The Hiranoya Tea House in Autumn, © Risa Sekiguchi, 2009
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Atami, Japan

Horai is a mythical mountain often depicted in literature, paintings and gardens, that is home to the eight immortals of Chinese lore. Known as an otherworldly place that provides a bridge between heaven and earth, it is also an apt name for Horai Ryokan. Situated on a cliff high above the sea in the busy hot spring resort town of Atami, and located conveniently near the MOA Museum of Art, Horai has been providing a slice of paradise on earth to travelers for over 250 years.

I had chosen this ryokan for its location, as well as for its minimal sukiya style architecture, for a group tour I created and led for the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. The tour was designed to highlight the architect’s love affair with Japan – not only its architecture, but also its art. Since the tour was designed to be educational, I thought that a stay in an authentic Japanese building was the ideal way to understand Japanese architecture.

Atami itself is overdeveloped, and the shoreline is crowded in places by concrete hotels built right next to the sea. However, once you arrive at Horai, the clutter vanishes. We walked down a cobblestone pathway lined with lanterns and freshly sprinkled with water in honor of our arrival. Upon entering the ryokan, it was easy to see why Wright spent so much time in Japan, and why his free-flowing spaces are imbued with a Japanese serenity.

Because Horai’s buildings have such good ‘bones,’ its art collection is understated to the point of almost being non-existent, and to a Western eye, looks minimal. This suited our group perfectly, especially the architects among us. The sukiya (suki = like, ya = house) style originated in the 17th century out of the aesthetic of the wabi tea movement. Instead of gilded walls or elaborately carved ranma (transoms), sukiya architecture celebrates the beauty of the natural materials; unpainted but perfectly planed wood; unplastered clay walls, and thatched roofs. Because nothing is added for purely decorative purposes, the proportion and finish of the architecture itself is of utmost importance. Because these ideals are akin to organic architecture, it is no wonder that architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright were influenced by this style.

The massive lobby is a recent addition, and looks out, as do all rooms, over the sea. Here, our group gathered before we were each shown to our rooms by kimono-clad staff members. It was only mid-day, but we wouldn’t see each other until dinner, or for the people who elected to have dinner in their rooms, the next day.

Horai’s rooms are linked by covered walkways, and walking around the inn provides wonderful transitions between interior and exterior spaces, something else that influenced Wright. My room – one of the smaller ones – was on the ground floor and overlooked a small patch of garden, and beyond, the Pacific Ocean. Even so, it included a genkan (entryway), sitting room and dining room, as well as a private cypress bath. The proportions were just perfect, and the serenity of the space required no adornment. In fact, the only decoration was a simple vase of flowers in the tokonoma, and the dappled sunlight on the tatami floor. I opened the sliding glass door, and the cool sea air and the distant sound of crashing waves filled the room.

I don’t recall how much time had passed, but I noticed the shadows growing long on the clay walls, and I finally rose to change into a crisply pressed blue and white cotton yukata and headed to the bath. The onsen (hot spring) baths at Horai are famous, and there are two large communal baths that are open round the clock. At midnight, the ladies' bath changes to the men’s bath, and vice-versa, so that on any given overnight stay, guests have the opportunity to sample both baths.

The ryokan staff, who always appeared just when you needed them, showed me to a rustic covered pathway that led steeply down stone steps to the lower bath. All along the way, the path twisted and turned in such a way that made the journey interesting, punctuated throughout with lovely lanterns. At certain spots, there were landings with benches and windows, out of which I could see the slanting cedar roofs of various other buildings and rooms below, all at peculiar but picturesque angles leading down to the sea.

After a few minutes, I arrived at the lower bath. It was large and rustic, with a thatched roof and stripped cedar logs, and I was surprised to find that I had the entire bath to myself. While the structure itself was lovely in a simple and rustic, summer camp-like sort of way, it was the view – looking down at the sea past twisting pines – that was most memorable. I marveled at the ingenious way the bath was situated, so that it was completely open to the sea, and yet hidden from view from the road below and secluded from civilization.

Going up the hill took much longer than descending, and I was grateful it was spring, and therefore, cool. I wouldn’t have wanted to make the climb in the heat of summer, breaking a sweat just after being freshly bathed. Along the way, I stopped at each window to try to make sense of the roofs, and again marveled at the privacy afforded by the pitch of the hill. It was no wonder the original owners picked this very slope on which to build Horai!

