bar hotel Hakone Kazan: hot springs, luxury, and unfettered cocktailing

Today we take a quick breather from reality, and set out for a boutique hotel/bar hybrid called bar hotel Hakone Kazan. Just two hours away from Tokyo by train, this 21-room hotel and hot springs resort in Kanagawa prefecture’s Hakone lavishly combines the natural tranquility of ryokan hospitality with Japanese cocktail bar culture and unparalleled attention to detail. It’s an offering that any drinks fan should consider when planning a visit to Japan.

Japan is home to the world’s oldest hotel, operating since 705 AD. At this style of hotel, called “ryokan,” weary travelers bathe in local hot springs and enjoy seasonal, regional delicacies. If you’ve ever come to Japan as a tourist, you’ve probably considered staying at one.

For a millennium and change, bathing and food have remained fundamental components of the ryokan experience. Never mind fantastic scenery, rich histories, secluded locations, and incredible architecture or design. If you didn’t have a great soak and excellent meal, you didn’t go to a ryokan.

1300+ years later, bar hotel Hakone Kazan asks a profound question: what happens if we take that ryokan tradition of escaping into nature for a nice bath, but instead of food, we focus on drinks?

And focus on the drinks they have. I can’t emphasize that enough. Take the Hakone Tozan Line, find your way to the hotel by 6 PM, and check in. And no, you don’t head to some front desk. The bar is the front desk.

“Some people check in and just keep drinking straight until we close the bar at 2 AM,” says bartender Mitsuyu-san. That’s possible because, with only a few exceptions, any drink is included in the cost of your stay. To give you a better idea of what that means, at the end of this article, I’ve included a selection of cocktails I had at the bar that night. Plus some from the morning and afternoon the next day.

A fizzy welcome

Sit at the 13-meter teak bar, usable exclusively by hotel guests, and drink like a fish if you’d like. Drink nothing and relax in the hot springs. Have a few beers and sleep until noon. It’s all fair game here. Or relax outside the hot springs. On the floor above the bar is an open lounge. There are plenty of couches and loungers to kick back, snuggle up with a great book, and have as few or many drinks as you want.

The cocktails–both the quantity and quality–draw many visitors to bar hotel Hakone Kazan. Others come for the design. Still others want a getaway and have never been to a bar before. Maybe I enjoy it all. You’ll feel welcome here whether you know a lot, or nothing, about drinks.

My room for the night is a 46m² Superior Deluxe Double, combining a massive Western-style double bed and desk area with a modern tatami mat area. The latter has a daybed and plenty of room for lounging in privacy if that’s your preference. Floor-to-ceiling shoji separate the two areas.

Design and attention to detail are huge parts of the bar hotel Hakone Kazan experience. The room features a CD player and three CDs offering background music for your stay: “sleep,” “liqueur,” and “awake.” …CDs, in 2022? Well, it’s hard to argue against the aesthetics of just sliding a disc into the slot and letting the music play. Art from Shinpei Kashihara, much of it drinking-themed, adds elegance. Even the room wear–which you’re free to wear to the bar–is designed by famed kimono designer Jotaro Saito.

Back at that bar, it’s game time. I’m in awe of the woodwork and lighting design. “The bar came as a single slice of wood, but we had to cut it into three sections to get it through the door,” says Mitsuyu-san. During my stay, the hotel is running a “Special Cocktail Election,” where guests award points–for flavor, appearance, and creativity–to drinks created by members of the hotel staff. Not just the bartenders, either: ideas came from the kitchen staff and more. This week had eleven candidates; next week would see ten more. One drink will earn its place on the permanent menu for the rest of the year.

Allowing all candidates to speak is the only way to vote fairly in such an election. After I’ve heard from several, it’s time to get in the bath. It too has a bar. My private spa/bar experience is in “black,” where a generous climate-controlled waiting area leads into a rainwater shower, sauna, cold water bath, and infinity-style hot spring. With 90 minutes, there’s plenty of time for soaking, taking in the fresh mountain air, and, naturally, staying “hydrated” with two bottles of bubbly and plenty else in the minibar.

Private spa/bar “black”

If you guessed that most visitors come to bar hotel Hakone Kazan in pairs, you’re right. Mitsuyu-san says that before covid, patrons were mostly well-off couples in their 30s and 40s. Thanks to the Japanese government’s Go To Travel campaign subsidizing some of the cost, that audience expanded to couples in their 20s and ladies coming in groups. Affluent foreigners have remained target since the hotel first opened, and like all of Japan’s hospitality industry, the staff is hopeful the country will welcome such overseas visitors again soon.

