The Japanese proverb: “Go ni itte wa go ni shitagae” (“When in a village, do as the villagers do”) is the best advice for a visit to the land of the rising sun. With that in mind, a trip to Japan would not be complete without at least one night in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. The first ryokan opened in 718 AD so they are a central part of Japanese culture. They are usually family-run and there are 50,000 ryokans across Japan to choose from. Here you can experience Japanese culture and customs when you stay in a room with tatami (straw mat flooring), wear a typical yukata (unlined cotton robe) after taking an onsen (a bath fed by hot springs) and sleep on a futon usually put down directly on the tatami floor. The idea of a ryokan is that the visitors should feel that they’re visiting a friend’s home. Most ryokans don’t have restaurants but on-site chefs create meals, created from seasonal, local ingredients that are served in the guest rooms. The other second important aspect is that ryokans have baths that are fed by an onsen (hot spring), known for their restorative properties.
While traditional inns of Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, have long been known for their high quality, three Kyoto ryokans that are members of The Ryokan Collection really stand out. The Ryokan Collection is a collection of 32 luxury ryokan traditional Japanese inns and Japanese small luxury hotels that are carefully selected from all over Japan, including several in Kyoto.
“When I’m staying at Hiiragiya…I feel the serenity of old Japan.” Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972), Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, 1968
Kawabata may have said this 50 years ago but it definitely still applies to Hiiragiya today. Hiiragiya has been in the same family since 1818 when a relative of the current owners established the inn. The name of the inn translates as “House of Holly” from the Hiiragiya Shrine where wild holly (hiiragi) grows. With holly, a symbol of holiness and good fortune, as their the hosts aim to create a peaceful, relaxing time for their guests. For six generations, Hiiragiya has been host to famous men and women-writers, artists, politicians, scientists and members of the imperial family. Both Nobel Prize winning novelist, Yasunari Kawabata, and noted author, Junichiro Tanizaki, considered Hiiragiya to be their home away from home.
The Hiiragiya ryokan offers 28 rooms, each one uniquely decorated in Japanese traditional style with all the modern amenities. A delicious scent of aromatic fir trees wafts through the rooms from the en suite Japanese wooden baths. All rooms are traditional Japanese style, with tatami mats, papered shoji window, and sliding fusuma doors. Polished wooden beams and reed ceilings are in all the rooms at Hiiragiya, as well as lovely antique lacquered writing boxes. The inn is incredibly quiet inside despite being located near a busy main street. Just down the road are boutiques and a large covered market selling food, clothing and traditional Japanese products.
Meals are the traditional Kyoto Kaiseki cuisine Kyoto-style Kaiseki cuisine, carefully prepared with the freshest seasonal ingredients, and elegantly presented on handcrafted Kiyomizu ceramics and the finest lacquer ware. When we stayed there late last fall, the seasonal Kaiseki menu included 10 items ranging from pickles and rice to sashimi of sea bream,tuna and octopus to aubergine with herrings. The featured dish (Hassun) was dressed salmon roe, Yamaimo taro, rice with tiger prawn, smoked salmon and eel. Dessert at the end of any Kaiseki meal is always fresh fruit.
Rates at Hiiragiya are from 55,080 Japanese yen per person/per night based on double occupancy, including breakfast and dinner. Nakahakusancho, Fuyacho Anekoji-agaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan 604-8094 T: +81-(0)75-221-1136
Sumiya is around the corner from Hiiragiya so it made sense to stay one night in each inn. Located near the heart of the main sightseeing areas, Sumiya has been in business for 100 years with three generations of owners during that time. Upon entering you immediately feel as though you are visiting an old traditional Japanese home. Lovely Japanese antiques can be seen throughout the residence. Sumiya has Japanese Western style beds in many of the 15 rooms, with futons on platforms rather than directly on the floor.
Featuring terraces with garden views, the serene rooms have tatami floors, futons and chabudai dining tables. Tastefully blending the old with the modern, each room offers Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs and private bathrooms with traditional wooden tubs filled by spring water. Sumiya also serves kyo-kaiseki, the traditional Kyoto style multi-course dinner prepared with fresh, seasonal, local ingredients. And on the 7th and 17th of each month, guests are invited to an after-dinner tea ceremony.
Rates at Sumiya for a Japanese-Western style room start from 64,800 yen per person/per night including breakfast and dinner. Fuya-cho Sanjo-sagaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
T: +81 (0)75-221-2188
Gion-Hatanaka in the Gion area of Kyoto has the Yasaka shrine right on its doorstep yet it is so secluded that you forget where you are. Unlike many ryokan in Kyoto, Hatanaka offers en suite bathtubs in every room. And the rooms are significantly more spacious than comparable rooms in other ryokan and most luxury hotels in Kyoto. There’s also a great communal bath on the property.
Despite being fairly large, this 21-room inn manages to retain an intimate and private feeling. And like the other two inns we stayed in, it offers in-room Japanese kaiseki multi-course dinner with seasonal local dishes including fresh seafood. Gion-Hatanaka describes itself as “an oasis of the mountains
respite, nestled in the midst of a city.” We certainly felt well-rested after our stay there.
Rates at Gion-Hatanaka are from 33, 480 yen per person/per night based on double occupancy, 505 Gion Minamigawa Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City 605-0074 T: +81 (0)75-541-5315