Main Japanese Inns and Hot Springs: A Guide to Japan’s Best Ryokan & Onsen

Japanese Inns and Hot Springs: A Guide to Japan’s Best Ryokan & Onsen

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Richly illustrated and exhaustively researched, Japanese Inns & Hot Springs is the definitive guide to Japanese spas and hot springs known as ryokans.

It presents the finest ryokans in Japan, from historic properties like Hiiragiya in Kyoto and Kikkaso in Hakone to luxury retreats like Zaborin in Hokkaido and Tenku-no-Mori in Kyushu.

In this Japan travel guide you will find:
  • The 40 best Japanese ryokan and onsens for English-speaking visitors (including 13 in the Tokyo area and 11 in and around Kyoto and Nara)
  • A description of the special features of each ryokan and what is included in your stay
  • Tips on how to choose the right ryokan for you
  • Practical advice on how to book a stay and a detailed etiquette guide
Above all else this ryokan guide reveals the enduring traditions of Japanese hospitality, a rich heritage reaching back a thousand years to the time when Japan's hot spring bathing culture took root. The beautiful properties in this book also illustrate the unique design sensibility for which Japan is so justly renowned.

Indispensable tips on booking a Japanese ryokan that is right for you along with a detailed etiquette guide to staying at a ryokan and bathing in an onsen, as well as descriptions of the special features of each of the inns featured.
Year: 2017
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing
Language: english
Pages: 240
ISBN 10: 4805313927
ISBN 13: 9784805313923
File: EPUB, 55.20 MB
Download (epub, 55.20 MB)
 
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Tsuru-no-Yu – Nyuto Onsen, pages 208–213





Kai Hakone, pages 26–29





JAPANESE INNS

AND HOT SPRINGS



A GUIDE TO JAPAN’S BEST

RYOKAN AND ONSEN





Akihiko Seki and Rob Goss





TUTTLE Publishing

Tokyo | Rutland, Vermont | Singapore





Title Page - Kikkaso Inn – Hakone, pages 30–33



Seiryuso – Shimoda, pages 58–61





CONTENTS

The Ryokan Experience

A Tradition of Fine Hospitality

A Guide to Ryokan Etiquette

AROUND TOKYO

HAKONE AND MT. FUJI AREA

Gora kadan – Hakone

kai Hakone – Hakone

kikkaso inn – Hakone

Shuhoukaku kogetsu – Lake kawaguchi

IZU PENINSULA

Asaba – Shuzen-ji onsen

kai Atami – Atami onsen

Yagyu-no-Sho – Shuzen-ji onsen

Seiryuso – Shimoda

OTHER AREAS AROUND TOKYO

Tokiwa Hotel – kofu

kai nikko –Lake Chuzenji, nikko

Honke Bankyu – Yunishigawa onsen, nikko

KYOTO & NARA

KYOTO

Yoshida Sanso – northeastern kyoto

Aoi kamagowa-Tei – Central kyoto

Gion Hatanaka – Central kyoto

Hiiragiya – Central kyoto

kinmata – Central kyoto

kinpyo – Central kyoto

Seikoro inn – Central kyoto

Hoshinoya kyoto – Arashiyama, Western kyoto

Suisen – Yunohana onsen, kyoto

NARA

Shikitei – Central nara

Wakasa Bettei – Central nara

CENTRAL JAPAN

Bettei Senjuan – Minakami onsen, Gunma

Ryugon – Minami-uonuma, niigata

Hoshinoya karuizawa, nagano

Houshi – Awazu onsen, ishikawa

Araya Totoan – Yamashiro onsen, ishikawa

kayotei inn – Yamanaka onsen, ishikawa

Wa-no-Sato – Miya Mura, Gifu

WESTERN & SOUTHERN JAPAN

nishimuraya Honkan – kinosaki onsen, Toyooka

Tosen Goshobo – Arima onsen, kobe

Sekitei – Miyahama onsen, Hiroshima

Sansou Murata – Yufuin, kyushu

Tenku-no-Mori – kagoshima, kyushu

HOKKAIDO & NORTHERN JAPAN

HOKKAIDO

Ginrinsou – otaru

kuramure – otaru

zaborin – niseko

Hina-no-za – Lake Akan

NORTHERN HONSHU

Saryo Soen – Akiu onsen, Sendai

Tsuru-no-Yu – nyuto onsen, Akita

Travel Tips





THE RYOKAN EXPERIENCE

Browsing through the ryokan brochures at a Japanese travel agency reveals much about the variation and intricacies of the ryokan. Some ryokan specialize in food, at others the baths are the star, while with a few the history and traditions are the main appeal, but in most cases it’s the combination of factors that makes a ryokan special. Take somewhere like Hoshinoya Kyoto, a contemporary ryokan, where you'll find Michelin-starred cuisine coupled with a blend of European and Japanese design sensibilities. At the historic Hiiragiya in Kyoto, the lore of the ryokan itself combines with impeccable hospitality and the finest of traditional kaiseki cuisine.

One thing that unites all great ryokan, of course, is the food. The seasonal produce, regional specialties, and presentation will vary from ryokan to ryokan, but dinner usually follows the multi-course kaiseki template with a set succession of anywhere between seven or eight to a dozen or so courses. The culinary procession begins with a small, often single bite appetizer course—called sakizuke—designed to whet the appetite before the second course, the hassun, which appears with a larger selection of small dishes that will almost always include a fish of some kind and several other ornately presented seasonal morsels.



An elegant starter course at Hoshinoya Karuizawa (see pages 140–143). Multi-course kaiseki meals are an integral part of the ryokan experience and many ryokan pride themselves on providing meals that are better than what you get in an expensive MIchelin-starred restaurant. Of course the room rates reflect this, but keep in mind that half or more of what you are paying for is the food.

Next typically comes the mukozuke, a selection of three or four types of sashimi; perhaps a few slices of sea bream and some succulent small shrimp or scallop hearts. The season and the region will determine the selection, but being sashimi, all will of course be raw for dipping in a little wasabi and soy sauce. Next up comes the simmered takiawase dish, which could be any combination of vegetables or tofu with meat or seafood, and then the futamono dish—a light soup. After that will likely be a flame-broiled yakimono dish, which more often than not is seafood, before a vinegared suzakana dish that refreshes the palate ahead of the main dish (although several other small courses may also follow first), which could be anything from a hotpot of local seafood to a teppan grilled dish featuring prime regional beef or highly prized abalone.

Near the end of the meal, just when you are beginning to wonder if you can physically manage to eat anything else, will come the gohan (rice; often including vegetables or seafood), konomono (pickles) and tomewan (miso soup) courses, and to round things off the mizumono (dessert), which could be as simple as sliced fruit or as tempting as a green tea crème brûlée. As you roll away from the dinner table, just remember that in less than twelve hours’ time you will be back at the table working your way through a multi-course breakfast.

It’s for this reason that most high-quality ryokan don’t offer no-meal stays; after all, they employ some of the country’s best chefs, sometimes serving only several groups a night in the smallest of ryokan, so they simply wouldn’t be able to survive on room-only customers. Even if they did offer a no-meal option, given that it’s common to only stay a single night at a ryokan, to go without the food would be to miss out on a crucial element of the experience—it’s more than worth the splurge.



The okami or “house mother” at the Yoshida Sanso (see pages 76–81) and her daughter. Personal attention and service by experienced okami are a key part of the ryokan experience. They literally take care of you as your mother would—including serving lavish meals in your room.

Then, of course, there are the baths. From working on this book I’ve learned that with so many subtle and not so subtle variations between ryokan, there really isn’t a typical ryokan per se. It is common for ryokan to offer a mixture of bathing options, from small private in-room baths to a selection of large communal bathing areas that might feature an outdoor bath accented by rocks or with views into nature, and indoor wooden baths that might give off the gentle scent of cypress or be infused with citrus. Given that many ryokan are in geothermically active regions, it’s common too for the bath waters to come straight from natural hot-spring sources deep beneath the ryokan, at a naturally piping hot, muscle-relaxing 40 or so degrees Celsius (104 degrees Farenheit) that makes a hot-spring soak one of Japan’s most treasured treats. One that’s said to be healthy, too, with the mineral-rich waters attributed with alleviating ailments as diverse as arthritis and piles.



Tosen Goshobo (see pages 164–167). Volcanic hot-spring bathing with water direct from the ground is another vital feature of the high-quality ryokan in this book.

With the design of a ryokan there are also certain unifying elements, although as this book hopefully demonstrates, there is great variety, too. Rooms in traditional ryokan frequently feature tatami mat flooring and at night futon are laid out on the floor. In one part of the room you’ll find an alcove, called a tokonoma, where a pictorial or calligraphic scroll will be hung, perhaps alongside a flower arrangement. The center of the room will have a low table, where etiquette dictates that the most important guest sits with his or her back to the tokonoma. There’ll be sliding screen doors, too, and laid out on arrival will be your cotton yukata gown, which you can change into for the duration of your stay, allowing you to shed your real-world clothes and immerse yourself in the past.



Many ryokan have rustic designs or even employ old farmhouse buildings like Wa-no-Sato (pages 156–159), located in Gifu Prefecture.



All ryokan place a high value on comfort, which includes the sleeping arrangements. Typically this means a comfortable futon bed laid out each night on a soft tatami floor, but some ryokan, like Seiryuso (see pages 58-61) also feature Western-style beds.



Ryokan rooms are designed for relaxation, which often means contemplation of a beautifully designed Japanese garden, such as this one at Asaba (pages 40–45).



Most of the ryokan in this book (except for those in the historic districts of Kyoto and Nara) are located in the countryside in a gorgeous setting, like Yagyu-no-Sho (pages 52–57).





A TRADITION OF FINE HOSPITALITY

As anyone who has stayed at a ryokan will tell you, the experience is more than a window to classic Japan, it affords an opportunity to immerse yourself in tradition; to experience old Japan as the Japanese have done for generations—in a way that is unadulterated, unhurried, and undoubtedly unforgettable.

Like so much of Japan’s richly woven cultural tapestry, the ryokan has a long and winding history that has seen it develop from humble beginnings to today’s pampering retreat. Delve into the ryokan’s roots and you’ll be reaching back to the Nara period (710–784), a time when the political, social and religious structures of classical Japanese civilization were taking shape. It was then that simple but free rest houses for travelers called fuseya first appeared. They were run by Buddhist monks to help keep travelers from the perils of the road.

In the Heian era (794–1191), a rise in the popularity of pilgrimages among the elite classes saw a twist on fuseya arise, with feudal manors and temples opening themselves to pilgrims. It’s hard to know just how spartan the latter—called shukubo—would have been back then, but the modern-day version of temple accommodation is a fascinating experience for pilgrims and tourists alike. In Koya-san, the mountain-top town home to the Shingon sect of Buddhism, almost half of the one hundred or so temples and monasteries that hug the mountain provide almost ryokan-like shukubo, with modest tatami-mat rooms but exquisite vegetarian shojin-ryori cuisine and opportunities to experience temple life by attending morning prayers and meditation.

It’s difficult to entirely separate shukubo from ryokan—many current ryokan, for example, were once shukubo. But as temple lodgings developed on major travel routes, along with the development of roads, bridges, and small towns, so did accommodation for non-pilgrims. Initially, this took the form of simple lodgings called kichin-yado, where guests received no meals but were able to seek shelter from the elements. Guests were charged not for their rooms here, but for the wood they would use to cook and keep warm with. By the time of the Edo era (1603–1868), a developing economy and increased internal trade saw more travel, and the appearance of accommodation called hatago, offering merchants and other travelers a more comprehensive version of kichin-yado, with meals provided and accommodation fees charged.



