Royal Treatment at Ryokans

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Some Japanese historians trace ryokans back to Buddhist free rest houses that proliferated during the Nara era about 1,300 years ago. Others link them to roadside inns that were rest stops for merchants and growers traveling to central markets in major cities. During the Edo era (1603–1868), ryokans were a lodging of choice for samurai, government officials, royalty and upper class travelers.

After World War II, as Japan evolved into the economic powerhouse it is today, a model for luxury ryokans started taking shape, using the Edo-period model as its starting point. Here, travelers pay for the hands-on service, ceremony and presentation of food and beverage, as well as the opportunity to experience Japanese hospitality as it existed in the days before rail, auto and air travel.

““The influence of politics as well as the influence of aristocracy continues to influence Japanese cuisine to this day. Even with our modern presentations, we remain true to the basic ingredients required for the traditional expression of a recipe,” says Ichiro Kubota, the executive chef at Hoshinoya Kyoto, a luxury ryokan that runs $900/night and features a variety of decidedly low-tech calming activities such as morning stretching, breathing exercises, tea drinking ceremonies, incense burning ceremonies favored by the samurai, and Japanese whisky tastings. It is located in Arashiyama, as far as one can get and still be in Kyoto prefecture (40 minutes by train from downtown).

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Hoshino Resorts, its century-old parent company, is looking to bring the ryokan concept to an international audience. These efforts include last year’s opening its first Hoshinoya property atop a business tower in central Tokyo. The company (which also operates other upscale hotels, spa retreats, ski lodges and daytrip destinations, looks forward to welcoming Western visitors “home” in a way that’s uniquely Japanese.

Step inside Hoshinoya Tokyo’s lobby, and the city’s warp-speed vibe evaporates into a calming ambiance of natural cedar woods, muted décor, and attentive yet relaxed staff. Each floor is its own-free standing ryokan, outfitted with a common living room offering snacks throughout the day and comfy spaces to read and meditate. One’s stay flows seamlessly from a welcome tea ceremony or cocktail hour sake tasting to putting on a customary yukata (a kimono’s more casual cousin) in one’s cedar-scented suite to various activities. An optional kaiseki (multi-course) meal can be booked, with such after-dinner activities as a Japanese classical music performance in the lobby lounge or a relaxing soak in the rooftop onsen (hot spring spa).

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While its tea service, snacks, décor and entertainment amenities are rooted in the practices of traditional ryokans, executive chef Noriyuki Hamada puts his spin on tradition by preparing Japanese ingredients with French techniques to get something Eastern and Western visitors can relate to. If the Hoshinoya’s goals are to introduce well-heeled Japanese executives and Western visitors to the old ways of Japanese hospitality (at around $700/night), where does French technique tie in?

“They maintain the integrity of Japanese ingredients but also elevate their flavors and textures,” explains Hamada. “As somebody who grew up by the ocean, I (want to) introduce guests to ingredients that normally go unappreciated, and prepare them to be even better than they are on their own.”

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At Hoshinoya Kyoto, opened in 2009, past and present blur a bit more. A boat ride transports the guest from the relatively busy main drags of Arashiyama to a former century-old private home. Lovingly manicured paths wind from the reception area to a main dining room where a beautiful kaiseki dinner prepared as well as a common room for socializing by day, a whiskey tasting at cocktail hour, and a conversation or performance at night. During my stay, the entertainment was a command performance and conversation with a maiko (young geisha protégé) and her geiko (older mentor), far from the crowds of the busy Gion district downtown.

The most breathtaking part of the stay is one’s suite, featuring a wooden Japanese tub, traditional resort garments, and expansive picture windows. Slide screens open out into an extraordinary backdrop for a Japanese breakfast prepared in-room, headlined by a perfectly prepared piece of salmon. At both locations, there is also the luxury of not worrying about what to bring. Rooms are also equipped with pajamas, toiletries, and other necessities.

“It’s a more immersive, personal way to experience Japanese culture, history and nature, and the quiet space is a departure from the kind of travel involving a rush from place to place,” says Toshiyuki Sakai, the general manager of the Kyoto property. “You should focus on being in the moment, which cannot happen in a 21st century city center. You should also use all of your senses—not just your eyes—to grasp Japanese culture.”

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Those interested in going deeper into the authentic ryokan experience should seek out places like Yoshida Sanso, in a residential area of Kyoto 15 minutes on foot from the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) temple, atop a hill that overlooks several smaller temples used by the locals. Kyoko and Tomoko Nakamura are its second and third-generation proprietors, respectively, and put their heart and soul what the guests will experience. The former home retains its original 1930s character, down to homespun kaiseki dinners and breakfasts featuring generations old family recipes.

“This home became a ryokan in 1948 when its owner, the uncle of Emperor Akihito, became a monk after World War II,” says Tomoko. “Although my father’s grand uncle, a successful Tokyo women’s magazine publisher, purchased the house (as a sort of dormitory for his traveling colleagues), my grand aunt ran the daily operations. It was unusual for a woman to have this career back then.”

Adds Kyoko. “(Our aunt) did everything from provide elegant home cooked, to drawing the baths and creating beautiful spaces for them to relax.”

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Ryokans of varying price points can, of course, be found throughout Japan. Additionally, there are worthwhile variations on the ryokan experience (such as Togenkyo Iya No Yamazato in Tokushima Prefecture’s Iwa Valley, composed of farmhouses restored under the consultation of American-born Japanologist Alex Kerr and the Chiiori Trust). However, Western travelers may find a short stay at these establishments a good investment that could prepare them for future visits that will ensure they will find themselves awash in tradition rather than lost in translation.

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