Photo credit: Hotel Senkei
There’s a mystique to traditional Japanese inns: the the quiet shushing of screen doors, the sweet grassy smell of the tatami, proprietors in fine silk kimono pouring diamond-clear sake into delicate porcelain cups. Unfortunately, these inns come with a very high price tag, and are often difficult to navigate if you don’t speak Japanese. How to find the perfect blend?: Hotel Senkei.
Reservations: Although you can make reservations through Senkei’s website (available in Japanese, English, Thai, Bahasa Indonesia, Spanish, and French), their reservation system is a little awkward to use. I’d suggest using a booking site like Trip Advisor. Be careful not to mix it up with the Senkei Plaza Inn when making your reservation. Although they are owned by the same company, Senkei Plaza Inn is the more budget-friendly and Western-focused.
Access: Senkei is on the edge of town in Hakoneyumoto, itself a 90-minute train ride from Shinjuku. From Hakoneyumoto Station it’s about a ten-minute walk to the hotel, up a somewhat steep and convoluted path with few sidewalks. If you have a lot of luggage, it makes much more sense to take a taxi or use the 100-yen shuttle service from the station.
Neighborhood: Senkei is on a narrow residential street tucked in with several other Japanese inns (ryokan) and low-profile luxury hotels, pressed right against a stream that separates all from the forest. Although there’s a constant trickle of people into and out the area by taxi and by foot, it’s still very quiet. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot in the way of restaurants and grocery stores; you’ll need to either use the restaurants located on premises or walk down closer to town for them.
Checking in: Although we arrived quite late by Japanese standards (nearly 7 p.m.), the front desk clerk easily found our reservation and had us squared away in no time. He called a maid to take us up to our rooms and we were set.
Staff: I saw very little of them (in a good way). The maid who took us to our room was good about staying just long enough to help us get oriented without feeling like she’d overstayed her welcome, and perfectly coordinated the turn down service with our dinner out at Senkei’s ramen shop. Both she and the front desk clerk spoke a little English—the bare minimum to get people checked in and settled, I think.
Security: Good. Stone walkways and bridges connect all the rooms to the ground floor and baths, and each room opens directly to one of these walkways. The doors use a physical key and automatically lock behind you. On the third floor we had a small balcony attached to our room, with a locking glass door. The “public” bath and outdoor hot spring (rotenburo) are separated by sex, with each sex trading the use of the baths once per day. The same hot spring water is pumped into the private bath in each room if you’re not comfortable bathing with others. (However, the rooms themselves do not feature a rotenburo.)
Size: Large. All rooms are Japanese style with tatami mats and shoji screens, and as such all living space is free during the day when the futon are put away in the closet; no beds to contend with. Even ignoring that, though, the main room is big enough to fit two futon and a chabudai table, and also has a small area by the back door with two chairs and a coffee table. Outside the main room, the entryway is also quite large, with a large vanity outside the bathroom. The only small room is the toilet, which is rather narrow. Unfortunately, I don’t believe any of the rooms is wheelchair accessible, though there are elevators and low barriers for those with less severe mobility issues. (If you want to find a hotel in Hakone that’s wheelchair accessible, I strongly suggest checking out the Japan Accessible Tourism Center.)
Comfort: Senkei is a high-class hotel that tries to emulate the feeling of a ryokan, and as such omotenashi is the primary concern. From the tea service by the maid and tiny cakes ready for us the moment we walked in the door to the turn-down service perfectly coordinated with our dinner, Senkei strives to anticipate needs and fill them before the guest notices they have a need at all. My futon was comfy and I was excited to try a buckwheat pillow for the first time, and the chairs by the balcony were lovely for writing, light filtering in through the shoji screens. They also use filtered water in both the public bath and rotenburo, so there’s no sulphur smell or odd water coloration, just warmth.
Amenities: The big draw of just about every hotel in the area are the hot springs, which Senkei also uses. I’ve already written about their rotenburo, but they also have a “public bath” (not actually open to the public as far as I’m aware) that’s very lovely. Like at many traditional hotels and ryokan, your room also comes with a yukata and slippers you can wear to the baths. Senkei also makes tea for you on the day of your arrival and can provide a traditional Japanese breakfast and dinner for each day of your reservation for an additional fee. (Bear in mind that the menus for these meals will be fixed, so if you have any food restrictions, be sure to request alternatives when you make your reservation.) If a fixed menu isn’t your speed, a cafe with light dining for all three meals and a ramen shop open for dinner are both on premises.
Price: Prices vary by season; when we went in November, we got rooms for 10,650 yen (~$88 USD) per person per night with no board.
TL;DR: I loved our stay at Hotel Senkei. It was comfortable, classy, and relaxing—a good blend of Western and Japanese expectations. Although it’s not a great option for people who need a wheelchair, it could be a lovely option for those with less severe or no mobility problems. This was one of my favorite places in the area, and I’d definitely stay again.