Personal service at a ryokan not only means lavish ten-course meals in your room but occasionally the chef may even serve you personally, as shown here at Suisen (pages 116–121).

At this time, with the Tokugawa shogunate strictly keeping provincial lords in check, a high-end version of hatago also came in to being, and besides being another stepping stone toward today’s ryokan, its own roots reveal much about the politics of the Edo era. So the shogunate could keep a close eye on them, daimyo (feudal lords) were obliged to alternate annually between living in their own regions and living in the capital Edo (now called Tokyo). This saw the rise of honjin lodgings for the daimyo on common travel routes, as well as less fancy lodgings for their staff, but even with these and hatago in place another development was needed before the ryokan became what it is today—widespread travel for leisure.

From the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when military rule with its harsh travel restrictions was abolished, travel and sightseeing as a pastime began to grow in popularity, initially among the wealthy, then spreading to a broad spectrum of society from the end of the Second World War onwards. As a result, ryokan—the kanji characters for which literally translate to something like “travel lodgings”—sprang up all over Japan, particularly in popular tourist destinations and in areas blessed with natural hot springs, offering a relaxing combination of traditional peace and quiet, hospitality, fine cuisine, and (in many cases) hot-spring bathing. The ryokan offers pampering, but also an opportunity for Japanese living increasingly hectic, modern lives to slow down; to embrace and celebrate their traditions; to feel Japanese.



This modern hot-spring pool at Gora Kadan (see pages 20-25) is carved from a block of solid granite.



The opportunity to experience a traditional Japanese home interior first-hand is one of the great joys of staying at a ryokan. Shown here is an elegant room at Yoshida Sanso (see pages 76–81).





A GUIDE TO RYOKAN ETIQUETTE

Entire books have been written on Japanese business etiquette and social manners. In the most part, the intricacies don’t apply to tourists—just use universal good manners and you’ll be fine—but there are some particular rules for the ryokan that you should do your best to follow.

When to Remove Your Shoes

In the majority of ryokan, you take off your shoes in the entrance area before stepping into the ryokan, store them in the lockers or on the shoe shelves available, and then change into slippers to be worn around the communal areas of the ryokan. When you get to your room, you then remove your slippers at the room’s genkan (the small entrance area), going barefoot or in socks on the tatami mats. There can be variations, of course—some ryokan, for example, allow shoes throughout the communal areas, but you then take these off at your genkan—which can make things a little confusing. A simple guideline is to never step on tatami with shoes or slippers on and, wherever else, look out for slippers. If slippers are laid out, it’s a good bet you should be using them.



At Asaba (pages 40–45), you are personally greeted by the okami who will look after you during your stay. Remember to remove your shoes at the entrance! (She will store them for you.)

Luggage

As well as removing your shoes at the entrance, at most ryokan this is also where staff will collect your luggage from you. If you end up carrying your own luggage to your room, lift it up if you can, so that the wheels don’t bring in dirt from outside or damage the flooring. In your room, don’t keep the luggage on the tatami or in the tokonoma. There will be closets or other areas to leave it.



Kinmata (pages 96–99). Your luggage will be brought to your room. Be very careful not to damage the tatami mats, paper screens and furniture in the room or public areas. If anything is damaged, you might be asked to pay for the cost of repairing or replacing the items.



Hiiragaya (pages 90–95). Paper shoji screens are exquisitely beautiful but also extremely fragile. Please be careful when opening them.

Bath Time

First up, change into the cotton yukata gown left for you in your room before going to the bathhouse (you can wear this throughout your stay), and take one of the room towels with you as not all ryokan have towels in the bathhouse. Once there, get naked, leaving your yukata and anything else in one of the wicker baskets or lockers in the changing room next to the actual bath room. Unless you are at a mixed-gender bath (although many of these are nude only, too) the only thing allowed in the bath is you—no bathing shorts, towels, or anything else to protect your modesty.

Next, the most important thing is to wash before getting in the bath. As a foreigner, you can be forgiven for many faux pas in Japan, but polluting a communal bath with soap or dirt is one cardinal sin that nobody gets away with. Before getting in the bath for a long, hot soak, take a seat on one of the little stools by the low showers and wash and fully rinse (making sure to rinse off any soap and bubbles from the stool too) before heading for the bath. Enter the bath gently, as it’s rude to disturb the water too much, and then relax.

Tipping

Basically speaking: no. Whether at a taxi, restaurant, hotel or anywhere else, tipping is very rarely done in Japan. In almost all situations, simply trying to tip someone would cause embarrassment. That said, with very high-end ryokan there is an old custom (seldom followed nowadays) of offering a gratuity for staff who were particularly helpful. This is done by slipping a little cash (¥2,000 to ¥3,000) into an envelope and discreetly handing it over. Again, you aren’t expected to do this (quite the opposite), and you may be politely refused. If you want to leave something to say thank you for a great stay, give the staff a box of cookies or something similar when you check out. Really, though, a genuine thank you and smile is more than enough.



The first course of a meal at Kinmata (pages 96–99). Breakfast and dinner at a ryokan are both lavish affairs requiring many hours of preparation by the kitchen. You will be asked to confirm your preferred meal times in advance. Be punctual to avoid disrupting the ryokan's carefully choreographed schedule.

Noise Levels

You don’t have to whisper or walk around like you are on eggshells, but the peace and quiet is something that makes ryokan so special. In common areas especially, a little common sense will go a long way when it comes to noise and, if you are traveling with kids, make sure they aren’t running amok.

Meals

Ingredients are ordered to meet the day’s demand, so don’t make any last-minute menu requests as the ryokan might not be able to accommodate them. If you have special dietary requirements, let the ryokan know before you arrive. Be aware that dinner timings tend not to be flexible, beyond perhaps the choice of dinner at 6:30 or 7pm, as the chefs will cook all the intricate dishes at one time on a tight schedule, to be served at once. When you’ve set the time, you need to stick to it. Ryokan won’t hold a meal for you, as they won’t want to serve food that isn’t at its freshest.





GORA KADAN HAKONE



With its collection of hot-spring baths, spa treatments, and timeless ryokan style, this former Imperial villa in the mountains of Hakone offers one of the most luxurious weekend escapes from Tokyo.

Located on the grounds of the former summer villa of a member of the Imperial Family—in the village of Gora, midway through the classic sightseeing route around the Hakone area—the Gora Kadan initially opened as a ryokan in 1952, undergoing a major modernizing renovation in 1989 that has given the ryokan its current combination of traditional and contemporary styles.

The appreciation of nature is an important part of the experience at many of the best ryokan—as well as in traditional Japanese culture in general—and at the Gora Kadan opportunities to connect with nature abound. The setting, in the northern part of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, means guests are treated to lush mountain views, while in spots like the moon-viewing deck they can watch bamboo sway and listen to the sound of a small stream, while taking in star-studded skies—weather permitting of course.

The guest rooms build on this connection with nature. Rooms in the Annex Suites feature private open-air baths that overlook the Gora Kadan’s historic landscaped garden; other suite rooms boast open-air rock, stone, or wooden baths that look out into nature. Even the “standard” rooms have their own aromatic indoor wooden baths that draw on natural hot-spring wells, as well as their own small private gardens. And regardless of the class of room, each features a smart mix of traditional design elements such as tatami matting, sliding paper screen doors and lightly toned woods that give both a freshness and a feeling of spaciousness.



A cobbled pathway leads to the main entrance.



One of the outdoor communal baths. Gora Kadan’s water, which feeds the communal and in-room baths, is a mineral-rich source from deep under Hakone. One of its attributes is to leave one’s skin feeling soft and smooth.



A small garden feature (for purification purposes) that wouldn’t look out of place at the entrance to the inner grounds of a shrine.



A room with a view. Many of the non-standard rooms come with facilities such as outdoor baths, wood decking with panoramic or semi-panoramic views, and a sense of being within nature.



One of the outdoor guest room baths. With the soothing heat of the water, soaking up to your chin in one of these feels just as good as a full-body massage.

Since 1981, Gora Kadan has been a member of the Relais & Chateaux association of independently owned luxury hotels and restaurants, and in 2002 it was awarded the organization’s prestigious Welcome Trophy in recognition of high customer satisfaction and high standards of service. It’s not hard to see why. As well as in-room baths, there are two large communal baths that draw on piping hot mineral-rich spring water, soothing and relaxing in the midst of nature. The nightly kaiseki is an artistic multi-course treat served in-room by kimono-clad staff and employing seafood sourced fresh from the local waters of Suruga Gulf and Sagami Bay as well as other fine produce brought in from around Japan. Beyond the normal facilities one finds at a ryokan, Gora Kadan also incorporates a covered swimming pool, a jacuzzi, and a gym, not to mention a spa that offers a range of aesthetic treatments such as full-body massages, facials and aromatherapy.

The location is terrific, too. Guests can easily access tourist attractions such as the Hakone Open Air Museum (home to a large Picasso collection as well as many outdoor art installations), the steaming volcanic landscape of the Owakudani valley, and Lake Ashi with its postcard-perfect view of Mount Fuji. See page 33 for further information on Hakone's attractions.

Gora kadan 強羅花壇

Address: 1300 Gora, Hakone, Ashigarashimo, kanagawa 250-0408

Telephone: 0460-82-3331

Website: www.gorakadan.com

Email: info@gorakadan.com

number of rooms: 38

Room rate: ¥¥¥¥



In-room baths come in a variety of styles, like this aromatic cedar tub.



Design-wise, the spa looks extremely traditional, but the massages and other treatments available there have an eclectic feel, with shiatsu, acupuncture, detox, stone therapy, and more on the menu.



After a traditional ryokan breakfast, you very often don’t need lunch. If you aren’t used to it, rice, fish, pickles, soup (and more) can be quite a challenging start to the day. But, it invites you to take your time, and a slow breakfast sets one up for a relaxing day ahead.



Relaxation at the Gora Kadan goes beyond a soak in the bath and a massage. You could lounge by the pool all day if you wanted, or do something very rare at a ryokan—use it to get some exercise.





KAI HAKONE HAKONE



The KAI’s distinctive blend of local customs and refined tradition with sleek contemporary touches really comes to the fore at the KAI Hakone’s Yosegi-no-Ma room, which is designed using local crafts as a key motif.

Situated on the banks of a mountain river, a short taxi ride from Hakone-Yumoto Station in the heart of the Hakone area, KAI Hakone is a traditional ryokan tweaked to satisfy modern-day guests.

Step inside and you will be met by staff dressed in black rather than in kimono. In place of green tea comes a welcome glass of sparkling wine served in a cavernous lobby, with natural wood flooring and furnishings and floor-to-ceiling windows that give panoramic views of greenery.

From the lobby, a corridor of bamboo leads to the guest rooms, which are spread over four floors and all overlook the river. Floors one to three have twenty-three Japanese-style rooms that feature low sofas and beds and offer an open space that combines a tatami-matted sitting area and wood-floored bedroom, plus wide windows for taking in the sights and sounds of nature outside. On the fourth floor are eight Western-style rooms, with carpeting and contemporary, unfussy interiors.



Balancing out the hearty flavor of the Meiji nabe (above), the meals also include the finesse of intricate dishes like these. Striking to look at yet sublime on the palette.

