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Dozens of historic palaces, temples, and gardens are scattered throughout Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan, amid skyscrapers and trendy shopping districts. Although these cities have numerous Western-style hotels that offer every kind of creature comfort, I decided to book a few nights at two luxury “ryokans” (Japanese-style inns), operated by Japan-based Hoshino Resorts, for a truly immersive experience.
While the origins of ryokan lodgings trace back to the free Buddhist rest houses of Japan’s Nara era approximately 1,300 years ago, the current ryokan model is inspired by the roadside inns from the Edo era (1603–1868), whose patronage included merchants, samurai, government officials and members of the upper class.
Given that Hoshino Resorts opened its first ryokan in 1914, booking these stays seemed like a wonderful, hands-on way to gain a deeper insight into the traditions and culture embodied by the historic sites I visited.
From the moment I stepped inside Hoshinoya Tokyo, fast-paced urban life seemed to disappear. The service and the transition into my immersion was meticulous, as the property’s staff ensured the stay flowed seamlessly — from the welcome tea ceremony upon arrival to instructions on putting on the customary “yukata” (a kimono’s more casual cousin) in my cedar-scented suite. An elaborate “kaiseki” (multicourse) meal followed, along with a Japanese classical music performance in the lobby lounge and a relaxing soak in the property’s rooftop “onsen” (spring-water spa).
The borders of past and present blur even more at Hoshinoya Tokyo’s sister property, Hoshinoya Kyoto, which opened in 2009. A leisurely boat ride delivered me from Arashiyama, the city’s buzzing tourist area, to a converted century-old private home. Painstakingly manicured paths led from the reception area to my suite and on to a beautiful kaiseki dinner prepared before my eyes. I passed the evening sampling Japanese whiskies and enjoying conversations with a “maiko” (young geisha protege) and her “geiko” (older mentor) in the free-standing salon, where they also gave a performance.
The most breathtaking element of my stay, however, was my room’s expansive picture window. Slide screens open to an extraordinary backdrop for a Japanese breakfast prepared in-room.
Toshiyuki Sakai, general manager for Hoshinoya Kyoto, believes the company’s popularity among Japanese travelers provides further incentive for Western visitors to try it out for a more “immersive, personal way to experience Japanese culture, history and nature.”
“We want to get guests focusing on being in the moment, which cannot happen in a 21st-century city center,” he said. “This quiet space is meant to be a departure not just from the pressures of daily life, but also from the kind of travel involving a rush from place to place. Better still, a ryokan stay is more interactive than a visit to a museum looking at artifacts from Kyoto's past.”
Although there is no question that the Hoshinoya ryokans are luxury properties — with room rates starting at $700 — Sakai emphasizes that the definition of luxury is far different from that of companies such as Four Seasons or Hyatt.
“We take great care to craft the entire experience by hand for every individual guest,” Sakai said. “However, there are things guests should do ahead of time to ensure they get the most out of their stay. First and foremost, forget about time and planning a schedule. A ryokan is not just a place to spend a night; it’s a place to spend time learning about the Japanese way of life, either through leisurely paced activities — such as tea and incense ceremonies, performances and workshops — or just appreciating the natural surroundings.”
Sakai adds that the Hoshinoya ryokans include everything a client will need for the stay, down to pajamas and skincare products, but that luggage needs to be kept to a minimum. Boats that take guests from the dock to the property do not accommodate large suitcases.