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To get the true feeling of traditional Japanese culture…

as it’s evolved over the centuries stay in a small inn called a ryokan.

The key word that goes with “ryokan” is

This room in Hiiragiya Ryokan in Kyoto, Japan, was built in the style of the “late Edo to Showa period” to give it the feeling of historical Kyoto.
(© April Orcutt. All Rights Reserved.)


I certainly received the best and most personal hotel service I’ve ever had in two ryokans – one truly traditional and one hip and modern – in Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan.

Reporting from Japan by April Orcutt

The simple lines of the exterior of Hiiragiya Ryokan on a narrow street in the heart of Kyoto hide the beauty within. Nishimura-san, the “Okamii” or“house mother” wearing a traditional kimono met me at the front desk and led me up steep stairs to a large sunny room with a low table and stool in the center and tatami mats of woven straw on the floor. Windows looking down on a garden filled most of two walls, but shoji screens and wood-and-rice-paper fusuma doors could slide to cover them. Nishimura-san (“san” being an honorific title) told me the wooden gold-leaf fans on the walls were 200 years old, and I later learned the inn was “established” in 1818, and the room was built in the style of the “late Edo to Showa period” to give it the feeling historical Kyoto.

After Nishimura-san left, another lovely woman in a kimono arrived to help me change into the yukata or cotton summer robe and to wrap an obi or wide cotton sash around my waist. (I learned that the left side of the yukata wraps over the right side unless you’re going to a funeral.) And then she started bringing me dinner: 13 artistic courses in traditional kaiseki style, the highest form of Japanese cuisine. Course #5, the “Featured Dishes (Hassun),” was “dress bamboo shoot with kinome, grilled prawn with sweet white sake, fried crab, blowfish in aspic, boiled abalone, broad bean, dried sea cucumber belly.”

After dinner my sweet assistant, who spoke no English (and I spoke no Japanese), moved the table, set up a mattress on the floor and made my bed in the middle of the room. Later I had a lovely soak in the cedar tub in my room. The next morning she returned to take away the bed, set up the table and serve a beautiful breakfast.

Hoshinoya, a modern interpretation of a traditional Japanese ryokan, sits in a canyon a mile up the Ooi River on the outskirts of Kyoto, Japan.
(© April Orcutt. All Rights Reserved.)

On the far western side of town in the Arashiyama district is the waiting area for the small boat that would carry me on the mile-long trip up in the canyon of the curving Ooi River to Hoshinoya, a modern interpretation of a traditional Japanese ryokan. That peaceful 20-minute boat ride set the tone for my low-key visit. My “room” was a free-standing small house (sans kitchen) with a bedroom with a real, already-made bed and a separate living room with big windows looking out across the river to the trees on the opposite shore. Again a yukata and obi were provided although this time I didn’t get help dressing.

Because the ryokan is so isolated, the inn has a variety of on-site activities, and I opted for the introduction to the incense ceremony, a kind of traditional aromatherapy using burning incense.

At dinnertime I walked across the immaculate grounds where narrow wooden slats and sand cleverly simulated the raked look of a formal Zen sand garden. A gentleman staff member led me upstairs to the private dining rooms. Over the next couple hours the waiter brought a dozen gorgeous courses in kaiseki tradition embellished with styles and flavors inspired from overseas. One course included two tiny fish grilling over a soup-bowl-sized barbecue containing one briquet. The next morning a quietly cheerful staff member brought eggs, broth, tofu, mushrooms, cabbage and even a high-end hot plate for making a delicious breakfast soup.

I’ll admit it was tough to get back on that boat to leave this tranquil spot that so beautifully combined modern style with a traditional aesthetic. I’m now definitely a fan of ryokans, both modern and traditional.