Gora Kadan, a short taxi ride up the hill from Hakone Ginyu, is a formal ryokan in another class altogether—it's no wonder Nobu Matsuhisa loves staying here. A former summer residence of the imperial clan Kaninnomiya, it has a glass-walled lobby and gallery leading to a series of outdoor baths, lounges, and alcoves where priceless ceramics and scrolls are displayed. Kana, my housemaid, performs the most flawless bow I've ever seen—ceremonial training is a high priority at Gora Kadan. Kneeling, she slides open the shoji to the banquet room where I'm being served dinner, places 10 fingertips together precisely on the straw mat, and bends her head forward to form an inverted triangle. Never turning her back, Kana picks up a red lacquer tray, rises, and shuffles elegantly toward the low dining table, where she kneels again to present a series of poetic treats: house-made plum wine; toro tuna sashimi; octopus and ostrich fern in vinegar sauce; bamboo shoots with sansho pepper; grilled Spanish mackerel. Most ryokan serve a seasonal kaiseki—a 500-year-old culinary tradition from Kyoto that began as appetizers to accompany the tea ceremony. Now, some of these meals involve up to 20 miniature courses. Gora Kadan's version, with its interplay of rare ingredients and ornate place settings, intrigues the most celebrated connoisseurs. Later, back in my suite, I slide into a custom-built tub big enough for two sumo wrestlers and listen to the wind gusting outside. Meanwhile, Kana tiptoes silently into the bedroom to set up a soft futon bed with a downy comforter. On the floor, she leaves a lit paper lantern, so I can find my way back from the bath.
In certain respects, onsen regions mirror such European spa towns as Baden-Baden and Saturnia.But while Westerners tend to regard these spas as cures for the excesses of la dolce vita, the Japanese still look on theirs as contemplative retreats. This morning before breakfast at Gora Kadan, a rain shower helps me figure this out. Sitting in a stone-lined pool where a waterfall artfully tumbles down between blooming cherry trees, I watch as a light drizzle swirls the pink petals on the water's surface. A train clattering up the hillside briefly disturbs my reverie. Later on, I bump into another American guest in the lobby, and he raves about his experience in the men's bath. His only problem is getting past the nudity issue. He pulls aside a damp yukata to show me his swimming trunks.
Halfway down the Izu Peninsulafrom Gora Kadan lies the onsen town of Shuzenji, divided by the boulder-strewn Katsura River. Lipstick-red bridges span the waterway, which is traced by delicate stands of bamboo. Tourist stalls selling wasabi, black rice, and bean-paste cakes bookend a Buddhist temple where attendants peddle good-luck charms. Little girls in school uniforms run past a shooting gallery with a tempting display of plush toys and big-eyed dolls. As I brush between the polka-dot linen curtains at Asaba, a 350-year-old ryokan with its own authentic cypress-wood Noh stage, a demure trio of female guests in navy blue yukata and padded outer jackets nod to me shyly. Asaba may be ancient, but it certainly isn't outdated. On a table next to the pebbled entranceway, I notice a black leather Hermès desk pad; a calligraphy screen is paired with safari chairs by 20th-century Danish designer Kaare Klint. After a dusty afternoon exploring the temple and local ceramic studios, I look forward to changing into my own two-toed tabi socks, straw sandals, and dragonfly-print robe and visiting the open-air bath. There, squatting on a low, unvarnished stool, I splash lukewarm water from a knee-high tap. Using a small bucket to rinse off shampoo, I feel blindly around for something I can use to dry myself off. Crouching Tourist, Hidden Towel. Easing into the basalt rock pool, I watch a stand of bamboo swaying in the evening breeze. Floating votives bob in an eddy where a stream refreshes the koi pond. The heat becomes exhausting, so I pad back to my uncluttered, tatami-matted guest suite, a design study in negative space. On the way, I catch another glimpse of the three demure ladies smoking in a salon facing the Noh stage. Later, they take a midnight skinny-dip, their delighted giggles wafting up through my open bedroom window, which is just above the outdoor bath. Hanging out with close friends who don't care about your cellulite always beats ascetic meditation.
