GROWTH SPURT The Eastern-style annex, a 1935 addition to the hotel. Photo: John S Lander/Getty Images

THEN

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THE 19TH-CENTURY FOREIGNERS who first ventured to the Japanese mountain town of Nikko came away enchanted by the scenery: ornate Shinto shrines set among rivers, forests and waterfalls. But those same visitors were less impressed with the lodging options. Many griped about the local inns, furnished with futon-beds set on the floor and paper walls that offered no privacy. And the food? Overly exotic at best. British traveler Isabella Bird offered a typical review: “The fishy and vegetable abominations known as ‘Japanese food’ can only be swallowed and digested by a few, and that after long practice.” In 1873, in an attempt to cater to Western sensibilities, Zenichiro Kanaya, a 21-year-old temple musician, opened rooms in his family house, serving guests simply-prepared poultry, rainbow trout and eggs. Two decades later, Mr. Kanaya established the first European-style resort hotel nearby, with two stories, mattress beds and such Western staples as bread, which guests had taught his chefs to bake. By 1896, the Kanaya Hotel was turning out 14-course French menus with beef in Périgueux sauce and champignons au jus—not a piece of sushi or grain of rice in sight. Throughout the early 20th century, the hotel drew a parade of celebrity travelers, including the Japanophile Frank Lloyd Wright and, later, Albert Einstein and his wife, Elsa. The hotel gardens, sculpted by temple workers, fit in with the local aesthetic, while the kitchen continued to appease American and European palates, with bacon and eggs for breakfast and mille-feuille after dinner.

NOW

FINICKY WESTERN EATERS would still be relieved to find filet mignon on the French menu of the hotel, now known as the Nikko Kanaya, a 90-minute drive from Tokyo. The dining room itself looks much as it did when it first opened, in 1893 and eagle-eyed diners might notice that the wooden pillars are decorated with flower carvings that echo those of the nearby Toshogu shrine. The views from the guest rooms are likewise unchanged—forest-covered mountains in the background, the same fastidiously manicured gardens in the foreground that the Einsteins strolled in 1922. Other parts of the hotel feel mildly haunted, like a Japanese version of “The Shining.” The wood-paneled lobby is well worn, stairwells creak noticeably and a shadowy cocktail bar features fading black-and-white photos of forgotten ’20s parties, with men in tuxedos and women in frocks smiling at the camera. There have been some updates over the years. A mazelike passageway leads to a lonely pool, for example, which doubles as a skating rink in winter. In the ’60s, a third story and a new wing were added. And the hotel kitchen now serves a host of Japanese dishes, catering to both locals and Western visitors with more contemporary palates. Chances are Ms. Bird would have been alarmed by the Japanese breakfast—consisting of tangy pickled vegetables, salted salmon and nori (dried seasoned seaweed)—but, perhaps, assuaged by the restaurant’s house wine, produced by the nearby Coco vineyard since the 1980s. It pairs especially well with the filet mignon.

How the West Was Won Over

A brief look at Japan’s transformation from recluse to tourist magnet, with an assist from the Kanaya Hotel

The Nikko Kanaya Hotel in the 1920s. Photo: Alamy

1600: Under the Tokugawa shogunate, feudal Japan is closed off to foreign travelers and merchants.

1853: U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry sails into Edo harbor (modern Tokyo) and demands at gunpoint that Japan open its doors to Western trade. Travelers remain restricted to areas within a 25 mile radius from treaty ports.

1868: After the so-called Meiji Restoration, foreign travelers are allowed to explore Japan on specified routes.

1873: Zenichiro Kanaya lets out rooms in his house in Nikko for 2 shillings a day, creating Kanaya Cottage Inn.

1878: Travel writer Isabella Bird visits for 12 days, pronounces the inn a “Japanese idyll” in her best seller “Off the Beaten Track in Japan.”

1885: Inn staff member Shotara Sakamaki travels to San Francisco to study hotel management.

1893: Kanaya opens a fully-fledged grand hotel near his original inn. Rates are 150 Yen a month, including meals (roughly $7,000 today, or $230 a night).

1899: Travel restrictions on foreigners formally end.

1945: U.S. Army takes over the hotel as a recreational facility.

1952: Kanaya Hotel resumes guest operations.

1999: Nikko’s shrines and temples designated Unesco World Heritage site.

2015: The 1873 “Cottage Inn” is restored as a museum.

Land of The Rising Visitor Counts

How times have changed

The new Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. Photo: Kyodo News/Getty Images

The outside world’s fascination with Japan has hardly eased. In fact, international tourist arrivals have exploded in recent years:

1964: 350,000

1977: 1 million

2013: 5 million

2018: 31 million

2020: 40 million (projected for the Tokyo summer Olympics year)

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