Unwinding and Disconnecting in a Kyoto Ryokan

An overnight stay at a traditional Japanese inn yields subtle delights By: Mark Rogers
An apprentice geisha in the Gion District of Kyoto // (c) 2012 Q.Sawami/Japan National Tourist Office
An apprentice geisha in the Gion District of Kyoto // (c) 2012 Q.Sawami/Japan National Tourist Office

The Details

Most visitors to Japan will want to spend time in Tokyo, easily one of the most cutting-edge and stylish cities in the world. Tokyo's modernism is in some ways a great set-up for the caught-in-time ambience of a visit to Kyoto, the ancient imperial city lying 228 miles to the west. In Tokyo, visitors see the future and, in Kyoto, they will feel like they have somehow stumbled into the past. A superlative way to deepen a Kyoto experience is to stay overnight in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. Clients may end up spending a little more at a ryokan than they would at a hotel, but they will also receive a lot of perks, such as dinner and breakfast, attentive and gracious service from the staff and the use of a yukata, a loose, cotton kimono.

My single-night ryokan experience was spent at the Yoshi-Ima, which is located in the Geisha District of Gion in central Kyoto. My room had walls constructed of paper screens and was sparsely furnished in the traditional Japanese style, with a futon, a low table and tatami (reed) mats on the floor. Some ryokans have their own on-site Japanese baths, although this wasn't the case with Yoshi-Ima. Instead, I had a wooden bathtub outside my door.

A typical dinner at Yoshi-Ima is a kaiseki ryori, served in-room by a nakai, or room maid. The meal consisted of a selection of small dishes including tempura, salmon, miso soup, sashimi, pickled vegetables, white rice, green tea and strawberries for dessert.

After dinner, I attended a complimentary tea ceremony in the ryokan's teahouse, in the company of other guests. This offered a glimpse into Japanese customs, as well as an introduction into proper tea drinking etiquette.

Yoshi-Ima had the added distinction of being on Shinmonzen Street, which is lined with antique shops offering museum-level browsing. One of the highlights of staying in the historic Gion District is seeing real geishas walking the streets in the evening as they make their way to private parties. I dared myself to venture out onto the street in my yukata and wooden clogs, and it was a real culture shock to be dressed that way while encountering a brilliantly dressed and made-up geisha, who posed for pictures with passersby.

Since the majority of buildings in Kyoto are not more than three stories high, a city walk offers a constant awareness of the surrounding hills and mountains. The Gion District is also within walking distance of a number of Kyoto's major temples and shrines. I especially enjoyed a quiet hour spent contemplating the Zen rock garden at the Silver Pavilion.

Unless clients are looking to thoroughly immerse themselves in traditional Japanese culture, I'd recommend booking a ryokan for the first night in Kyoto and, then, arranging the remainder of the stay in a conventional hotel. All of the kneeling and lack of modernity may lead to a desire for CNN International, running water and a proper chair. Even so, chances are that on the return home, a client's night in a ryokan will be the one they remember most.

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