A group of us opted to have dinner in the banquet room that evening, and we gathered in the lobby, admiring each other in our yukatas and silk overvests, until we were shown to the room as a group. We arrived to find a single long table set up in the middle of an expansive tatami matted room. Across the front of the darkened room and perpendicular to the table, a stage was set simply, yet dramatically, with an oversized modern candlestick made of a simple arc of lit candles which illuminated a single screen with bold black-on-white calligraphy. The setting reminded me of a Noh play, or a scene from Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. Sitting there, we felt like we were transported to the banquet of a 17th- century feudal lord.

Our first course arrived with another dramatic surprise. The staff walked ceremoniously in a line, carrying individual lacquer tables, on which lanterns made only of a candle surrounded by a perfect cylinder of paper-thin sliced daikon radish glowed in the darkened room. We gasped at the sight of the parade, and watched silently as the individual place settings – like sculpture, like movie sets – were set before us.

The okami-san (lady of the house) arrived to welcome us, and talked about the inn, its philosophy and cuisine. She is an accomplished calligrapher, and had penned each place setting with a single word or phrase; mine said “spring wind.” They were so lovely it was a shame to use them as place settings. A few of my friends saved theirs as keepsakes.

Although this is a website about food, I have to admit that dinner, though delicious and varied, and served on beautiful tableware – was not as memorable as the sheer beauty of the setting and architecture and the laughter and joy of my fellow travelers. This is what comes to mind the most when my mind drifts to that evening.

The following morning, I rose early to take a bath in the other onsen. This was halfway down the hill, and I could see from the slippers at the entry that there was only one other bather. At the entrance, a stunning modern oversized lantern lit the sparse space. When I opened the door, I was taken by surprise. The bath was thoroughly modern. The walls were of glass, etched subtly in several places, perhaps only to announce their presence in order to deter people from walking through them. The support structure was constructed in a simple grid of square-edged, unadorned columns; constructed plainly and in the most functionally minimal way. The corrugated plastic white roof let in a filtered glow of sunlight, and the shadows of flickering foliage could be seen overhead. A single oversized oval rattan bench overlooked an even more stunning view of the sea – this time from a high angle – with the windswept pines below. It was simply stunning.

After showering, I stepped out to the bath, which was completely open to the air. By this time, the other bather had gone and I was alone. Standing there, naked in front of the outstretched sea, was a delicious feeling. I could have stayed in the bath for the entire day just watching the glittering sun on the waves; the changing light and color of the sea and sky; enjoying the gentle breeze and salt air on my skin.

It was to be a leisurely departure (I had planned the itinerary with ample time so that everyone could savor the experience) and so a few of us passed some time chatting and drinking tea in the lobby. I noticed how some of the people in my group had changed overnight. Gone were the harried expressions, the knitted brows and tensed shoulders, gone were the preoccupied and distracted gazes full of (perhaps unknown to them) dissatisfaction and unfulfilled yearnings. Who were these people seated before me, their faces pink and flushed, washed clean of worry and city grime? Giddy, fresh, supple, with smiles as broad and unself-conscious as children? It seemed to me that somehow, overnight, their desperate yearnings for Japan were satiated. Was it this simple, that by bringing them to Horai, they somehow found what they were looking for?

I asked one of the ladies, a musician, if she too had enjoyed the baths. She said sadly, no, because she was too shy to be naked in front of strangers. While I certainly understood the hesitation, especially for foreigners not used to this Japanese custom, I felt it was a shame. And so I pulled her by the hand and said “Come, let me just show you the view.”

We returned to the modern bath, and luckily, it was empty. We sat on the oval bench as we looked out at the sea through the pines. And we talked about many things, especially about her late husband. She told me how they met, how she was courted, and how he was the nicest man she ever knew. She told me how he never said a cross word to her in all their years together, and how she missed him so very much. He had loved Japan, and she said that being here, she could feel his presence. We cried, and sat silent, drinking in a moment of eternity. She told me how this trip had changed her life – already, only a few days after arriving – and I felt blessed to have the opportunity to provide a setting and space where that was possible for her.

Including Horai in the tour itinerary accomplished my initial goal, to give the group the opportunity to experience the essence of Japanese architecture. And yet, our stay provided so much more. It gave everyone something they were looking for, whether it was intellectual understanding, peace, beauty, or love, and they were ready to embrace the following experiences with open hearts and minds. Our experience made me realize just how powerful architecture can be, especially when one is lucky enough to spend time in a building with perfect geometry that melds so perfectly with its setting.

Even Mr. Wright would have approved.

Sunshine warms the tatami matts on the balcony at the seaside Horai ryokan. Photo: Tom Beyerle
750-6 Izusan, Atami-shi
Shizuoka 413-0002
TEL: 0557-80-5151 FAX:0557-80-0205
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