However, if you want a room that says Hakone like no other, book the KAI’s Yosegi-no-Ma, which has been decorated using a distinctive local craft called yosegi marquetry, a type of woodworking that uses different colors and tones of wood to give a mosaic-like appearance. In Hakone’s souvenir stores, you see everything from yosegi boxes and trays to cups and cupboards, and the Yosegi-no-Ma room has gone all out to incorporate these and yosegi-patterned furnishings in its design to very striking effect. Taking the theme a step further, every night in the lobby guests can make their own yosegi coasters; a fun activity and resulting in a souvenir that will be a real conversation-starter.

Like the Yosegi-no-Ma room, dinner is an elaborate affair. The ten-course kaiseki might start with an appetizer like salmon roe with sea urchin, before the hassun plate of delicacies, which, depending on the season, could include morsels such as steamed chicken with butterbur sprout miso, sea urchin mixed with agar, or thinly sliced potato dressed in flying fish roe. A standout dish here is the chef ’s special Meiji gyu no nabe hot pot, which features succulent chunks of steak cooked in a miso-based sauce.



One of the KAI Hakone’s signatures—a nabe (which roughly translates as a hot pot) of high-grade beef cooked in a miso-based sauce.

Hakone is renowned in Japan for its abundance of natural hot springs—there are twenty in the area, and bathing is a key part of any ryokan stay here. Drawing on water from the Hakone Yumoto hot spring, the KAI’s two semi open-air communal baths (one for men, one for women) feature large “infinity” bathtubs with vast open windows that frame the lush riverside scenery.

Hakone is also renowned as one of the most popular weekend retreats from Tokyo, in part because of its ryokan and baths, but also because it’s a fun area to explore. Using Hakone-Yumoto Station as a starting point, and going through a succession of different forms of transportation (from switchback railway to cable car and ropeway), guests at the KAI can easily head up into the mountains to see sights like the Hakone Open Air Museum, the historic Fujiya Hotel (see page 32), the mountain village of Gora, the steaming volcanic valley of Owakudani, and then drop down to the picturesque Lake Ashi—a route that also offers up various glimpses of Mount Fuji.

Hoshino Resorts kAi Hakone 界 箱根

Address: 230 Yumoto-chaya, Hakonemachi, Ashigarashimo, kanagawa 250-0312

Telephone: 050-3786-1144

Website: www.hoshinoresorts.com/en/resortsandhotels/kai/hakone

Email: hakone@kai-ryokan.jp

number of rooms: 32

Room rate: ¥¥



The communal baths are semi open-air and ion-rich, with a gentle coolness coming from the woods and the river that runs alongside the KAI. The way the opening in the building frames nature is a classic concept, albeit on a grand scale here.



if you are in the Yosegi-no-Ma room, which is designed on yosegi marquetry themes (a Hakone craft), while enjoying the striking woodwork.



There’s always something special about a little sake at a ryokan. You could take it with natural views on one of the terraces.





KIKKASO INN HAKONE



With just three rooms, a night at the Kikkaso is both intimate and tranquil. It’s a rare opportunity to have a former Imperial villa almost all to oneself, picturesque garden included.

History. The Fujiya Hotel in Hakone, one of Japan’s classic Western-style hotels, is steeped in it. Since opening in 1878, it has functioned as a luxury retreat for royalty and the stars, from Japan’s own Imperial Family to the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller, and John Lennon. Explore the buildings and grounds and the past immerses you. Old photographs of famous guests adorn many of the hallway walls, there are art deco interiors, aging woods, and stairs that creak as you climb them. But that's not all. The Fujiya contains one of Hakone’s best kept secrets, the Kikkaso Inn.

Built in 1895 as a summer villa for the Emperor and Empress Meiji, and used by various members of the Imperial Family into the 1940s (when the Fujiya took control of it), the Kikkaso oozes old charm. Visit the tatami-mat dining area, where you can take a multi-dish kaiseki dinner if you don’t opt for the highly rated French cuisine at the Fujiya, and you’ll be eating in what was once the Emperor’s bedroom. Look at the pillars of Japanese cypress here and you will still see some of the iron rings that would have held up the Imperial mosquito nets, as well as iron light fittings bearing the Imperial chrysanthemum crest.



It’s the staff that ultimately make a good ryokan stay. The concept of omotenashi—roughly meaning hospitality but with a deeper nuance of understanding and anticipating a guest’s needs—is sometimes over-hyped nowadays and when done badly lacks flexibility, but at the best ryokan, it’s the key to the experience. Generations of service means places like the Kikkaso get omotenashi just right every time.

The Imperial adventure continues outside, where Kikkaso guests have exclusive access to the Imperial Family’s once-private stroll garden. Like the Kikkaso, which is the smallest of the former Imperial villas in Japan, the garden is an intimate affair, with a mossy pathway leading up to a small “hill” that has a view over the villa, and where a carp-filled pond is accented by a vivid vermilion bridge. Like the Meiji and Showa emperors before them, it’s very likely guests will enjoy their stroll in complete peace and quiet—there are, after all, only three guest rooms at the Kikkaso, all following the classic ryokan formula of tatami flooring, paper screen doors and, at night, futon arranged on the floor for sleeping.

If the historic charm of the Kikkaso and the glamorous atmosphere of the Fujiya Hotel were not enough, the surrounding location also has much to recommend it. Hakone has long been a popular overnight retreat for generations of Tokyoites, because of its easy access (one hour forty minutes from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to Hakone by the Romancecar express train), its proximity to Mount Fuji, natural hot-spring baths, and other natural attractions. The Kikkaso is conveniently situated for easy access to many local areas of interest.

Using the trundling Tozan railway, the two-carriage switchback service that many guests take from Hakone-Yumoto Station to Miyanoshita Station, which serves the Fujiya, you can go higher and deeper into the Hakone area. Two stops up the line, at Chokoku-no-Mori Station, is the Hakone Open-air Art Museum which has a sprawling collection of outdoor sculptures, as well as a large indoor Picasso collection. One stop on, at the end of the line, comes the town of Gora, from where a funicular train runs to Mount Soun. After taking in the views here, you can take a cable car over the volcanic valley of Owakudani—a barren range dotted with bubbling hot-spring pools and steaming sulfur vents. The cable car journey ends at the attractive Lake Ashi, which offers spectacular views of Mount Fuji when the weather is clear.

Fujiya Hotel, kikkaso inn 菊華荘

Address: 359 Miyanoshita, Hakonemachi, Ashigarashimo-gun, kanagawa, japan 250-0404

Telephone: 0460-82-2211

Website: www.fujiyahotel.jp

Email: info@fujiyahotel.jp

number of rooms: 3

Room rate: ¥¥¥



The three guest rooms at the Fujiya are relatively modest, but fully traditional. That, of course, includes the low table in the main room being moved at night and futon being prepared on the floor, so guests can fall asleep to the gentle scent of tatami.



Guests at the Kikkaso have the option of a traditional kaiseki course featuring dishes like this, but can also dine on French cuisine at the main Fujiya Hotel.



The garden is one of the loveliest features of the Kikkaso, especially with the accent given by the striking vermilion bridge.





SHUHOUKAKU KOGETSU LAKE KAWAGUCHI



About as close to a stay in the shadow of Mount Fuji as you can find, the Kogetsu gives mesmerizing views of Japan’s tallest and most iconic peak from its lakeside berth.

Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest and most iconic peak, has inspired generations of Japanese, from artists like Hokusai and his famed woodblock prints to the haiku master Matsuo Basho. The mountain, snow-capped for much of the year, is visible as far afield as Tokyo, and has been claimed as sacred by Shinto and Buddhism. Mount Fuji has shaped Japanese culture like no other natural monument. And whether seen for the first time or the hundredth, its beauty always captivates.

Though it can be seen from far and wide, few places in Japan offer better views of Fuji-san—as the Japanese call it—than Lake Kawaguchi, sixty-two miles (one hundred kilometers) west of Tokyo in Yamanashi Prefecture’s Five Lakes area. And few places at Lake Kawaguchi boast better views of Fuji than the Kogetsu ryokan on the lake’s northern shoreline. From the Kogetsu’s two communal outdoor hot-spring baths, Fuji appears across the lake in all its symmetrical magnificence. On some winter mornings, when the light is just right, its surface appears reddish, and on some nights, when the moonlight deems it fit, it appears to float on the lake—phenomena known as akafuji (red Fuji) and kurofuji (black Fuji), respectively.



The entrance to the hot-spring baths. The swirly looking character is one ryokan and hot-spring fans will see often. It’s the phonetic hiragana character for “yu”, meaning hot water, but here signifying the hot baths.

Like the baths, all the rooms come with Fuji views; some of the non-standard rooms have their own wood-decked terraces where guests can relax in loungers or soothe their feet in private footbaths while taking in the scenery; others have private open-air baths too. Looking inside, all are bright and airy, with light tatami, walls, and wood, and either futon or simple Western-style beds. Most guests will have dinner served in their room (though large groups can have their own dining rooms), and at the Kogetsu—like most ryokan—that means an elaborate kaiseki affair featuring mostly local, seasonal produce turned into dishes such as richly fragrant matsutake mushroom soup and a shabu shabu hot pot featuring pork from pigs that have been reared on Koshu wine.

What makes Lake Kawaguchi great for a weekend away from Tokyo—besides the scenery, the ryokan, and the hot-spring baths—is the variety of things to do here. It’s an easy drive from Kawaguchiko to the amusement park Fuji-Q Highland, which has a terror-inducing selection of white-knuckle rides. In the lake area itself is the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum, which houses decorative tie-dyed kimono and other fabrics. Around the lake, there are also herb gardens and, in spring, vast fields of pink moss phlox that create a stark contrast to Fuji. The lake area is also close to trails that lead to Fuji’s peak, when the summer climbing season opens and thousands of hikers make the slow trek up to 12,388 feet (3,776 meters) in the hope of seeing the sunrise from Japan’s highest point. More than anything, there’s just something special about being so close to Fuji, soaking outside in a hot bath as the sun sets, or whiling away an afternoon on the decking taking in the views.

Shuhoukaku kogetsu 湖月

Address: 2312 kawaguchi, Fuji kawaguchiko, Minami-tsuru-gun, Yamanashi 401-0304

Telephone: 0555-76-8888

Website: www.kogetu.com

Email: info@kogetu.com

number of rooms: 45

Room rate: ¥¥¥



The Kogetsu’s baths have Fuji views. If the conditions are right, some mornings you can get a glimpse of akafuji (when Fuji takes on a red hue) or of an evening kurofuji (when the mountain appears to float in the moonlight).



The choice of serving dish is just as important as the arrangement of the food itself. During the dinner, you are invited to enjoy not just taste, but to appreciate design.



A member of staff serves a welcome drink shortly after arriving at the guestroom. As well as being the first opportunity to unwind after traveling, the welcome drink service is also the first opportunity to get to know the staff member who (very likely) will be serving and looking after you throughout your stay.



The rotemburo (outdoor bath) comes with lovely lake views, although if you stand up for long you run the risk of flashing any passing boats.



With a shoreline just short of twelve miles (twenty kilometers) long, Lake Kawaguchi is the second-largest of the Fuji Five Lakes. As well as options to take to the water in tour boats or swan-shaped pedalos, there are also pretty walking trails around the lake and a good range of other attractions.



This tipple might look like sake, but it’s actually wine. Japan is far from being a major winemaker, but within Japan, Yamanashi is known for its wines.