After hearing from all candidates in the election and casting my votes, it’s time to switch gears and go with some classics. And eventually, switch seats to be nearby the hearth. Smoking is tucked away in a “smoking bar” where you can take drinks and even cigars offered by the hotel. Watch your head going in, though.

The following day, despite going all-out the night before, I wake up feeling refreshed. After a quick dip in the main bath, things started again with a relaxing free-flow champagne brunch featuring katsuo (skipjack tuna) and a galette of onion and soba powder, topped with ponzu jelly.

Where most hotels have you check out by 10 AM, staying true to its namesake, the bar hotel’s “Morning Bar” starts at 10 AM. If you want to ready yourself for a big day after your big night, there are plenty of non-alcoholic coffee and tea options. If you want to keep the buzz going after your brunch, those offerings can be merged with gin, rum, or wine bases. Alternatively, if you just want to forget it’s still the AM hours, the entire cocktail menu from the night before is still available.

If you like, stick around the bar until the last call at 12:30 PM. The baths are open until 1 PM, and check-out is a lazy 2 PM. There’s plenty of time to sleep it off if you’ve gone too hard.

As I bid farewell to bar hotel Hakone Kazan, I remember Mitsuyu-san saying around a third of the hotel’s visitors are repeat customers. It’s easy to see why. Early June in Hakone is one experience, but February is a different one. And October. Never mind next season, though; I want to come back next week.

bar hotel Hakone Kazan official website / Instagram

Plans at bar hotel Hakone Kazan start at 41,000 yen per person and include free-flow cocktails, most spirits and other drinks at the bar, and pick-up/drop-off from Hakone Tozan Line’s Chokoku no Mori Station.

A Selection of bar hotel Hakone Kazan’s Cocktails

Free flow of hundreds of cocktails, spirits, and other drinks is included in most plans at bar hotel Hakone Kazan. Below are some of the drinks I enjoyed during my stay. Please note that many of these drinks are not part of the bar’s permanent menu: they might not be available when you visit.

Izakaya Imodamon Sour elevates an izakaya-style lemon sour with koji salt and Wakashio Shuzo’s Sengamejo handmade sweet potato shochu, distilled in wooden pot stills and aged in ceramic urns. That’s infused with cardamom and lemon, yielding “Imodamon.”

Hakone brings together Nikka’s Coffey Gin, mirin, apple juice, tonic, and sansho.

Bar Imodamon Sour follows the other definition of sour, essentially swapping pisco for the above Imodamon infused shochu.

Nitri Citrea introduces oleo into a vodka-based Collins. Way too easy to drink this one.

Due Balsamico brings together the unlikely combination of rum, balsamic vinegar, and pineapple juice, topped with basil. There’s even balsamico vinegar jelly floating on top. I’m guessing the idea for this one came out of the kitchen.

Malibu isn’t an ingredient seen too often in short cocktails, but here we are. Yashi Oolong Tea combines it with milk, oolong tea, kuromitsu, and kinako for a dessert cocktail.

Shingenmochi is another dessert cocktail, this time styled after the famed Yamanashi prefecture delicacy. Like the food, this liquid Shingen mochi has kuromitsu and kinako, adds cream and Frangelico, and it’s served with a side of glutinous rice-flour called gyuhi.

Ume & Basil Spiced Mojito offers spice-infused rum, anisette, lime syrup, simple, soda, umeboshi, basil, and star anise. Definitely brings a spiced sour twist to a Mojito.

Mid Night Elixir is a delightful combination of vodka, Jägermeister (yup), Mistia, grapefruit juice, apple juice, and lemon juice. I suppose Jäger goes quite well with any of those in isolation, so why not put them all together?

Ki No Bi Gin & Tonic needs no introduction! But I needed a refresher, and this hit the spot.

Cosmopolitan. Vodka is NOT your enemy.

Hakushu Highball, refreshing and delicate as always.

Americano brings together Cinzano and Gran Classico.

A Manhattan is an important part of any night of grandeur for me.

Digging deeper into the classics, at least for Americans, is a Frozen Margarita.

Paradise isn’t a super-duper popular cocktail here in Japan but I’m trying to change that.

Spring Feeling is another slightly obscure cocktail that more people need to know about. If you like the tartness of lemon but the kick of Green Chartreuse, give it a shot.

Rusty Nail is very frequently my first and/or last drink!

Rum Coffee gets your morning started, with a sweet rum & hand drip coffee.

Kazan is one of bar hotel Hakone Kazan’s signature drinks, made with dry gin, yellow Chartreuse, Kanade Sakura liqueur, whisky, and grapefruit juice. Rich, complex, and tart.

Another Rusty Nail, this time with the peat kick of Laphraoig bringing things to a close. Thanks for a fantastic stay!

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