The next morning, I wave good-bye to the same trio when they check out. (Off with the baggy yukata; on with the skin-tight Dior.) After donning my own street shoes, I ramble down one of Shuzenji's lanes, only to hear the shuffle of wooden clogs as Asaba's valet catches up and graciously hands me a town map. Crossing the river, I walk up a hill to peek at Yagyu-no-sho, a ryokan that reminds me of an Easter parade, all spring green and lilac. Host Takashi Saito often practices the martial art of kendo (performed with a bamboo sword) in a studio opposite the inn. He also wears Aquascutum suits. Obviously Saito has urbane tastes. And he wins me over by turning my unpronounceable Gaelic name into kanji-scripted poetry. All guests' names are so inscribed, in chalk on slate plaques outsideeach of the 14 rooms in the main building. There are also two teahouse-style guest cottages, tucked into a private bamboo grove. Inside them, woven basket seats with brocade cushions and detached armrests face a low table and candle stand. It's a setting suitable for samurai. Each villa has a heated rock pool close to a trickling brook, in which it's possible to cool your hands without getting up. In a moss-covered side garden I notice a kitschy statue: two pudgy raccoons with bald tummies. "That's our tanuki," Saito explains. Tanukis are a type of mischievous kami, favorite protagonists in Japanese folklore. They act as ryokan guardians, reminding guests to be on their best behavior. The intrinsic link between Shinto nature spirits and hot-spring bathing suddenly becomes clearer, even if these spirits resemble distant cousins of Chip 'n' Dale.
Faster ways exist to reach Yufuin on Kyushu, the island directly south of Honshu, but that would mean missing a ride on the Yufuin No Mori Express from Hakata. This European-style narrow-gauge train has varnished oak interiors and plush seats, with a salon car that serves bento box lunches and draft Sapporo beer. Given Japan's compact dimensions, it's a little depressing to stare out the window and see how much of the landscape is dominated by dingy industrial areas and postwar apartment complexes. It gives me a perspective on why the less-developed onsen regions are so highly valued. Once past the crowded coastline below Kyoto, the train crosses a narrow isthmus and climbs into Kyushu's pine-covered mountains. Attendants walk through the cars with signs to announce impending scenic waterfalls and rock formations. On my way back from the bar, I bump into a three-year-old boy posing for his father's video camera. The little ham goes wide-eyed when he sees me and shifts into a snappy karate demo; with a little encouragement from his papa, he bows politely at the end. How can I not bow back?
"Sutoresu." Therapist Naomi Kawano zeroes in on sore points during a shiatsu session atMurata, a mountaintop ryokan in the pastoral spa town of Yufuin. "You have sutoresu." It takes me several moments to decipher this strangely familiar term. Oh, she means stress. No kidding. I lie on a white futon as Kawano covers my limbs with a cotton hand towel to avoid direct contact. She presses thumbs and palms toughened by 32 years of practice on my neck, arms, and legs. Afterward, I continue to ease tense muscles in a terrazzo-and-cypress ofuro fed by a local spring that passes underneath my cottage at the rustic inn. Actually, it's not so rustic. Owner Koji Fujibayashi relocated a handful of plaster-and-beam barns and thatched-roof lodges to this pine-covered slope directly below Mount Yufu-dake, but he also commissioned Tokyo's cutting-edge designer Shinichiro Ogata to build Gyou, a stunning minimalist lair of concrete and steel. Le Corbusier chairs are grouped around a 1930's Western Electric stereo system in the bar; an adjacent gallery has David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky sketches on display. And although the main dining room uses a traditional charcoal cooking hearth, Murata also has its own Parisian-style chocolatier, Wi-Fi café, and Italian restaurant.
A short flight takes me back to tech-loving Tokyo. It seems director Hayao Miyazaki's beloved sento bathhouses haven't completely disappeared from the landscape—they've just been rescripted. At the end of my trip, spa developer Junichi Kono proudly shows me around his latest project. An hour outside the city, on the tiny island of Enoshima, near Kamakura, Enospa features every imaginable up-to-date trick: indoor waterfalls, whirlpools, a health-food café, and a Western-style treatment menu created bySylvia Sepielli, who suggested I take a day trip to see this modern variation on Japan's oldest bathing theme. Enospa is a huge hit with couples, who don Hawaiian-print bikinis and surf shorts to bob in the outdoor swimming pool. As sunset approaches, the joyful chatter drops suddenly, and I can hear the Pacific surf slosh on rocks below. Heads turn. At the last minute, Mount Fuji makes a surprise appearance on the horizon. The solemnity of contemplating Japan's sacred volcano dissipates quickly during the ensuing sound-and-light show. Computer-driven water jets and colored-laser lights are flung about as pressurized steam rises dramatically from hidden vents. I feel strangely transported to a Vegas floor show, but everyone else lounging in the heated pool thinks it's a big splash.