The guest rooms have a wonderful simplicity in design, allowing the understated traditional elements to shine.





ASABA SHUZENJI ONSEN, IZU



The Asaba is a standout in so many ways. Not only has it been in the same family since the fifteenth century, it even has its own outdoor Noh stage, where performances take place several times a year.

Ever since the monk Kobo Daishi (aka Kukai)—the founder of Shingon Buddhism—visited what is now the town of Shuzenji in the early 800s and discovered the area’s natural hot-spring source before then establishing the temple that gave its name to the town, Shuzenji has been synonymous with both Buddhism and bathing. With Shuzenji Temple at its heart, the town flourished as a regional center for Shingon Buddhism for nearly five hundred years. Then came a couple of hundred years of gradual decline under the Rinzai sect of Buddhism during the Kamakura era (1185–1333), when Japan was ruled from Kamakura by the Minamoto clan, before the temple was adopted by Soto Buddhism in the late 1400s. Since then, the temple has enjoyed centuries of prominence, despite going through the typical pattern of destruction and rebuild that has affected so many of Japan’s fire-prone historic structures.



The entrance to the Asaba is almost temple like in design, although given Shuzenji’s long association with Buddhism and the Asaba’s own roots as a form of temple lodging, perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise.



Shuzenji is a pretty hot-spring town. The river running through it is transformed by rusts and yellows in autumn, but it’s a pleasant place to stroll any time of year, and it’s close to the Asaba. You could also walk to historic sites like Shuzenji Temple, try the outdoor footbath on the river or just take in the sights with one of the matcha ice creams you can find around here.

It was with the onset of Shuzenji’s Soto years that the town saw the creation of its now famed ryokan, the Asaba, established by the Asaba family in 1489 (and still run by them today). Asaba began as temple lodgings but eventually morphed into an exclusive retreat during the Meiji era (1868–1912)—complete with an outdoor Noh stage visible from guest rooms. Now it is one of a select few properties in Japan with membership of the Relais & Chateaux association of independently owned luxury hotels and restaurants.

The room views, over a large pond toward the Noh stage and a wooded backdrop that turns red and yellow in the fall, are as alluring as the interiors. The rooms are classically appointed with tatami matting, sliding doors and other traditional touches, and the common areas are bright and spacious, featuring light woods, tatami-matted or carpeted hallways, and wide windows that open out onto the pond.



There are plenty of quiet spots at the Asaba where guests can enjoy the ryokan’s calm and tranquility.



Heading for the Noh stage by boat. It’s quite an entrance and an even more unforgettable performance. Noh is staged here a number of times a year, and once announced Asaba books out quickly. If you manage to get a reservation on a performance night, you’ll be able to watch the show looking down on the stage from the comfort of your own room—better than any royal box.

For relaxation, there are rocky outdoor hot-spring baths infused with the sweet scent of yuzu citrus, or a contemporary white-walled lounge serving cocktails and other drinks. There’s also an on-site European-inspired spa with a variety of body and facial treatments. And then there’s the food. Served in-room, the dinner at the Asaba is a supreme example of multi-course kaiseki cuisine incorporating seasonal produce and local specialties, weaving together platters of sashimi and in-season appetizers, with perhaps some river crab or conger eel stuffed with sticky rice, and maybe a hearty hot pot featuring local boar.

From the Asaba, it’s an easy walk to take in the main sights of Shuzenji, crossing the distinctive red Kaede Bridge for a stroll through a small bamboo grove before following the river that cuts through the town to the Tokku-no-Yu footbath on the rocky riverbank—the hot spring that Kobo Daishi is said to have discovered and pronounced as holy on his first visit to the area—and on to the nearby Shuzenji Temple. By the standards of many of Japan’s leading temples and shrines, Shuzenji is quite modest (there’s none of the gilding of Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto nor the intricate carvings of Toshogu Shrine in Nikko), but like the town—and like the Asaba—there’s a calming peace and quiet in the grounds.





The bathing options include indoor and outdoor communal baths. Both have yuzu citrus floating in them, which gives an intense, yet calming aroma while soaking in the piping hot waters.



As is the case with the communal areas, the guest room’s use of light woods and tatami gives them a refreshing brightness. The Asaba is a very historic property but certainly doesn’t feel like a museum.



Like the dinner, breakfast is a classic Japanese affair, featuring in-season grilled fish, rice, miso soup, egg, and a variety of small vegetable dishes and pickles. As with most ryokan, both meals come as part of the accommodation package and are served in the guest room.

Asaba あさば

Address: 3450-1 Shuzenji, izu, Shizuoka 410-2416

Telephone: 0558-72-7000

Website: www.asaba-ryokan.com/en

Email: asaba@izu.co.jp

number of rooms: 17

Room rate: ¥¥¥¥



Served in-room on a mix of regal lacquerware and fine ceramics, the multi-course kaiseki draws on local produce, which might include river fish or even wild boar depending on the time of year. This being Shizuoka, there will also be excellent seafood on the menu.



Asaba as night falls. The pond adds to both the beauty and the tranquility of the ryokan, and by day it isn’t uncommon to be able to watch kingfishers flitting around it.





KAI ATAMI ATAMI ONSEN, ATAMI



With a pair of aromatic outdoor baths overlooking the ocean and a hillside building that oozes old charm, KAI Atami shines in an area with a rich tradition of ryokan hospitality.

The resort town of Atami, looking out over Sagami Bay on the picturesque Izu-Hanto Peninsula, has long been a holiday destination synonymous with hot-spring bathing and traditional accommodation. For generations, Tokyoites in particular have been making the sixty-two–mile (hundred-kilometer) jaunt west, leaving the rigors of the city behind to relax in the mineral-rich hot-spring waters that feed Atami’s numerous ryokan and unwind in timeless retreats like the KAI Atami ryokan.

Now part of Hoshino Resorts’ KAI range, in many respects the 160-year-old KAI Atami is the quintessential ryokan. After leaving your shoes at the entranceway and then slipping into your cotton yukata gown, you become part of a hushed world where the pace of life slows to allow contemplation and calm; and where the senses can hone in on the finest of details—the mellow aroma of green tea, the sweet scent of tatami, the sound of waves in the distance.



Cobblestones and bamboo lead to the entrance, the gentle lights at the end of the path draw you in.

The building, though home to just sixteen guest rooms, is an intriguing maze of hallways and stairways spread out on a hillside overlooking the bay, close enough to the ocean to hear waves lapping as you fall asleep at night, yet high enough up the hill to take in broad ocean views from the guest rooms and from the large open-air communal cedar baths. Likewise, the open-air lounge halfway up the hillside, where guests can unwind with complimentary drinks, provides not just stellar views, but also offers contemporary relief from the aged woods of the main building and the tatami-mat guest rooms, blending modern touches with traditional ryokan surrounds—a common design theme found in the thirteen KAI properties across Japan.



Whether KAI or Hoshinoya, dinner at any Hoshino Resort property is a special experience. The kaiseki here draws a lot on the area’s highly regarded seafood and is put together with traditional aplomb.

Another of the key concepts of the KAI brand is the incorporation of local traditions and flavors, and in Atami’s case that most notably means tapping into local seafood. The multi-course kaiseki dinner, served in-room, eaten cross-legged at a low table on tatami, varies by season but is always heavy on freshly caught fish and shellfish, with signature dishes like whole red snapper and clams steamed in eight spices that the chefs prepare alongside more traditional kaiseki flavors. It also means giving guests the opportunity to experience Atami’s renowned geisha traditions at a nightly after-dinner show where geisha perform traditional dances and songs, before playing imperial court games with guests, such as the surprisingly addictive fan-throwing. It might sound touristy, but bear in mind that geisha go through years of training to perfect their arts, their movements, and each and every manner; and despite geisha playing a prominent role in guidebook and travel brochure imagery, to actually spend time being entertained by one is an experience usually out of reach of travelers to Japan (and most Japanese). Like staying in a historic ryokan, it’s an opportunity to absorb and interact with tradition, not just observe it from afar.



It isn’t just Kyoto that has a long geisha heritage. Tokyo, of course, does too. And so does Atami. Celebrating that, a local geisha performs nightly after dinner at KAI Atami, giving guests the opportunity to enjoy traditional music and dance, but also take part in fun games like fan-tossing.



Chrysanthemums, or kiku, to use the Japanese word, are a noble flower in Japan. Not only is one used on the Imperial Family’s seal, the flower is also said to represent longevity and rejuvenation. In that respect, it’s a fitting choice to have them floating on the KAI Atami’s natural hot-spring baths, which themselves (according to Japanese tradition) can alleviate numerous ailments and rejuvenate both physically and mentally.

As with all the best ryokan, it would be tempting not to leave the KAI Atami during a stay, but Atami does have some attractions that are worth exploring. The two market streets leading away from Atami Station are something of a must-see for foodies, home to stalls specializing in all sorts of dried fish (all specialties of Shizuoka Prefecture) as well as Japanese sweets, and local fruits and vegetables. Then there is the MOA Museum with its 3,500 or so paintings, its Noh theater, and its gilded tearoom, all set atop the hill that overlooks Atami Station and provides sweeping views over Sagami Bay—a sight almost as impressive as watching the sunset while soaking in one of the KAI’s outdoor baths.

kAi Atami 界 熱海

Address: 759 izusan, Atami, Shizuoka, japan 413-0002

Telephone: 0570-073-011

Website: www.hoshinoresorts.com/en/resortsandhotels/kai/atami-ryokan

Email: info@kai-atami.jp

number of rooms: 16

Room rate: ¥¥¥



A staff member serving the signature red snapper dish. Staff at the KAI Atami and other Hoshino Resorts properties don’t wear traditional clothing like kimono, but rather a uniform that feels like a blend of contemporary and tradition, much like the Hoshino ryokan themselves.



The guest rooms represent simple, minimalist Japanese tradition at its very best.



The outdoor lounge area, located halfway between the two outdoor baths, has great views and a fridge stocked with complimentary beer and other drinks—ideal post bath.



No, it’s not the same bath again. Both the large wooden communal tubs at the KAI look similar and are decorated with flowers. The difference is that they are gender-separated baths—men and women here bathe apart (as is typical at any ryokan) but both get great views and a similarly luxurious bathing experience.



You often hear of ryokan being in tune with nature, but this takes that a step beyond. This tree has been in-situ for hundreds of years and the ryokan has grown around it. It actually grows through a hallway in the lower part of the complex.



Seasonal is key with kaiseki. In autumn, the KAI Atami will serve matsutake mushroom in a variety of ways, including in a soup that brings out the matsutake’s full earthiness.





YAGYU-NO-SHO SHUZENJI ONSEN, IZU



Fall colors surround the Yagyu-no-Sho. Year round, this exclusive ryokan is immersed in beautiful surrounds, and on the inside—from the air of calm through to the traditional designs and finely honed hospitality—it’s a classic ryokan.

There’s something deeply restful and calming about a ryokan like the Yagyu-no-Sho. When you pass through the curtained entrance into quiet, understated surroundings, you feel as though you’ve stepped into a different Japan—a million miles from the hectic modern life of Tokyo and the city’s concrete sprawl and back to a world full of subtle refinement, where the best things take their time.

