I knew I was going to love Kyoto as soon as I booked our ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) months before. It was pouring when Anthony and I arrived at Kyoto Station. The station opened in 1997 and commemorated Kyoto’s 1,200th anniversary (yes, the city is that old). After a few minutes of hoping the rain would die down, we gave up and purchased an umbrella — one of those cute transparent umbrellas that you can find all over Japan. Huddled under the umbrella, we comically ran through the streets and along an overpass for about ten minutes until we reached our ryokan, Kikokuso.
Kikokuso was everything I had hoped our ryokan would be. There are only four guest rooms, and a charming little family runs everything. We were given a tour of the ryokan, during which we learned about Japan’s intricate shoe customs. We used three different slippers — one pair for the lobby; another pair for the dining room and upstairs; and a third pair for the bathroom.
We were led over a small bridge past a lovely courtyard with a koi pond, then taken upstairs to our room. A sliding door opened up to a large tatami mat room, with a low table set up in the middle. As soon as we settled in, we were given oshibori and served two types of tea (chilled and hot) and azuki sweets that were ornately wrapped like little origami purses. A large sliding door opened up to a balcony with a table and chairs, overlooking the courtyard below. It was perfect.
The best part about staying at a ryokan is the meals you’ll have there. All ryokans provide breakfast, and most also offer dinner. Since I knew the meals would be fantastic at Kikokuso, I scheduled us to eat all our breakfasts and dinners there. The telephone in our room rang when we could come down to the dining room for dinner. Our first dinner was an elaborate kaiseki meal. What a treat to be served an 8-course dinner in our own private dining room! During our first course, which included the most amazing sashimi I’ve ever had, I started crying! Yes, the sashimi made me cry. Some things make you so grateful to be alive, as well as depressed because you know you’ll eventually have to leave. I knew I’d cry in Kyoto, but I really thought it’d be on our last day — not within our first hour. Fortunately, Anthony is used to me being emotional about food.
When we returned to our room after dinner, we noticed that our hosts had put away the table in the middle of our room, set up mattresses on the tatami floor, and refilled our hot water and tea leaves. We were telephoned again when our onsen (hot spring bath) was ready. We changed into the dark blue yukata robes hanging in the closet. A yukata is a summer kimono, which should be wrapped with the left side over the right side (apparently doing the reverse is for funerals) and secured with an obi sash.
Down in the onsen, we first washed our bodies thoroughly using a hand-held shower head, tiny stools, and wooden buckets. It’s crucial to be completely soap-free before entering an onsen, otherwise you’ll contaminate it. Anthony and I slowly entered the bath, which was designed with rock walls on two sides, and sat in the hot water for about half an hour. It wasn’t as relaxing as we wanted it to be (Anthony hates hot tubs, and I only like hot tubs because of the jets, which don’t exist in the onsen), but we appreciated the custom.
The next morning, we were too excited, as usual, and woke up before our scheduled breakfast at 8 am. Fortunately, our tea was still hot from last night and we still had some azuki cakes from Tokyo, so we lounged on the balcony and planned out our day.
We were called down to breakfast in a different private dining room, with a view of the garden. The kaiseki breakfast consisted of tamagoyaki (egg omelette), tofu, pickled vegetables, rice, miso soup, and lots of tea.
I could have spent our entire time in Kyoto at our ryokan, but eventually it was time to head out and do some exploring. It was still raining, so the ryokan called a cab that took us to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. This Zen Buddhist Temple was originally a retirement villa of a powerful shogun (military dictator). Kinkaku-ji was burned down numerous times throughout its history — twice during the Onin War in the 1400s and once in 1950 when it was set on fire by a suicidal monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955. The name “kinkaku” is derived from the gold leaf that covers the pavilion. Kinkaku-ji is set in a lush strolling garden and extends over a pond that reflects the building. The main reason we went to Kinkaku-ji was because Anthony had built a Metal Earth model of the pavilion and needed a photo with it, but the the setting was so stunning that I was just as excited to be there. It was still raining, but the rain somehow made everything feel even more sacred.
After Kinkaku-ji, we took another cab to Kiyomizu, a Buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple juts out over the hillside and offers stunning views of the city. From above, Kyoto is a lot like Florence — a traditional, culturally-significant city surrounded by mountains. The popular expression “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” is the Japanese equivalent of the English expression “to take the plunge.” This refers to an old tradition that if one survives the 13 m jump off the cliff, one’s wish will be granted. 234 jumps were recorded and, of those, 85.4% survived. The practice is now prohibited.
Below the temple is the historic Higashiyama District, my favorite area in Kyoto. We noticed dozens of Japanese women renting kimonos from nearby shops and taking photo shoots at different landmarks. It’s surprising that this trend hasn’t caught on in America yet.
Throughout the neighborhood, touristy shops line the major streets, while side streets have quaint roads, wooden homes, and soothing streams. It’s impossible to walk through without being tempted by all the soft serve vendors and mochi samples. One store offered samples for every single product they sold. We rewarded their generous sample policy by buying a box of mochi strips.
When we felt overwhelmed by all the shops, we stepped into a calm tea house and spontaneously ordered an afternoon tea. We’ve had afternoon teas in quite a few places now — New York, London, Toronto, Honolulu — so I was grateful that this afternoon tea was unique, offering Japanese tea-centric pastries.
On our way back to Kikokuso, we decided to stop by Kyoto Tower for a view of the city. While observatory decks in New York are expensive and usually require advanced tickets, the view from the top of Kyoto Tower was cheap and easily accessible last-minute. The tower is the tallest in the city, which isn’t saying much, considering the rest of Kyoto is fairly short. It was built in the ’60s and is supposed to look like a candle. The tower can withstand earthquakes and typhoons. After buying a few more snacks from a nearby shop, we made our way home, just in time for dinner!
Dinner that night was shabu-shabu, a Japanese hot pot dish of thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled in water, cooked at the table by the diner. The term is an onomatopoeia, based on the sound emitted when the ingredients are stirred in the cooking pot. Our host cooked the first batch for us, showing us how to properly create the dashi (broth) using kelp, and in what order to add each ingredient. She mixed in tofu, cabbage, seaweed, and three different types of mushrooms. We were able to try two different dipping sauces: ponzu and sesame seed. It was the best shabu-shabu I’ve had!
After another onsen and wonderful night on our tatami floor mattresses, our last meal at the ryokan was a kaiseki breakfast the next morning, this time with grilled salmon and hard-boiled eggs. When it was time to leave, I had a hard time saying good-bye to our hosts and leaving the dreamlike world of Kikokuso. After such personalized, lavish, multi-course meals served with such care, eating in restaurants with actual menus, surrounded by random strangers felt so pedestrian. I’m not sure why Paris and Venice are known as honeymoon cities; when it comes to intimacy and romance, staying in a ryokan in Kyoto takes the (mochi) cake! Next stop: Nara!
Tips for future travelers:
- Before your trip, look online to see what your ryokan looks like. Japanese addresses are pretty tricky, so you want to have a good idea of what to look out for.
- Staying at a ryokan (a good one, at least) will be pricey. Just suck it up and pay. These places are the equivalents of five-star hotels, plus they will include some of the best meals of your life.
- Don’t forget to eat Kyoto’s specialties: tea, kaiseki, and tofu.
- Since meals at ryokans are scheduled, always have snacks handy, just in case you get hungry before your scheduled breakfast.
- Rent a kimono and take photos at temples or shrines, especially if the weather is nice. The only reason I didn’t rent one and force Anthony to be my fashion photographer was because it was pretty hot when we were there and I didn’t want to sweat all over it. But it sure would have been nice to have those photos.