additional to the wooden tub that comes with your room, the basement floor holds public indoor and outdoor baths. I found the indoor pools to be above-average hot even by onsen standards. However, I appreciated the extra heat after a walk on a freezing winter day.
Like any self-respecting onsen hotel, Hakone Honbako is not exactly conveniently connected to the public transportation means of city folk. Approaching from either Tokyo or Yokohama, your best option is going to Odawara Station by whatever type of train fits your needs and budget (shinkansen, Romance Car and local lines all go there).
Then take a bus on the Odawara-Hakone (Kojiri) Line to Kami-Gora-Iriguchi. Don’t be daunted by the fact that there are more than 40 stops scheduled before your destination. Most of them will not be served. It’s a scenic ride of about 40 minutes through Hakone’s mountains and onsen settlings. And if you don’t care much for the scenery, you can get a head start on your reading. From the bus stop, it’s less than 10 minutes to walk to the hotel.