Built in 1970 as a modern take on a teahouse-inspired ryokan, the Yagyu-no-Sho underwent an extensive renovation in 2009 under the guidance of its second-generation owners—Sakiko Hasegawa and her husband Takashi—to make itself more traditional, employing the help of local carpenters, plasterers, and other craftspeople to bring more natural lighting and lower ceilings to create a more intimate and comfortable space, and add elements like earthen tataki flooring in common areas. Walk around the ryokan and you will also find quiet corners with glimpses of landscaped gardens and artistically arranged ikebana accenting hallways (one of the staff is an expert flower arranger).



The Matsu-no-O villa suite has its own little garden, an outdoor bath, and this comfortable spot on the edge of the main tatami room for soaking in the greenery.

Tradition extends into the suites, too, all fifteen of which share traits such as tatami flooring and futon instead of beds, to give just a couple of examples, but are all individually designed. The baths, a key element in a ryokan, vary from room to room, and include outdoor baths, semi-outdoor baths, and indoor baths; all of which are handcrafted by local stone and plaster craftsmen. There are also two villas, with access to their own private gardens.



The main entrance to the Yagyu-no-Sho is discreetly hidden among trees, and once inside, the connection to nature doesn’t end. The baths, whether communal or private, are surrounded by greenery. With low artificial lighting, natural light comes to the fore in many parts of the building.



The outdoor baths at the Yagyu-no-Sho are immersed in nature. Silent and calming but for the occasional sound of the woods, they feel even more tranquil when lowly lit at night.



Ornamental koi in the small pond beside the entrance to the Yagyu-no-Sho.



Watch the locals and you’ll notice that the key to enjoying a long time in a hot-spring bath is to take frequent breaks from the hot water. Wash, rinse, soak, cool down in the shower, soak again, repeat. At the Yagyu’s bath, you can cool off in the gazebo next to the water when things get too hot.

Away from the rooms, there are also two rocky outdoor communal baths, Musashi-no-Yu and Tsuu-no-Yu, which draw their water from the source under the nearby Shuzenji Temple (see pages 42 and 44 for more about the temple and the Shuzenji area’s other sights). As is common with many ryokan, these baths are alternately assigned to male and female guests at different times of the day so guests can try both baths during their stay, soaking away any aches, pains, and stress while immersed in the peace and quiet of nature.

The food is special here, too. With its location in the heart of the Izu Peninsula, Yagyu-no-Sho’s head chef Takahashi Shibayama has access to fresh seafood, river fish, and highly prized local produce such as Izu beef, which he turns into a Kyoto-inspired menu of kaiseki that changes each month to best utilize seasonal offerings. The dinner could include a seasonal sashimi selection, steak seared on an onjakuyaki heated stone grill, grilled sweetfish from the local river served in freshly cut bamboo from the garden, or a yuzu citrus stuffed with fish roe, among many other possibilities. Breakfast, which, like dinner, is served in the guests’ room, is a classic mix of grilled fish, miso soup, rice, pickles, and a variety of other small dishes made with locally sourced ingredients. And after that, there’s plenty of time for another soak in the outdoor bath before checking out.

Yagyu-no-Sho 柳生の庄

Address: 1116-6 Shuzenji, izu, Shizuoka 410-2416

Telephone: 0558-72-4126

Website: www.yagyu-no-sho.com

Email: info@yagyu-no-sho.com

number of rooms: 15

Room rate: ¥¥¥¥



Not a communal bath, this is one of the private hot-spring baths in the suites, all of which have their own baths, be that indoors, semi open-air, or fully open-air.



The natural simplicity of the design even stretches to common areas that in many hotels get little thought.





Grilled river fish with some subtle aroma and taste added by the use of a small sudachi citrus is one of many culinary possibilities with the Yagyu-no-Sho’s multi-course dinner. The Izu Peninsula is famed for its seafood, but the vegetables here are excellent, too, as are local beef brands.





SEIRYUSO SHIMODA



A luxury retreat at the southern tip of Izu, the Seiryuso offers some serious pampering, with spas, fine food, a range of baths, and moments like this—an in-room private bath with views into nature.

At ryokan, there is an unspoken rule of etiquette when in the communal hot-spring baths—don’t disturb the water too much. At the Seiryuso, things are a little different. They have a hot-spring swimming pool for guests to glide and splash about in. The eighty-foot (twenty-five-meter) pool, surrounded by tropical palms, gives the Seiryuso a grand old look; it seems not so much a ryokan as some old colonial summer retreat one reads about in Agatha Christie novels. Head inside, however, and this ryokan is as traditional and refined as any other.

Take the rooms. The best, Room 102, is a massive 1,345 square feet (125 square meters), and includes a large tatami-matted living room that connects to an outdoor hot-spring bath with views into a private landscaped garden that changes its colors with the seasons. While that’s the finest example, even the rooms that don’t have their own outdoor baths and gardens, at the very least have indoor hot-spring baths and garden views. And, of course, there are several communal outdoor hot-spring baths (or rotemburo, to use the Japanese term) for guests to enjoy. Yet all that aside, there is no escaping that the Seiryuso is not quite your standard ryokan. As well as the pool, there are mosaic-tiled saunas designed with ancient Roman themes, as well as a classically Finnish log-house sauna. There are footbaths, too. And a spa—the Rilissarsi—which offers treatments that run from simple foot massages to anti-aging facials.



The entrance to Seiryuso features one of the largest solid stone lanterns in Japan.



The hot-spring baths at the Seiryuso are a mix of private and communal. Most rooms have their own outdoor baths, but there are also options like this public bath.

With its location at the far south of the Izu Peninsula, the Seiryuso has access to extremely fresh, high-quality seafood, which forms the basis of the kaiseki dinners. You're likely to enjoy locally caught delicacies such as red snapper, abalone, and lobster along with other regional, seasonal produce. Located just to the north of the coastal town of Shimoda, you’re a in a prime area for exploring some of Izu’s best sights, including the picturesque white sands of Shirahama Beach; Shimoda Aquarium; and temples like Gyokusenji, Hofukuji, and Ryosenji.

The latter temple—though far from grand in appearance—has its place indelibly marked in the modern history of Japan, as it was here in 1854, after the naval ships of Commodore Perry forced their way into Shimoda Bay, that Japan and the United States signed a treaty that paved the way for Japan to open itself to the world after centuries of self-imposed isolation. That's why a replica of one of Perry’s “black ships” (as the Japanese called them at the time) now does tours of the bay, and why there is an annual Black Ship Festival to celebrate Shimoda’s place in history.

Seiryuso 清流荘

Address: 2-2 kochi, Shimoda, Shizuoka 415-0011

Telephone: 0588-22-1361

Website: www.seiryuso.co.jp

Email: info@seiryuso.co.jp

number of rooms: 26

Room rate: ¥¥¥



A swimming pool is certainly not the norm for a ryokan, nor are palm trees. What makes the Seiryuso’s pool even more unusual is that it is full of hot-spring water. And, yes, you can swim in it, without having to fully strip off like you would for a bath.



Many of the rooms combine flooring and beds with more typical Japanese design elements, although there are fully Japanese-style rooms available for purists.



Being at the far end of the Izu Peninsula, Seiryuso’s chefs have access to an array of top-quality seafood.





TOKIWA HOTEL KOFU



The Tokiwa is proof that big can still be beautiful. With fifty traditionally appointed rooms and cottages plus striking landscaping, this founding member of the Japan Ryokan Association is full of charm.

Built around a classic landscape garden and blessed with natural hot-spring waters that come unadulterated straight from their source, the Tokiwa Hotel in the Yumura area of Yamanashi Prefecture—78 miles (126 kilometers) west of Tokyo—has garnered a reputation over the years as a retreat for members of the Imperial Family, Japanese literati, foreign dignitaries, and numerous other VIPs.

Opened in 1929 as an inaugural member of the Japan Ryokan Association, the Tokiwa was one of the first half dozen ryokan in Japan to be registered as an “international tourist ryokan” with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. For decades it has been serving guests in English, yet (thankfully) still offers a fully traditional Japanese experience.

That includes the evening meal, which under executive chef Hideji Ono is a multi-course kaiseki, a feast for the eyes as much as for the belly, that features fresh seasonal produce and local specialties such as marbled Koshu beef and pork from pigs fed with wine lees to give a strong umami flavor. It includes the fifty guest rooms, which at the Tokiwa are a mix of private cottages and more conventional ryokan rooms that are mostly traditional in design and come with views of a large Japanese garden courtyard. Beyond the courtyard, from the east wing, Japan’s southern alps can be seen and, from the west wing, the near-perfect symmetry of Mount Fuji. Each room is a treat, but it’s the eleven cottage rooms (spread across seven cottages) that really stand out, for the additional privacy they afford.

Like the other rooms, the cottages are designed around classic traditional themes (tatami, low table, paper screen doors, and the like) but each brings its own subtle differences, most notably with regard to the baths. The Yakumo room, for example, comes with a stone-carved private outdoor bath. This room also enjoys pond-side garden views. The Wakatake and Wakamatsu rooms both have outside hinoki cypress bath tubs that give off a distinctly sweet yet gentle aroma. The Misaka room has an outdoor butai-zukuri tub, on a stage-like platform, while the Shirane room’s bath is set in a small hakoniwa (box garden). This room also happens to be where the author Seicho Matsumoto stayed while he wrote the mystery Tower of Waves—one of many connections the Tokiwa has to literati.



The quality of the gardens at the Tokiwa is a defining feature, one that can be enjoyed from the baths, rooms, and common areas such as the comfy couches in the lobby.



Built at the onset of the Showa era in the late 1920s, largely with foreign travelers in mind, it’s amazing that the Tokiwa is so undiluted in terms of the authenticity of its design. Unlike many other hotels that appeal to overseas travelers, it’s still 100 percent Japanese.

In fact, stroll through the garden and you’ll discover more literary connections. Masuji Ibuse, the author of Black Rain, is said to have whiled away many an afternoon under the zelkova trees here, while popular Showa-era (1926–1989) novelist and essayist Hitomi Yamaguchi—a regular in the Kokonoe cottage—wrote about the Tokiwa and its quince trees.

The nearby Yumura Onsen, from where the Tokiwa draws its bathing waters, has a long history. At one time it is said to have been the “secret bath” of Shingen Takeda, the famed daimyo (feudal lord) of the Takeda clan during the latter stages of Japan’s Sengoku period (1467–1603). Like other hot springs it boasts of healing and restorative properties for ailments ranging from neuralgia to piles. That’s something guests can test out at the gender-separated communal baths, where men can enjoy the views through a panoramic window in a wood-paneled bathhouse or from an outdoor pool, and women have the option of either a fragrant open-air bath made of hinoki cypress or an indoor bath looking through large windows that frame a mass of greenery.

Tokiwa Hotel 常盤ホテル

Address: 2-5-21 Yumura, kofu, Yamanashi 400-0073

Telephone: 055-254-3111

Website: www.tokiwa-hotel.co.jp

Email: Via an online form

number of rooms: 50

Room rate: ¥¥¥



The cottages are spacious, and appointed in classic ryokan traditions. Yet, they also have a rustic touch or two—look at the tree trunk pillar by the tokonoma alcove.



The gardens aren’t only for looking at. Guests can enjoy a sunny afternoon tea in part of them, too.





KAI NIKKO LAKE CHUZENJI, NIKKO



In the woods that enshroud Lake Chuzenji, removed from the crowds that flock to Nikko’s World Heritage sites yet close enough to easily visit, the KAI Nikko has a fine natural setting to match the quality of ryokan itself.

