A Tale of Two Ryokans in Kyoto Japan

We have always wanted to stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guesthouse where rooms are separated (or at least decorated) by paper screens, rooms are decorated tastefully, yet sparingly: floors covered with tatami mats, low dining tables at which you sit on cushions on the floor, mattresses that (after dinner) are laid directly on the mats and traditional kaiseki dinners served, course by course, in your own room. Cost had kept us from experiencing them in our last trip to Japan. But with the exchange rate being a little more favorable in 2014, and with us having a little more disposal income now, we decided to splurge this time.

Since we wanted to sample different ryokan experiences, we selected two very different types of ryokans.

Hokkaikan Ohanabo From the moment we entered this ryokan, we were treated like family. We almost wondered if we had previously met some of the staff as they were so warm and welcoming to us. Compared to other ryokans we researched, this one was more affordable. We paid about $280 for the room that included dinner and breakfast.

Although we didn’t know exactly what to expect, the food and the staff exceeded our expectations, making this experience well worth the price. The common areas (which was pretty basic) and room was less impressive. Yes, it was comfortable and served our needs.

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The wifi worked well and the staff came in and out of our room to change it from a daytime sitting room, to a dining room, to a sleeping room. The room was a little warm (we couldn’t control the heat) and opening the window let in a lot of the noise from the main street we faced.  Paper screens, for example, were simulated by wallpaper mounted on walls and with frosted glass on the windows. The bathroom was a small inexpensive, plastic prefab module. We did have a small refrigerator which was conveniently for keeping the bottle of sake that we bought for dinner cold.

Dinner was a full, traditional Kaiseki meals in our room. Kaiseki is a multi-course meal that is based on fresh, seasonal ingredients that are selected, prepared and presented in a way designed to balance the taste, texture, and appearance of each dish and the entire meal. This one was no exception. It was beautifully presented, pleasing our eyes as much as our palates.  It included a tempura course and a broiled dish (prepared at our table) of to-die-for Kobe beef. We finished with a selection of fresh fruit.  The meal, along with a lovely bottle of junmai daiginjo sake that we bought, was a great way of ending a tough day of “templing”.

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Breakfast was in the breakfast room. Like dinners,it was multi-dish works of art. It was laid out on a two-tier serving tray, included salad, rolled egg, broiled salmon, and a number of smaller, beautifully arranged and presented small tastes (pickled vegetables and a sweet dish complimented with a salty one). And as with dinner, one dish, steamed tofu, was cooked at our table.

Then it was time to say goodbye to the staff and to move on to our next ryokan.

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Our second night in a ryokan was at Hiriragiya Ryokan. This experience was a whole different animal. And for $715 per night it should be. The common areas were lovely, the service exemplary and the green tea we were served while waiting for our room to be readied hit the spot. The 200-year-old building was constructed of all-natural materials (wood, sand and clay walls, paper panels, and straw mats). The room was breath-taking and was authentically decorated with scrolls, ceramics, and flower (albeit artificial) arrangements. The floors had heated mats to keep your feet warm. But the most impressive feature was the sitting room which overlooked a lovely Japanese garden. Absolutely perfect for sipping sake while waiting for our customary pre-dinner soaking bath for two in the hotel’s two-person wooden tub (which we used instead of the single-person cedar soaking tub in our room).

After our pre-bath washing, our soaking bath, and our post-bath shower, it was time for dinner. We put on the supplied traditional lounging and sleeping dress and poured some special sake that we bought and waited for the staff (kneeling each time they entered)  to set up our room for dining and to bring in each course.

Like our first ryokan kaiseki dinner, this meal had the same basic format and order of courses. A few of our favorite dishes including snow crab with citrus sudachi, dashi soup, tiger prawn, most of the sashimi, mashed sweet potato with sweetened black bean, turnip in white miso, rice seasoned with crab and ginger, and especially tatsuta-fried abalone. Again, the beauty of the meal was as impressive as the food and service.

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We should be happy with our room. We were told that this was the favorite room of Nobel prize-winning author Kawabata Yasunari who, from what we were told, stayed in this room frequently wrote here. (But I bet, when he sat right here, with this idyllic view of the garden, he never wrote a travel blog.)

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The breakfast, served in our room, was, as would be expected, also beautifully arranged. It included about eight different dishes including rolled egg, hot tofu, pickled vegetables, smoked salmon, soft tofu steamed at our table and a delicious small dried flatfish. We only wished that we had asked for a later breakfast as lounging around in our room was so enjoyable.

Overall, our two nights stays and kaiseki dinners at the two ryokan, followed by our Wagyu and Kobe beef dinner seemed like a perfect way to end what has been a vacation of a lifetime of traveling for 4 months in Asia. And what a trip it was. It was well worth the hundreds of hours of research and planning. Tom, as always, did an incredible job of fitting together the pieces and coordinating detail, after detail, after detail. And Joyce rocked in choosing hotels and arranging the travel.

We hope you enjoyed reading our adventures as much as we enjoyed the adventures.

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