It is often said that the true beauty of picturesque Kyoto lies in the minute details that are often unnoticed by eyes that are untrained to appreciate modest aesthetics. Nowhere is this more evident than at Tawaraya, Japan’s most famous ryokan (traditional inn), right in the heart of the city and one that has been welcoming travelers for over three hundred years
STAYING IN A JAPANESE RYOKAN
As with everything at the Tawaraya, there is nothing so obvious or uncouth as a registration procedure upon arrival. There are 19 rooms here but somehow the 77-plus staff – yes, that’s a ratio of almost 4 staff members per room – knew who we were and which room we had booked. At the main entrance, before heading for our room, we took off our shoes and promptly forgot about them for the next 15 hours.
Kyoto itself is very richly steeped in the past, and it has one of the most closed and conservative societies in Japan. But a stay at the Tawaraya is like a temporary gate pass into this society, and entering the inn is literally akin to completely leaving today’s world behind.
From the brightness of the afternoon – most guests at Japanese inns do arrive before sunset to relax and have a bath before dinner – you suddenly find yourself in a dark maze of corridors and rooms, with a glimpse of greenery or of a pocket garden every now and then.
So we passed through tatami mat rooms and carpeted corridors adorned with antique cabinets and tables on our way to our room on the first floor. This room – it had a foyer, a small outer room with a study table and a main room that functioned as living room, dining room and bedroom – looked out onto a small walled garden with maple trees and grounds carpeted in moss.
WHERE TO GO IN KYOTO
Tawaraya is about a 15-minute taxi ride from Kyoto Station. We chose to stay here, amidst a myriad of options in one of Japan’s most-visited cities, partly because of its proximity to Kyoto’s historic Nishiki market and the enclaves of culture around it, where artists, art dealers and food enthusiasts congregate. It’s the perfect spot for discovering the soul of Kyoto on foot.
“This street is home to three famous ryokan,” our taxi driver told us, as we passed Nishiki market and entered a narrow one-way street lined with a combination of old shop houses and modern buildings converted into art galleries, chic stores and trendy cafes. And soon we stopped in front of a wooden compound of structures with a simple entrance that first curved right before making a sharp left into the entrance proper, raised one step above the ground.
From the outside, it looked more like the well-appointed home of a samurai family in the olden days than a famous inn in 2012. However, a simple and unobtrusive sign confirmed we had reached our destination. Then, like clockwork, as soon as we got out of our taxi, a team of two men and a lady in a kimono appeared to welcome us to our “home” in Kyoto
FAMOUS GUESTS OF TAWARAYA
This was not luxury as we knew it. The room was adequate but in no language could this ever be called large. It was barely furnished and practically unadorned, save for a simple vase of flowers and an old screen on a faded wall. In fact, with a quick glance, I could immediately discern corners and surfaces that were slightly fraying at the edges.
But it is precisely this feeling of old fashioned Japan – a patina that just cannot be created or faked – that has prompted connoisseurs of Japanese culture to place Tawaraya at the very top of their destination lists for centuries. Japanese aristocrats, relatives of the imperial family, and even the heroes of the 19th century Meiji Restoration all used the Tawaraya as their base when visiting Kyoto from Tokyo.
Japanese aristocrats, relatives of the imperial family, and even the heroes of the 19th century Meiji Restoration all used the Tawaraya as their base when visiting Kyoto from Tokyo.
Ordinary Japanese who understand the value of the highly prized Japanese sense of wabi sabi (roughly translated as an appreciation of faded simplicity), too, choose a stay at Tawaraya as one of the experiences of a lifetime.
Tawaraya is well known the world over as well, for its hospitality and cuisine. Its roster of guests reads like a lesson in history, and it includes the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, the British suspense novelist Alfred Hitchcock, composer Leonard Bernstein and actor Marlon Brando.
Meanwhile, Apple founder Steve Jobs reportedly loved the Tawaraya experience so much that he stayed here several times. On his last visit, just several months before his death, he took his son to the Tawaraya for a final family-bonding trip to Japan.
Apple founder Steve Jobs reportedly loved the Tawaraya experience so much that he stayed here several times. On his last visit, just several months before his death, he took his son to the Tawaraya for a final family-bonding trip to Japan.
REAL KYOTO FOOD
Many ryokan in Kyoto offer the Japan experience, but few can truly offer both a pedigreed experience and an exceptional Kyoto dinner in the way that Tawaraya can. This inn has been in the same family for over 300 years, and its mistress is the 11th generation innkeeper.
Meanwhile, in true Kyoto fashion, the multi-course kaiseki dinner consists of dish after dish of local vegetables and tofu, supplemented by seasonal fish from western Japan. It ends with a plate of the choicest of seasonal fruit. For this stay, for example, we were each served one large and juicy fig that had been lightly stewed in sugar and spices.
After dinner, it was time to turn the dining room into a bedroom, and this just could not happen with two attendants and two guests in the room at the same time. We were therefore encouraged to explore the public spaces of the ryokan while the attendants undertook the mundane task of preparing the beds.
AFTER DINNER ENTERTAINMENT
For this “escape” we had three modest options: a small rooftop terrace for moon-viewing, with comfortable chairs and pots of tea; a tiny library on the second floor with several corners to park one’s self momentarily; or an even tinier reading space on the ground floor that offered a sliver of a view of an indoor garden.
We visited all three in search of trivia and clues about the people who had spent their nights in this historical house, and were rewarded with an autobiography of the actress Lauren Bacall that she had dedicated and signed during her stay.
We returned to our room after about half an hour to find everything laid out for us. There were two Japanese-style beddings on the floor – Tawaraya is famous for its mattress, made from the floss of 10,000 silk cocoons, and its comforters, which are reportedly made from feathers plucked from the breasts of live geese – and enough hot tea and cold water to last the night. Again, everything was comfortable but nothing was superfluous.
A JAPANESE BREAKFAST
In the morning, our room attendant knocked on the door exactly at 730 AM, as agreed upon, to begin the preparations for breakfast. The breakfast at the Tawaraya is something of a conversation topic among lovers of the good life in Japan because the rice and the boiled tofu they serve to “nudge the stomach awake” are supposed to be among the best in Japan.
The rice served at Tawaraya is from this year’s harvest, straight from the fields of Kyoto itself, while the tofu is reportedly delivered early every morning by a dedicated supplier who has been doing so for centuries.
We were at the center of old Kyoto but, ironically, we’d hardly known it. At the end of our stay, we realized that our expectations of luxury and space had been drastically scaled down even if, unfortunately, the room rates did not exactly follow suit.
By then, we’d spent over fifteen hours in a rather confined space, during which time – in a cramped city of over 1.5 million people – we’d heard almost nothing but the chirping of the crickets, the graceful shuffling of feet, and, yes, one ambulance passing nearby.
This was the center of old Kyoto but, ironically, we’d hardly known it, even if we’d not been unaware of it even for a minute. At the end of our stay, we realized that our expectations of luxury and space had been drastically scaled down even if, unfortunately, the room rates did not exactly follow suit. But once we had adjusted to the hefty bill coupled with the minuteness of everything, we were completely enchanted by the Tawaraya experience.