Nature, history, and indulgence—the KAI Nikko combines all three. Just a few hours north of Tokyo, the ryokan is in the heart of the Nikko region, a popular overnight or day-trip destination, primarily for its UNESCO World Heritage-designated Toshogu Shrine complex. Lake Chuzenji, on whose shores the ryokan sits, was formed by volcanic activity some twenty thousand years ago after an eruption of the area’s most prominent (and now dormant) peak, the 8,156-foot (2,486-meter) Mount Nantai, creating picture postcard scenery that is especially stunning in autumn, when the lakeside and surrounding mountains are transformed by colorful foliage.

The windows of the KAI Nikko frame it all; many have views that look out to the lake; the VIP suite goes a step further with views of Lake Chuzenji and Mount Nantai. Looking inward, the rooms are exactly what one would expect from the KAI brand, with varied and stylish combinations of Western and Japanese design sensibilities: there is traditional tatami flooring, there are Western-style beds in place of futon, and there are in-room baths of Japanese cypress or marble. A closer look reveals many smaller touches. In collaboration with the Nihon Bed company, KAI Hoshino Resorts have developed their own Fuwakumo Sleep beds that adjust to give “the illusion that you are on a cloud”, according to KAI. They have also produced their own yukata gowns, which unlike the usual cotton gowns found at ryokan are 100 percent linen, a fabric that warms the body in Nikko’s cold winters and cools it in the heat of summer.



The journey to the dining area takes guests through this charming roofed corridor, to the sound of sandals “clacking” on the paving.



Not all ryokan serve dinner in the rooms, as some don’t want to taint the sleeping area with the aroma of food. The KAI Nikko is the same, but it’s well worth the short walk from the rooms to the dining area for the kaiseki.



The Noh stage near the semi-private dining rooms doesn’t host any performances, but it doesn’t matter. The highly stylized design and ikebana mimicking the backdrop is one of those unexpected jaw-dropping sights when you first see it.



With its lakeside location, the KAI Nikko offers some stunning lake views from rooms and common areas. The area is attractive year-round, but is at its best when autumnal colors come to the fore.

Dinner and breakfast are both taken in semi-private dining spaces that are reached on a walk that takes guests past an elegantly designed wooden Noh stage. Both meals take guests on a culinary journey that leans heavily on local produce: breakfast features a Nikko favorite, yuba (tofu skin), dinner a classic multi-course kaiseki that (depending on the season) might involve beef steamed in a stone box, sweet shrimp marinated in aged sake and served in a lime, or grilled conger eel.

In keeping with the concept at KAI of incorporating local traditions into the ryokan experience, after dinner each night staff perform a Nikko geta dance, a kind of tap dance routine using a local version of traditional wooden-soled geta sandals—something craftsmen in Nikko have been making in a distinctive way for the past four hundred years, from back when the Nikko area’s most famous sight, Toshogu Shrine, was still relatively new.

And what of the shrine? A winding forty-minute bus trip down from the mountain (the KAI runs a free service), Toshogu was built to enshrine Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who united a warring Japan and became the first shogun of the Edo era (1603–1868). Given his gigantic status in Japanese history, perhaps it’s no wonder that Toshogu is so strikingly decadent. Its many highlights include a deep red five-story pagoda, and the Yomei-mon roofed gateway, decorated in black, gold, red, and green and accented with five hundred or so intricate carvings of birds, dancing maidens, dragons, and flowers. Just a short stroll from the KAI you can also visit the Kegon Falls, which plunge more than three hundred feet (about one hundred meters) into a lush gorge. But more than anything, there’s the KAI itself: a timeless Japanese experience.

Hoshino Resorts kAi nikko 界 日光

Address: 2482-1 Chugushi, nikko, Tochigi 321-1661

Telephone: 050-3786-1144

Website: www.hoshinoresorts.com/en/resortsandhotels/kai/nikko

Email: nikko@kai-ryokan.jp

number of rooms: 33

Room rate: ¥¥¥



The lounge area by the baths is another special feature. It’s vast, with ample space to unwind (pre or post bath) on one of the custom-made cushions on the tatami without really noticing anyone else doing the same.



Rooms are a blend of Japanese and Western; mostly traditional ryokan in style, with tatami, sliding doors, and other features, but perfectly merged with elements such as polished flooring and beds. Not many ryokan that try to combine the two get it right—the Western part is typically very dated and drab—but the KAI Nikko nails it.



One of the nice small touches at the baths are the cedar balls floating on the water. They give off a gentle, sweet scent as they bob about.



An example of the thoughtful accents you find throughout the property, rooms have fresh ikebana arrangements. Absolutely timeless, the finest of ikebana can fit the most traditional setting and the sleek contemporary ones.



One of many highlights of the nightly kaiseki is the locally sourced beef. Depending on the exact menu, it’s sometimes steamed in front of you in a stone box, coming out so succulent that it pretty much melts in the mouth.





HONKE BANKYU YUNISHIGAWA ONSEN, NIKKO



In a hot-spring area that feels about as remote as possible so close to Tokyo, the Honke Bankyu is steeped in history, having been in operation since the Heike clan (depicted here in an annual historic reenactment) oversaw this part of Japan in the pre-Edo era.

Although located in Tochigi, which is only a couple of hours north of Tokyo and home to the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Toshogu Shrine complex, a popular tourist attraction—the Yunishigawa Onsen feels far removed from the pace of modern-day life.

It was here, in the latter part of the twelfth century that the Heike clan retreated and settled after years of war against the Genji clan, and where the two clans finally agreed on peace. It was also here that Heike clan descendants discovered hot-spring waters in the late 1500s and established an inn where travelers could soak in these mineral-rich waters to cure themselves of their ills. Twenty-five generations on, the sons and daughters of the Heike are still running the Honke Bankyu.

Spread across two buildings, the forty-five rooms are traditional yet rustic in style. The main building has plastered walls that are accented by darkly aged beams, tatami flooring, and in some of the higher-end rooms open hearths (called irori). Three rooms even come with their own private rotemburo (outdoor hot-spring baths) overlooking the babbling Yunishi River. The four-story second building—where the hotel recommends families with small children stay to protect the peace and quiet of the main building—is very similar in design, but with a more modern outward appearance and a slightly brighter feel inside.

Dinner continues the rustic theme. While breakfast is a buffet, the evening meal is served in a large hall dotted with irori hearths, around which guests sit on the floor to enjoy local dishes such as char-grilled river fish and hot pots, all of which can be accompanied by a range of regional sake (including cloudy nigori-shu) and homemade wines. And just to remind you that you are deep in old Japan, to reach the dining hall, you have to go out of the main building and cross the river over a wobbly vine-weaved bridge that in summer sometimes offers up glimpses of fireflies.

There are baths too, of course, in the shape of a rocky communal outdoor bath set alongside the river, as well as a private bath available for booking, both of which draw on the area’s natural hot-spring source and allow guests to immerse themselves not just in water said to soothe ailments like neuralgia, but also in the sights and sounds of the lush riverside.

And while the Bankyu is in a fairly remote location, the area has its share of attractions. In February, when the Bankyu will be carpeted white with snow, there is the local Kamakura Festival, when small igloos will be built, and ice sculptures will be on display at the Bankyu. In summer, you can try catching fish by hand in the river or go firefly spotting. Anyone lucky enough to come in June gets to experience the Yunishi River’s main annual event, the Heike Grand Festival, which sees parades in historical costumes, traditional craft making demonstrations, and even small reenactments of battles between the Heike and the Genji. A visit to the Bankyu is like stepping back in time, whatever the season.





Book a room in the older main building, if you can. With their heavy, aged beams and simple plastered walls, they have a lovely earthy feel.



On the way to dinner, guests cross this vine bridge. It’s even more interesting after a bit of dinnertime sake.



People have been bathing in these hot springs for more than five hundred years, as long as the Honke Bankyu has been in existence. And for all that time, the ryokan has been in the hands of the same family.

Honke Bankyu 本家伴久

Address: 749 Yunishigawa onsen, nikko, Tochigi 321-2601

Telephone: 0288-98-0011

Website: www.bankyu.co.jp/english

Email: info@bankyu.co.jp

number of rooms: 45

Room rate:¥¥¥



A ryokan dinner doesn’t get any more rustic than sitting around a hearth watching your meal cook on skewers like this.





YOSHIDA SANSO NORTHEASTERN KYOTO



Once home to a member of the Imperial Family, the Yoshida Sanso retains the intimacy of a private home, but combined with all the refined elements that make a classic ryokan.

Imperial heritage and Kyoto traditions. The Yoshida Sanso is steeped in both. Situated in the foothills of Mount Yoshida, one of the thirty-six often small, but scenic peaks of Kyoto’s eastern mountain ranges, the building was constructed in 1932 as the second home of the current Emperor’s uncle, who at the time was studying at Kyoto University. It became a ryokan in 1948.

Now designated by the Japanese government as an Important Cultural Asset, the two-story Yoshida Sanso was created by master carpenter Tsunekazu Nishioka, who during his lifetime was given the awards National Cultural Treasure and Person of Cultural Merit for his restoration work on historic Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Nishioka’s design for the Yoshida Sanso is certainly quite different from a typical, traditional ryokan, blending architectural touches from both East and West. There is hinoki cypress wood used throughout to give a traditional feel, but there are also features like parquetry and art deco-inspired stained glass windows. As a reminder of the building’s Imperial roots, you’ll also see Imperial chrysanthemum motifs on roof tiles and sliding-door handles, while one curious design feature comes in the form of a Western-style toilet with tatami-mat flooring—possibly the most unusual example of East meets West ever seen.



Light summer screens catch the breeze from the Yoshida Sanso’s pretty strolling garden.





Meals come with a gift from the okami (“house mother”) in the form of waka, a classical form of poetry, which she writes out on washi paper in a now rare style of calligraphy called hentaigana.

Each of the eight- to ten-mat rooms also comes with a view. Upstairs, that means sights such as Mount Hiei and the large Daimonji character on the Nyoigatake peak, which is set alight (and visible from much of the city) as part of the annual Daimonji Gozan Okuribi festival in August. Downstairs rooms open out on to the Yoshida Sanso’s lush garden, home to the delicate pinks and whites of cherry blossoms in spring, vibrant azaleas in early summer, and peace and quiet year round, except for the special occasions when special events such as koto concerts take place on the lawn.

With just five guest rooms, staying at the Yoshida Sanso is an intimate affair, which is perhaps one reason guests often book for two or three nights, rather than the typical single-night ryokan stay. Another reason is the flexibility of meal offerings—guests don’t have to take kaiseki every night (though they should try Yoshida Sanso’s seasonally inspired multi-course dinner at least once). Whatever the meal, however, one unique touch sees the Yoshida Sanso’s okami (“house mother”) presenting guests with traditional waka poetry at dinner, handwritten in beautifully ornate hentaigana, an old yet fading form of calligraphy born in the Heian era some 1,200 years ago.



The entrance. From your first moment at the Yoshida Sanso, you are treated to the work of the master carpenter, Tsunekazu Nishioka, who created this villa for the Imperial Family.

The area around the ryokan is also full of history with its narrow lanes and small temples and shrines; the kind of area that oozes old-Kyoto charm. About half a mile to the east is one of Kyoto’s most historic temples, the fifteenth-century Ginkakuji, aka the Silver Pavilion (a misleading name given that there isn’t an ounce of decoration on it; although its understated natural look is perfect as is). Nearby, the pretty Philosopher’s Pathway leads southward to temples such as Honenin and its picturesque mossy gardens, and then on toward major tourist attractions Nanzenji and Heian Jingu, the latter of which is entered under a large vermilion torii gateway that can be seen in the distance from the Yoshida Sanso’s second floor.

