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As we passed an unadorned small wooden structure with sliding doors, my Kyoto guide stopped to explain.
“Japanese tea houses are aesthetically simple so you can focus on the tea,” she said.
I thought about this philosophy — of staying understated to highlight something truly special — all throughout my stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto in Kyoto, Japan.
Opened in 2014, the hotel is unanimously considered the city’s most luxurious property, balancing modern amenities with a traditional sensibility.
Though not austere like a tea house or ryokan (Japanese inn), the property captures that same Zen essence through its reverence for nature, craftsmanship and Kyoto’s rich heritage.
And while some hotels go for the heart, The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto aims for the senses. Opposite the porte cochere, a cascading fountain fills the outdoor walkway with the sounds of flowing water — seemingly an extension of the nearby Kamogawa River. Upon the opening of the automatic doors, the scent of the property’s custom-blended green tea is immediately noticeable — and easy to focus on — thanks to the vastness of the long entrance.
Then there’s the meticulously prepared food, from The Lobby Lounge’s tea and sandwiches to Mizuki, which features tempura, teppan, sushi and one of the few kaiseki (multicourse) menus that can accommodate fish-free vegetarians. At the morning buffet, which is included in most room rates, the huge spread includes traditional Japanese choices alongside standout Western options such as gluten-free pancakes, green juice and various to-die-for pastries made by the hotel’s Pierre Herme pastry team. Don’t miss the ispahan (rose) granola or croissants topped with sweet dried raspberry, as well as the made-to-order egg dishes and homemade matcha lattes.
If La Locanda, the hotel’s Italian restaurant, seems off-theme for such a culturally focused hotel, consider the restaurant’s newly launched private dining experience. Groups of up to 10 people can enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience of dining while a maiko, an apprentice geiko (geisha from Kyoto), performs traditional songs, dances and music.
If clients are looking for other ways to interact with local culture, the hotel probably offers it. There are 19 guest experiences from which to choose, a reflection of the fact that Kyoto is the cultural capital of Japan.
According to Anri Yamazu, public relations and marketing manager for the hotel, most guests visit the property for leisure and take part in one of the experiences during their stay.
Some are free, such as guided cycling on electric bikes, while others, including kimono dress-up and samurai lessons, are offered at a cost (about $70 and $80, respectively). All guests receive printed photos and thumb drives with additional images — a perfect memento when dressing up or cycling around nearby Gion, an area rich with temples and geiko.
The guest activity team ensured we were never wanting for anything, something I found true of the entire staff. The concierge was thorough in securing meal plans — for example, qualifying my family in detail before selecting a unique tofu kaiseki dinner.
When not eating or exploring, I took advantage of the hotel’s wellness amenities. All guests have access to the fitness center and The Ritz-Carlton Spa’s hot sauna, steam room and long, onsen-like pool that faces a waterfall. The spa features seven treatment rooms and offers the new Kyoto Bamboo Ritual, a pressure massage that involves the application of ESPA warm oils and six different types of bamboo sticks, chosen specifically for a client’s body.
Then there are the 134 guestrooms and suites, also crafted to represent the local aesthetic in its most luxurious form. Some rooms face Japanese Zen gardens, while others, like my Luxury room, feature a floor-to-ceiling window that frames the adjacent river and Higashiyama mountain range. Some suites even include tatami mats.
Design is subtle and smart, from the full-length mirrored sliding door that reveals the Toto toilet to the black lacquered nightstand with a smart control panel and outlets. My guestroom featured one calligraphy-style painting opposite my bed, but most of the room’s beauty comes from less conspicuous details, such as etchings in the wooden bed frame. My favorite details were the hinoki-wood-paneled floor and sakura (cherry blossom)-etched wall in the combination rainfall shower and soaking bath.
In addition to taking scented baths, I was regularly compelled to carve out a portion of my day to prepare the Ipoddo Tea Co. leaves provided in my room.
At this hotel, even the tea deserved attention.