by  Christine Cunanan Miki 

Looking for a reason to escape Tokyo for a weekend, my husband and I recently drove to Hakone to try out the new Hyatt Regency Hakone in the hills of Gora. With its minimalist wooden interiors, large picture windows and great fireplace, the hotel is simple and yet so comfortable that we instantly felt at home the moment we walked in. It reminded us of the kind of lodges we liked so much all along the West Coast, that offer good food, serenely designed—and luxuriously large by Japanese standards—rooms, and stunning natural scenery.

The hotel was jumping with activity on a Saturday night, and the clientele that particular weekend certainly reminded us more of California than of Kanagawa. We were surprised by the number of foreigners and English-speaking Japanese families milling about who had obviously traveled from Tokyo, judging from the many Shinagawa license-plated cars in the parking lot.

Of course, I checked out the dining information as soon as we had unpacked and settled in. The room service list is small but so efficiently designed that it’s full of comfort food you’d actually like to eat. Another nice touch is the hotel’s complimentary weekend cocktail hour in its cozy public lounge, called the Living Room, where a table is generously arranged with champagne, wine, and soft drinks, and guests can happily help themselves. Everyone enjoys a freebie now and then, so this certainly encouraged lots of smiles and a lively atmosphere around the fireplace.

The hotel’s main restaurant is ever-so-accurately called the Dining Room, which is rather refreshing compared to the exotic, pompous, or even unpronounceable names that many other hotels like to torture themselves with. And it also gives you an inkling of what Hyatt Hakone serves for dinner: simple but enjoyable food, cooked with neither fuss nor terribly fancy ingredients. After all, this is not the kind of place to stuff yourself with heavy gourmet dishes after you’ve just had a relaxing hot springs bath and massage (the Full Body Therapy is highly recommended, by the way).

Never able to resist testing a new chef’s capabilities, however, I ordered the largest meal on offer, which is the ¥13,000 five-course Menu Degustation. My starters of sea urchin nestled on a perfectly formed spiny black shell, with a dollop of cream and lemon, and marinated Hokkaido scallops with eggplant and balsamic vinegar, were fresh and light, with just the right amount of seasoning. Next, a steamed turbot dressed with spring rapeseed blossoms made its appearance, accompanied by a home¬made tomato sauce that surprisingly did not clash with the mild taste of the fish. For my main course, a very good cut of Hokkaido Tokachi beef was pan-fried and served with a classic French sauce made with red wine and bone marrow. And again, the entire meal was enjoyable rather than astounding, and this is exactly what we wanted for a pleasant evening and a good night’s sleep afterwards.

I particularly liked the special dessert of the day, which was a beautifully-arranged mixed berry millefeuille with strawberry ice cream on the side. The restaurant also had a decent selection of wines by the glass—three whites, including the very reliable citrus-y Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc which went excellently with the sea urchin, and three reds—which enabled us to pair our dishes with different wines rather than to labor through a single bottle for the evening.

Our stay here actually prompted a discussion on the merits of owning a weekend house, especially as we have one near Hakone that we haven’t been to in months. How wonderful it is to have the same views and fresh air, better food than I can rustle up in my country kitchen at short notice, and rooms that are more home than hotel—and without once having to think about the vacuum cleaner or the dishwasher!

Hyatt Regency Hakone
1320 Gora, Hakone-Machi, Ashigarashimogun, Kanagawa, 250-0408
Tel: 0460-82-2000 Fax: 0460-82-2001