As we said: steeped in history.



The first-floor guest rooms have splendid garden views.



There are some lovely touches at the Yoshida Sanso. Instead of the more common paper screen doors of other ryokan, the woven-reed effect gives this room a very distinctive look. And for something very unique, search for the toilet on the first floor—it is a standard Western toilet, but on a tatami-mat floor!

Yoshida Sanso 吉田山荘

Address: 59-1 Yoshida Shimo-ooji-cho, Sakyo-ku, kyoto 606-8314

Telephone: 075-771-6125

Website: www.yoshidasanso.com

Email: ask@yoshidasanso.com

number of rooms: 5

Room rate: ¥¥¥¥



Tradition moves through generation after generation in Kyoto. The Yoshida Sanso’s okami (“house mother”) and her daughter, the future okami.



Geta sandals for exploring the garden. They take a little getting used to walking in as you go from slab to slab, but that makes you take your time and allows you to enjoy the garden even more.





AOI KAMOGAWA-TEI CENTRAL KYOTO



One of the screens at the Aoi Kamogawa-Tei offers a glimpse of old Kyoto, much like a night in this old machiya townhouse.

A traditional Kyoto machiya townhouse for the twenty-first century, the hundred-year-old Aoi Kamogawa-Tei is an intriguing blend of old and new with an equally intriguing history—it’s a former sake storage house that later became the home of maiko apprentice geisha working in Kyoto’s old Pontocho geisha district.

Although at heart this old town house is still distinctly Japanese, it is obviously now very different from its maiko days. Step inside the first-floor living room, for example, and you are met with a raised tatami-mat section with a low rectangular table at its center, next to which comes modern wooden flooring, a leather couch and a white wall accented by a long and richly decorated traditional screen painting. Upstairs, there are two Japanese-style bedrooms; one that has futon for sleeping and the other which has beds—a nod to the mix of design elements from East and West. Next to the bedrooms is a riverside library, where guests can pick up a book and relax on a lounger with views out over the Kamogawa, the main river running through Kyoto.

As the Aoi Kamogawa-Tei is a machiya rather than a ryokan, there is no provision of elaborate kaiseki dinners, which helps to keep your stay reasonably priced and also means you can go out and explore Kyoto’s culinary scene. With the Aoi Kamogawa-Tei’s central location you are only minutes away from dozens of great places to eat for a variety of budgets. For guests who prefer to eat at the machiya—breakfast, lunch, or dinner can be ordered in for guests from the many restaurants in the area. Otherwise, you can stroll north to places like Nishiki-koji—Kyoto’s oldest food market—or head for one of the department store food basements along Shijo-dori to pick up a bento lunch box or something else ready-made to take back to the machiya. Both are within easy walking distance.

Looking at the rest of the immediate area, the Aoi Kamogawa-Tei can certainly claim to have a good location for taking in many of central Kyoto’s main sights. First, the machiya is set directly alongside the Kamogawa River, a popular area for a stroll or just chilling out for an hour or two. From there, guests can cross the river and then head fifteen minutes or so northeast to the Gion geisha district, a lovely area defined by old wooden buildings that now house everything from exclusive restaurants to casual eateries. As well as visiting Nishiki-koji market, you can also take in the traditional stores in the covered Teramachi arcade, which runs north from Nishiki-koji’s eastern end. And being within ten minutes of several stations, not to mention main bus routes, you are also in easy striking distance of most of Kyoto’s top attractions, although you could easily be forgiven for just hanging out in the peace and quiet of the machiya all day.



Located next to Kyoto’s main river, the Kamogawa, from which it takes part of its name, the Aoi doesn’t just have pleasant views, it has a tremendous central location within easy walking distance of areas like the historic Nishiki-koji market, the restaurants of Pontocho, and the Gion geisha district.

Aoi kamogawa-Tei 葵 鴨川邸

Address (central office): 145-1 Tennocho, Shimogyo-ku, kyoto 600-8013

Telephone: 075-354-7770

Website: en.kyoto-stay.jp

Email: aoi@kyoto-stay.jp

number of rooms: one rental house that can accommodate up to five people.

Room rate: ¥¥¥¥ (per house, no meals)



A pair of Buddhist traditional guardian shishi lion statues protect the main entrance.



Not geisha (or geiko to use the Kyoto term) or maiko (trainee geisha), but in this part of central Kyoto it isn’t at all unusual to see people dressed up in fine kimono, whether that’s for work at a ryokan or restaurant, for a special occasion, or just for the sheer enjoyment of it—and why not in such a lovely traditional setting?



In keeping with Japanese aesthetics, the subtle details at the Aoi have a major impact on the overall ambience.



There’s an intriguing merging of tradition with touches of contemporary at all of the Aoi’s machiya properties—the furnishing here is modern, but blends both new and old sensibilities.





GION HATANAKA CENTRAL KYOTO



The Hatanaka looks very much like a typical high-end Kyoto ryokan, but beyond the pretty garden and charming interiors is a ryokan that offers an unusually deep Kyoto experience in other regards, with nightly maiko shows over fine dining.

Classic ryokan with a theatrical twist. If you had to sum up the Gion Hatanaka in a single sentence, that would be it. To look at, the Gion Hatanaka certainly has all the ryokan boxes ticked, with spacious and bright tatami-mat guest rooms featuring views onto bamboo gardens that are framed by paper screen doors, not to mention the calligraphic scroll hanging in the tokonoma alcove and the low rectangular table catching reflections in its polished finish. The tradition continues with large communal baths, while each room has an en-suite aromatic cypress bathtub.

The culinary offerings here also fall into the classic category. As you might well expect from a Kyoto ryokan, dinner at the Gion Hatanaka is a reflection of the city’s long-established kaiseki traditions, with a succession of small dishes that utilize local, seasonal produce and also draw heavily on Kyoto’s vegetarian Buddhist influences. In spring you might be served bamboo shoots from Kyoto’s Nishiyama region; in summer highly sought-after hamo (pike). In autumn, when many would argue Japanese cuisine rises to its greatest heights, there will be earthy matsutake mushrooms, perhaps grilled, maybe in a soup, and then winter will see delicacies such as snow crab worked into the menu. Even the most basic of store-cupboard ingredients are sourced with care here: soy sauce comes from Sawai in Kyoto and from Shodoshima in Shikoku; sea salt comes from the Nanki region; Kinuhikari rice comes from Tanba; Mikawa mirin comes from Aichi—a veritable who’s who of Japanese produce.



Blending into the charming side streets that define the area between the Yasaka Shrine and the Gion geisha district, the Hatanaka is in a prime location for exploring some of central Kyoto’s most historic sights.

While the style and presentation of the food is classic Kyoto, what makes the Gion Hatanaka quite different to most other Kyoto ryokan is the focus on entertainment. This ryokan is famous for its optional “dining with maiko” evenings, where apprentice geisha (called maiko) perform traditional dances, play the koto, serve sake, and chat to guests as they eat dinner—a rare opportunity to peek inside the otherwise hard-to-penetrate world of the geisha. On top of that, the Gion Hatanaka even has nights where the kaiseki comes accompanied with kembu sword dances and opportunities to learn about the life of the samurai (and get your hands on their swords).

The Gion Hatanaka is located approximately ten minutes from Gion-Shijo Station and Hankyu Kawaramachi Station, a prime position to take in the attractions of central Kyoto and the Higashiyama area. Immediately to the north, there is Yasaka Shrine, founded in the 650s and the current-day host of the Gion Matsuri every July. This is Kyoto’s largest festival, which at its peak sees processions of floats and portable shrines winding around the city streets. The pretty Gion area, with its teahouses and geisha, is only a short walk to the west, as are the shops in and around Shijo-dori and Kawaramachi. Continue walking in that direction and you will come to the covered Nishiki-koji food market, which teems with small stores specializing in all sorts of local produce and even cooking utensils. Alternatively, head south, via some of Kyoto’s most charming old alleyways and sloping streets, and you’ll find the UNESCO World Heritage–designated Kiyomizu Temple. The whole is experience is deep, deep Kyoto.

Gion Hatanaka 祇園畑中

Address: 505 Gion Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, kyoto 605-0074

Telephone: 075-541-5315

Website: www.thehatanaka.co.jp

Email: kyoto@thehatanaka.co.jp

number of rooms: 23

Room rate: ¥¥¥¥



The dinner shows at the Hatanaka, which are open to non-guests, are a highlight of a stay—a rare opportunity to enjoy an up-close performance by local maiko of traditional music and dance.



The kaiseki dinner is, of course, seasonal, but so is the presentation, with decorative touches like this leaf as a lid on a dish shaped from bamboo.



The rooms might not be the biggest, but aesthetically they are the epitome of a classic ryokan.





HIIRAGIYA CENTRAL KYOTO



The Hiiragiya is one of the oldest and best-known ryokan in Kyoto, built in 1818 and run by the same family ever since. The ryokan has two wings—an old and a new one (whose central courtyard garden is shown here).

The 1968 Nobel Prize laureate for literature, Yasunari Kawabata, once wrote of the Hiiragiya, “It is here … that I wistfully recall that sense of tranquility that belonged to old Japan”. Were Kawabata still with us and still calling the Hiiragiya in Kyoto his regular home away from home, I can’t imagine his feelings would have changed at all. Old Japan has been preserved here in ways few other ryokan could emulate.

The Hiiragiya was built in 1818 and has always been run by the same family. Like many of Kyoto’s ryokan, its life began not as an inn for paying guests, but as a place where merchants would be hosted by the family they were trading with. As the Hiiragiya’s sixth-generation okami (“house mother”), Akemi Nishimura, explains, the essence of the service one finds today at traditional ryokan stems from that sense of welcoming a guest into the home and treating them as one of the family, giving them the feeling of “returning home” rather than checking in; and with that the okami’s role has developed into that of surrogate mother to everyone staying. The Hiiragiya has seen generations of okami function as surrogate mothers to an incredible list of dignitaries, literati, and celebrities, from Oscar winners and laureates to royalty and politicians.



The stone paved entrance to the Hiiragiya, accented by ikebana arrangments, transports you back in time.



One of the oldest rooms at the Hiiragiya and one of the most enchanting, with its gently aged interiors and mossy private garden. It’s not hard to understand why 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Yasunari Kawabata, would request this room on his numerous stays here.

Four of the Hiiragiya’s rooms are thought to date back to its original construction, and it is in one of these rooms that Kawabata was inspired by the tranquility and timelessness to sit and write. Today these rooms can be enjoyed for their classic ryokan interiors: tatamimat flooring, paper screen doors, aging wood tones, and Hiiragiya signature touches such as ajirou woven-reed ceilings and decorated fusuma door panels from the Edo era (1603–1868), the latter of which are now designated as important cultural properties. Many rooms open out onto or at least have views over small, ornate gardens, accented with dark moss and stepping stones. The Hiiragiya gives easy access to some of Kyoto’s most famous attractions—Nijo Castle and Kyoto Imperial Palace Park are just short walks away—but you almost have to force yourself to leave its rooms to go explore.

