The next two nights we spent at Hotel New Akao. A little back-history on my life: in the 1980s my father would take the family to conferences in the Catskills at a resort I adored called The Nevele. Has everyone seen Dirty Dancing? It was exactly like that. The Nevele was a blast from the past. The enormous lobby smelled like cigarettes and chlorine and to this day if I smell that combination I get psyched for a good time. I found some pictures on the web of what it looked like. The building with the tent-like roof is the ice skating rink that had a fire pit adjacent to it. A FIRE PIT, PEOPLE. I’m telling you, 50s and 60s all the way.
Since the glory days of the Catskills are over, I thought that portion of my life is over. That is, until I got to the Hotel New Akao. It is located in what I would describe at the Japanese Catskills, in Atami, a city on the Hot Sea, so named because of all the hot springs. At night it looks amazing, like Monte Carlo.
As we pulled in, I realized that main floor of the hotel was on the top of the cliff and all the hotel rooms went down the side to the ocean.
I found this pic online to better illustrate what I mean.
These are the hotels on either side.
Look at that. Does that not scream Mad Men? I was ecstatic. My childhood was being relived in Japan! Check out this entrance hall.
We took the elevator down to our room (standard ryokan setup, tatami mats, beds on floor, almost identical to the previous room) where we had an amazing view of the ocean crashing on the rocks. Even though it was cold out, The Moomins and I slept with the window ajar so we could hear the sound of the waves.
The next day we were told that breakfast would be served in the main ballroom. I expected a big room, but nothing like this. A giant curved window facing an enormous rock structure in the ocean! I was so happy.
This hotel had everything a girl could want.
I’ll delve more in the retro magic of the hotel later. After breakfast we headed out to a cherry blossom festival in a small town. Even though it’s still winter, there is a breed of cherry blossom that blooms very early and we were going to see it. The place reminded me of a sweet little New England town. Everyone who lived there was participating, either selling something out of their backyard or directing traffic. I loved it.
It turns out that the festival was in what I called Wasabi-ville. I think that’s where it grows. They have a lot of pride in that. Some of the houses were even painted wasabi green.
First we met three 1,000-year-old camphor trees. They were like baobabs, they were so big around. If you have seen My Neighbor Totoro, they were like the tree that Totoro lives in. Really really big. That is Kimi-San laying hands on the tree to feel its power.
One of the trees was so impressive that Shinto believers deified it. It had a little shrine next to it where you could light candles. The story was that it caught on fire one day and all the local birds wanted to save it, so they wet their feathers and flapped on the tree and put out the fire. Now on December 19th the believers don’t eat chicken as a gesture of respect to the firefighter birds. I realize it sounds like I just made that up after eating expired foods, but that is true.
Then we were introduced to the very first winter-blooming cherry tree in the town. It was a sixty-year-old tree. Before that, they only bloomed wild in the mountains.
Here’s one growing on the hillside outside of town. How pretty is this landscape? The feathery things are bamboo.
The town, once they figured out how to cultivate these trees, built a lovely corridor of trees. When they get older, they will arch over beautifully. In the meantime they still look pretty damn good.
Each one has a number identifying it.
And since it butts up against people’s backyards, the villagers were out selling homemade goods. There was this woman grilling fish:
There was a guy drying fish on a bed:
A guy drying fish on a laundry rack:
There was a lot of fish.
But it wasn’t only seafood, oh no! There were these cool black-and-white mushrooms next to these mountain herbs used to make an alternate version of miso:
And loads of citrus and kumquats for sale everywhere (this was an honesty shop, you put your money in the jar and take a branch):
One of my favorite moments was seeing a man sorting kumquats while his shiba inu stood guard.
And this pile of mushrooms with a Mount Fuji doll in it.
And, of course, cherry blossom and wasabi food items. Almost everything was either pale green or pale pink.
I drank hot water with salted cherry blossoms in them. And I had mayonnaise with fresh wasabi grated into it, which was eye-opening. And nostril-opening. It was an emotional moment. I was moved to tears. In this picture you can see the baggie of salted cherry blossoms of to the bottom right. And the wasabi mayonnaise is that squeezie bottle on the top shelf. Those are fresh wasabis in the basket at the bottom.
After wandering around the town for a while, we ambled over to a small central park that had a wooden hut in the middle. Inside was a pool fed by a local hot spring and people were warming their feet in it.
I wondered how people’s feet dried without towels, but because the air was so crisp and dry it only took about ten minutes. Then they would walk on a small path embedded with pebbles for a foot massage.
As the sun was setting we went to a plum tree garden. The plum trees also bloom in the winter. It was so pretty. If it sounds like I say that all the time with this trip, it’s because it’s true. The Japanese really care about things being pleasing to the eye.
All these trees were numbered too.
I like how on this tree the bark separated from the wood, and the bark was like, “I don’t need you, I’ll grow my own twiglets.”
After night fell, we went back to the hotel for dinner (also held in the giant ballroom). You could wear your basic cotton kimono any time you were in the hotel, so everyone was wearing one. We had the typical Japanese cuisine, lots of little plates of various foods.
And then… the entertainment came out. Oh my God. If I didn’t already feel like I was in the Catskills, I sure as hell did now. They were three Mexican performers, and at one point they played “Dancing Queen” by Abba. I turned to The Moomins and said, “So let me get this straight, I’m listening to Mexicans singing a song written by Swedes in English being performed to Americans and Japanese?” I was delighted the whole time except for when they sang that damn Celine Dion Titanic dreary blarg. But aside from that, sheer delight.
After dinner we took a walk through the hotel. It had a hallway with shops where you could pick up all manner of things like slippers and hand lotion and chocolate:
And a shelf-stable dead fish in a bag. Every hotel room needs one.
Or how about a bag of random dried ocean debris? Those are always nice.
Or this collection of nightmares. I believe this was shelf-stable shrimp ‘n mussels in a bag. NOPE.
We found lobster chips in a plastic sleeve that had a photo of a lobster printed on it. It was eerily realistic.
And a room where you could rent a Disney princess evening gown and have your picture taken.
Down a corridor of fake cherry branches and lanterns was a karaoke room:
And a bar filled with hammered Japanese men, some of whom were target-shooting because nothing goes more perfectly together like inebriation and firearms. Only good can come of that.
Off to one side was a small theater filled with elderly Japanese people eating mochi sprinkled with peanuts for some unknown reason. They insisted that The Moomins try some. She found it incredibly difficult to cut with her teeth and it was too big to eat in one bite, so I spent five minutes laughing at her while she gnawed on this thing.
There was an arcade with this kodo drum game that I saw in a couple places in Japan. I loved the graphics on the top.
Here a shot I got of someone playing the game out on the street.
This hotel was famous for its saltwater onsen. They were delightful and if you went to the outside ones during the day you had a great view of the ocean. I never got tired of the onsen.
Finally, this extremely upsetting sign that was all over the hotel of what I can only imagine is sea vulvas on the half-shell. Every time I saw it I wanted to slap some stars over it. I mean, leave something to the imagination, lordy.
Some smatterings of additional photos.
A window of a kimono store that I salivated in front of for a while (SO BEAUTIFUL):
A sakura manhole cover:
One of my favorite photos from this trip of a girl ringing a bell at a temple while the incense burns in the foreground:
And a long line of people waiting for Engrish steak.