With over 2,000 temples and gardens in the city, it’s easy to forget that Kyoto is also a bustling commercial city with as many business hotels as there are inns for tourists. Unless you’re on a trip where 24/7 access to business facilities are required, the most authentic way to experience Kyoto is in a traditional inn called a ryokan.
Like Kyoto's traditional townhouses, traditional ryokan are a dying breed. Most of what’s out there are cement and aluminum copies of the original wooden inns, and crammed with all the creature comforts of a Western-style hotel. It seems most tourists today—and even the Japanese themselves—have little patience for the strict etiquette of classic ryokan.
And because service is highly personalized, and meals are included in the package, ryokan are also much more expensive than the competition. But for the cultural traveler visiting Kyoto, choosing a ryokan is worth the extra money—and the slight discomfort. Rooms are sparsely furnished with only sliding screens for walls. When dining, one’s legs must be crossed, or worse, tucked under one’s thighs, Japanese style. In lieu of beds or mattresses, futons are rolled out with pillows stuffed with buckwheat husks; the thin screens that separate rooms barely filter the noise next door. Baths are communal, although inns that cater to foreigners have since installed private, Western-style bathrooms.
On the upside, guests can look forward to views of a Japanese garden, and savor elaborate multi-course kaiseki meals served by the hosts within the privacy of the guest room. Graceful details like personalized notes and private lessons in the “way of tea” and traditional paper craft enhance the experience. Although the ryokan experience is considered to be Japanese hospitality at its finest, expect the unexpected as many rituals will leave you feeling clumsy and truly gaijin (foreign).
Learn to let go and allow the staff to do their work—whether it’s preparing your futon for the night, or knotting the belt of your yukata robe before a bath. Read up on ryokan etiquette if you don’t like to embarrass yourself, but just remember one thing: leave your shoes outside the inn at all times.
Below are some recommended inns in Kyoto
477 Gion, Shimokawara-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City, Japan
Contact: Tel 81-75-561-3188
The family-run inn first opened for business in 1929 as a ryokan specializing in Kyoto cuisine. Tamahan continues to serve high quality kaiseki to guests in the privacy of their rooms. Located in the Eastern hills of Hagashiyama close to the Kodai-ji temple, Tamahan is quiet and peaceful, and thus highly recommended for guests who value their privacy. There are 11 traditional style rooms that open up to a sprawling Japanese garden. Dinner-only guests are also accepted. There is also a banquet parlor that seats up to 30 people. Rates per person start JPY 36,000 per night with breakfast and dinner included.
Anekoji-agaru, Fuya-cho Nakagyo-ku Kyoto City, Japan
Contact: Tel 81-75-211-5566
Although the legendary inn is better known for hosting Hollywood celebrities and European royalty, Tawaraya also boasts of being one of the best-designed ryokan in Kyoto. The inn applies a fresh, modern perspective to traditional ryokan architecture. Views of the garden from all rooms are calculated so meticulously that each scene resembles a Japanese painting. Best of all, the ratio of 60 staff to only 18 guest rooms allows the Tawaraya to offer personalized service. Rates per person range from JPY 42,263 to JPY 84,525 per night, inclusive of meals.
Nakahakusancho, Fuyacho Anekoji-agaru, Nakagyo-ku Kyoto City, Japan
Email [email protected]
Established in 1818, this ryokan owned and managed by the same family for six generations, is considered one of Kyoto’s finest traditional inns. Two of Japan’s most beloved novelists, Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki, made the historic Hiiragiya their home away from home. A new wing incorporating Western style furniture and amenities has been added, but the original building with its Japanese garden and 18 rooms are still the gold standard in authentic ryokan design and comfort. High quality kaiseki meals and ensuite cedar soaking tubs seal the deal. Rates per person start at JPY 34,000 per night with breakfast and dinner included.
Yamatoohji Higashi-iru Nishinocho 229 Shinmonzendori, Higashiyama-ku Kyoto City, Japan
Yoshi-ima has been taking in guests since 1747, and continues to offer traditional Kyoto hospitality in an authentic wooden building complex that houses an authentic tea house and tea garden. Located in the heart of Gion district, once known as the geisha and maiko quarters, the neighborhood today is where you’ll find some of the best-preserved kyomachiya in the city. All rooms are in the traditional Japanese style with tatami grass mats, futons, and sliding screens that open out to views of a private tea garden. Prices per person start at JPY 18,000 per night, inclusive of breakfast and dinner, but vary depending on the season and the location of the room.
Photographs by David Celdran
This article first appeared in Vault Magazine, 2012. Rates have been updated as of September 5, 2018.