Zen and Now

This article first appeared in the Guardian, 17 July 2010.  See http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2010/jul/17/japan-ryokans-kyoto-hotels  

Opposite: The shinto shrine gate at Miyamasou.

Japan changes the way you think about life.   It’s like being beamed into an alternative reality, where optimism and respect permeate life, and modernism is fused with tradition to create exciting new possibilities of how to live.   I’d organised my trip in and around Kyoto and Tokyo to explore Japanese food, but found myself captivated by the latest fashion in ryokans – Japanese inns. 

My revelation came in the form of Miyamasou, an idyllic ryokan high up in the Northern mountain forests of Kyoto prefecture, famed for its wild herb food. Once our bus passed what looked like a beware-of-bears-crossing-the-road sign, deep in the dark cypress woods, the driver put on Greensleeves to announce its arrival to the mountain hamlets. Dropped off beside a phone booth, we were collected by shaven-headed, monk-like man from Miyamasou who drove us up through the misty woods until we reach two low buildings.   They lay on either side of a winding path, which continued up the mountain to a weather-beaten Shinto shrine.   The air was sweet with the scent of cryptomeria (cypress) trees.  

We took off our shoes and were led by our smiling kimono-clad maid to our room and served a welcoming cup of magnolia tea with a red bean sweetmeat. Like all traditional ryokan rooms, it was very simple: tempered walls, tatami matted floor and one table.   The only decoration was a hanging scroll and a vase with single stem of frothy white flowers in an alcove.   The room was dominated by a perfect woodland view of mossy maple boughs and a gurgling brook.   The glass is so clear that tiny dots are placed on it to prevent you from walking into it.   Outside, birds fluttered and the last wild cherry blossom fell in the summer rain. Everything was conducive to reflection.   Home, I decided, was going to be de-cluttered on our return, although I didn’t know how I was going to replicate the delicate fresh smell that seems to pervade Japan.

But my revelation came when I visited the loo.   It’s unnerving enough to find that the loo seat opens automatically when you enter the room, but I was truly startled when it started playing Bach’s air on G string (the theme tune of the Hamlet cigar ad) as I touched its toasty, comfort-controlled seat – the latest in Japanese lavatory fashion.             

Despite these hi-tech extras, ryokan Miyamasou still follows traditional lines, from same-sex shared wooden bath tub to laying out the bedding at night to sleep on your tatami mat. Its food is exquisite, from the amazing kaizeki meal of myriad different seasonal courses of wild foods such as bamboo shoot and fresh water shrimp, to breakfast the following morning with its miso-cured river fish (think Japanese kippers) and plum tea.   

Other ryokans, however, are forging what is described in Japan as a “New Japanese” concept where traditional and western elements are combined to create an ultra-comfortable 21st-century style.   Hoshinoya, just outside Kyoto, and Kaichoro in Ikaho, about two   hours north of Tokyo, are perhaps the most famous examples of this new style.

An hour’s drive back to Kyoto took us to Hoshinoya Kyoto where we were suddenly cast into the lap of luxury by English-speaking staff.   Little temple bells were rung as we walked up from the jade green Oigawa river to Hoshinoya.   Overhead, wild monkeys chattered in the rustling trees.             

A hundred years ago these buildings were the library of a Kyoto merchant. Inside they felt excitingly modern. There are western elements - high ceilings, low modern furniture designed to contemplate the river view, futons (rather than a tatami mat), English books and continental breakfast - mixed with Japanese paper screens, incense, sophisticated lighting and your own private wet room with its fragrant cryptomeria-wood tub.   There is a public lounge area, and a funky dining room where you can eat French or Japanese food a la carte. It is more open than traditional ryokans, where guests are usually carefully screened from one another – except when they visit an onsen (hot water spring bath).

Kaichoro in Ikaho, two ours north-west of Tokyo, in contrast, seemed more traditional, with its private dining rooms and your own personal (English speaking) maid, albeit in a modern hotel block.   Crucially, though, it has delicious French-influenced kaiseki food, European furniture, hi-tech lighting and each room has its own private onsen overlooking the mountains. By the time we’d reached Kaichoro, our minds were so full of the zen-gardens, Noh theatre, temples, shops and bubbling volcanic springs that we’d seen, we didn’t want to leave.   We’d arrived needing a guide, but after 10 days of Japanese kindness, felt confident enough to use bilingual notes and maps to communicate.


* Sybil Kapoor travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) and ANA (ana.co.uk).   For further information on Japan visit www.seejapan.co.uk and the Japan Ryokan Society www.ryokan.or.jp

Abercrombie & Kent can tailor-make a trip to Japan - www.abercrombiekent.co.uk

ANA – All Nippon Airways, www.ana.co.uk (020 8762 8977) return flight to Japan costs around £769 including taxes.   This will allow a passenger to fly from any six cities in the UK to 42 cities in Japan, including Osaka or Tokyo.

Traditional ryokans on a budget

Budget options charge per person, rather than per room.   Ryokans allow check-in from 15.00 and check-out at 10.00. Public baths are always single sex, always shower thoroughly before entering the public bath and never take your special bathing towel into the tub with you.


Kyoto Yoshimizu

Situated in Maruyama Park, next to the Chion-in Temple, this ryokan is perfectly situated for exploring the older side of Kyoto from Gion (the geisha district) to the ancient temple gardens and pagodas.   There is one western-style bedroom, the rest are traditional tatami-mat rooms, like the rest of the ryokas mentioned here.   It has public single-sex Japanese baths and most of the rooms don’t have an ensuite loo. http://yoshimizu.com/english/ginza/stay.html



Set in the heart of Gion and overlooking the dappled Shirakawa river. You will be welcomed here in the traditional style with tea and a sweetmeat, and served a kaiseki meal in your room. The ryokan is run by Mrs Tomoko Okuda and contains seven elegant tatami-matted rooms, many with beautiful Japanese bathrooms. www.shiraume-kyoto.jp/



This popular ryokan is about seven minutes walk from Kyoto station, making it well placed to see many of the temples, such as Nishi-Hnongan-ji and Higashi-Hongan-ji – both part of the True Pure Land Sect of Japanese Budhism. All of the rooms have spotless ensuite loos and showers, but you can also reserve a time to enjoy its therapeutic Japanese spa bath. There is also internet access and bicycles for hire. www.kyoto-shimizu.net  




Ryokans are few and far between in the capital.   However, Homeikan is made up of three different sites, each of which is a rustic wooden building.   One, Homeikan Honkan, is listed as a “tangible cultural property”. You sleep on tatami mats.   All have communal baths, but the shy can reserve the family bathroom instead. All three buildings are near the Tokyo University, so you will need to use the subway to visit Tokyo’s hot spots.    http://www.homeikan.com   


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