In the seven rooms in the brighter new wing, which was reconstructed in 2006, the defining features vary, but all have been added to the Hiiragiya with tradition and craftsmanship firmly in mind. One room has an outdoor moon-viewing deck extending from its main tatami area, others have wooden screens in the tokonoma alcove that slide open to reveal glimpses of traditional garden design. As Mrs. Nishimura puts it, “The theme is to merge old with new; using lighter, fresher colors, but traditional designs and skills.” One room displays the work of Living National Treasure, craftsman Kiyotsugu Nakagawa. He has used thousand-year-old jindai cedar, which is buried underground until semi-petrified and almost a light grey in color, to do woodworking on the walls and skirting that features perfectly aligned straight grains.



The rooms in the newer wing have a contemporary feel, but everything from the design and the artisans employed to create them are deeply rooted in tradition.



Many older rooms have screen doors that are listed as national cultural assets. This ryokan is noted too for the service standards of its experienced okami (landladies), who are said to be almost “surrogate mothers“ for the guests.



One of the first few dishes that comes with the multi-course kaiseki. The exact line-up of dishes changes depending on what’s in season, but whatever is on the menu will be sublime.

The food at the Hiiragiya is classic Kyo-ryori (Kyoto-style cuisine), whose twelve courses are served in-room, delivered like works of art on fine ceramics and lacquerware, starting with an aperitif of local sake and then over a couple of hours winding its way through a platter of seasonal appetizers (like simmered eggplant and beef sirloin in a delicate dashi soup with ginger) and on to such delicacies as conger eel with turnip, burdock, and chrysanthemum accented with a yuzu miso. Timeless cuisine for a timeless experience.



The framing of miniature gardens or garden views is a classic touch that’s been incorporated into the rooms in the new wing.



As is often the case with the older Kyoto ryokan, some rooms can be small, so be sure to request one of the larger ones if that’s important to you, but even in the smallest you’ll find many fascinating details. The fans on this Edo-era screen door are made with crushed shells and when you look closely are raised.

Hiiragiya 柊家

Address: nakahakusancho, Fuyacho Anekoji-agaru, nakagyo-ku, kyoto 604-8094

Telephone: 075-221-1136

Website: www.hiiragiya.co.jp

Email: info@hiiragiya.co.jp

number of rooms: 28

Room rate: ¥¥¥¥





Many of the rooms in the original building either open on to their own small gardens or have garden views. Like a starry night sky, the longer you look at the gardens, the more details come to light—most obviously the stone stupas and aged mossy patches, but also elements like the little stones placed discreetly on some pathways to indicate one shouldn’t go beyond that point.



The best baths are in the new wing, which have aromatic wood tubs perfect for a long soak after exploring Kyoto.





KINMATA CENTRAL KYOTO



An oasis of tradition in another modern side street in central Kyoto. Go beyond the stupa at the entrance and the transformation from new to old is sudden and stunning.

Founded in 1801 and now located in a machiya townhouse in the heart of Kyoto, the Kinmata is pure Kyoto, a cocoon in which to shelter from the modern world—a place to immerse oneself deep in tradition, to soak up Japanese aesthetics and hospitality, and to sample the best of the former capital’s culinary heritage.

The building itself, which is now designated as a National Tangible Cultural Property by the Japanese government, is pure vintage Kyoto. The seven guest rooms open onto or overlook a small landscaped garden, which, when observed from your seat at the low, lacquered table in the center of the tatami-matted room, is framed by sliding paper screen doors. Except in Kyoto’s siesta-inducing summers, that is, when the doors are replaced with traditional reed screens to allow natural ventilation and cooling—a classic example of how old Japanese buildings were designed to adapt to the changing seasons long before the advent of electricity.



Step up into the lobby and you are greeted with a gentle creak; the building’s way of reminding you of its age. Throughout, the ryokan is growing old gracefully, one of Kyoto’s grand old dames.



The façade of the Kinmata has to be one of the prettiest in Japan. It’s the kind of machiya townhouse that screams “old Kyoto“. So, it’s not surprising that the building is now designated as a Tangible Cultural Property.

The owner here is a chef, and its cuisine is a specialty—that’s why the Kinmata refers to itself as a ryori-ryokan (literally, a “food ryokan”). In fact, the Kinmata also functions as a highly rated kaiseki restaurant, opening its dining room to non-guests for both lunch and dinner. For guests, the seasonally changing, multi-course meals are served in-room or in the main dining room, depending on the guests’ preference, using an antique collection of fine ceramics and lacquerware that has been handed down and added to through half a dozen generations. In spring, you can expect dishes to include something like baked red snapper, perhaps in a dish with a seasonally matching cherry-blossom motif, while in summer you might be treated to sea eel served as sushi or in a palette-refreshing clear soup. Autumn then brings highly prized matsutake mushrooms, which could be grilled with shrimp or served in a rich broth, and then in winter one might be treated to mackerel grilled between planks of cedar. And if that piques an interest in Japanese cooking, guests can also sign up for a kaiseki cooking lesson with the Kinmata’s chefs.



The landscaped garden is small, but beautiful, and visible from all the rooms.

The location is also in something of a foodie hotspot. The Kinmata is just off the eastern end of the covered Nishiki-koji market, the oldest food market in Kyoto, dating back to the 1600s. The market is located in a single, narrow street that is home to more than a hundred shops specializing in everything from dried and cured seafood, pickles, tofu, traditional sweets, seasonal vegetables, and even cooking utensils. Running northward from there, the Teramachi arcade is another old shopping street, where stores selling everyday provisions stand alongside places selling traditional goods such as incense, Buddhist statues and paraphernalia, and antiques. Then a block to the south is the modern and bustling Shijo-dori, from where buses and trains run to almost all parts of the city, and from where it’s easy to get your bearings and set off on foot to explore several of Kyoto’s most popular attractions—be that a stroll around the nearby Gion entertainment district (known for its geisha and old teahouses), a kabuki performance at the historic Minami-za Theater, or a look at ancient religious sites such as Yasaka Shrine or Chion-in Temple.

kinmata 近又

Address: 407 Gokomachi, Shijo-agaru, nakagyo-ku, kyoto 604-8044

Telephone: 075-221-1039

Website: www.kinmata.com

Email: kaiseki@kinmata.com

number of rooms: 7

Room rate: ¥¥¥





The classic interiors of the guest rooms, with the garden framed by sliding doors, are the ideal setting for an elaborate kaiseki dinner taken at a low table on tatami.





KINPYO CENTRAL KYOTO



There’s no mistaking the brewery heritage. From the decorative sake barrels to the old brewing equipment that still decorates much of this lovely private rental, the Kinpyo is immersed in its past.

Historic. Refined. Rustic. Contemporary. Elegant. The ryokan comes in many guises. It isn’t, however, the only form of traditional accommodation in Japan. At a more casual, typically smaller, and affordable level, you have family-run minshuku—somewhat akin to a bed-and-breakfast—while temple-run accommodation (called shukubo) can also come close to a ryokan experience, which isn’t surprising given that many ryokan began life as temple lodgings. Then you have another variation, old townhouses called machiya, which can be rented. And the Kinpyo is one of the most charming machiya of them all.



You can even spot the sake-brewing roots from the outside. When this was still a brewery, the sugidama cedar ball now hanging from the eaves would have been hung outside to announce that a new batch of sake was ready for sale. Starting off green, the sugidama would then gradually turn brown, its own aging process showing the age and freshness of the sake available.

Occupying a two-story, nineteenth-century building that once functioned as a sake brewery, the Kinpyo greets visitors with dark, aged timbers and high-vaulted ceilings that are punctuated by small square windows pierced by shards of light. Closer inspection reveals distinctive rough earthen walls and antique furnishings—apt, considering the Kinpyo is only steps away from several dozen antique stores on Furumonzen and Shinmonzen Streets that make this part of Kyoto one of the best places in Japan to go hunting for antique ceramics, lacquerware, furniture, tea utensils, and many other traditional objects. Given the sake heritage, it should also come as no surprise that sake paraphernalia is scattered around the property too; there are ceramic sake servers, straw-wrapped sake barrels, and several awards certifying the quality of the sake produced by the family that owns the Kinpyo. All combined, first impressions are that you are going to be living—albeit briefly—deep in Kyoto’s past.

The Kinpyo keeps with ryokan tradition with an aromatic hinoki cypress bathtub that overlooks a classic machiya feature, a tiny courtyard garden. Next to it, the bedroom features plump futon on a tatami-mat floor, and next door to that comes a small tatami-mat lounge area with a low table, richly ornate screen painting, and a sloping ceiling that invites a head bump or two—all classic machiya.

The main difference between staying in a machiya and staying in a ryokan, apart from the privacy of having a house all to yourself, is the food. The Kinpyo, in common with other machiya, doesn’t serve meals, and that opens the door to all sorts of possibilities. First, it can make the stay more affordable than many ryokan, as you are paying for lodgings only. Beyond that, it allows for variety—if you are staying more than a night, kaiseki dinners (as wonderful as they are) can begin to get too much. At the Kinpyo, the English-speaking owners can arrange for several of the traditional restaurants in the neighborhood to deliver dinner, but even better is to head out and explore Kyoto’s dining scene. A ten-minute walk away you’ll find many reasonably priced restaurants along Shijo-dori. Or you could delve into more traditional options on the charming Pontocho Alley. The Kinpyo is also just to the north of Kyoto’s Gion district, known for its old teahouses and geisha, and—just like the Kinpyo—its old-Kyoto feel.

Gion–kinpyo 金瓢

Address: 335 Miyoshi-cho, Furumonzen, Higashiyama-ku, kyoto 605-0081

Telephone: 075-708-5143

Website: http://www.kinpyo.jp

Email: info@kinpyo.jp

number of rooms: Single rental house for two to six people

Room rate: ¥¥¥¥ (per house, no meals)



The view from the small library upstairs. The high-vaulted ceiling and rough walls (employing earthenware), not to mention the richly aging woods, are just a few of the original design elements that make the Kinpyo so atmospheric.



The second floor living room—along with a quaint sloping ceiling—is defined by this vivid screen painting, which provides a rather regal backdrop when relaxing at the low table with a little sake or some green tea.



As initial views go when one first steps into a rental property, it’s hard to beat the impact of the Kinpyo. It’s the perfect way to stay in an ancient capital so steeped in history as Kyoto.



The Kinpyo is a very historic property that oozes old charm, but with touches like this swanky metal sink (among others) it has been gently modernized in places to make it comfortable, too.



Next to the entrance, this multi-purpose downstairs room celebrates the Kinpyo’s sake roots. There are old advertising signs on the wall for the brews once made here, along with awards and bottles of the brewery’s current offerings, which are now made elsewhere.



The Gion district—a good place for a spot of geisha spotting—is just a short walk away from the Kinpyo, as are some of the best dining areas and antique stores, among other attractions.





SEIKORO INN CENTRAL KYOTO



Like the finest of small ryokan, entering the Seikoro Inn feels like setting foot inside someone’s home. And that goes to the heart of ryokan hospitality—being cared for (albeit formally) like a member of the family.

If you were to select a hotel just by the appearance of its website, the clashing colors and homemade look of the Seikoro Inn’s online presence would very likely have you booking elsewhere, but this is one ryokan that definitely shouldn’t be judged by its digital cover. The Seikoro Inn is one of the finest examples of a Meiji-era (1868–1912) ryokan in Kyoto.

The Seikoro Inn began life in a different building in 1831 as a hatago, a simple form of lodging for merchants and travelers that was a forerunner to the ryokan