After about five nights in Tokyo, my husband and I headed to Kyoto via the bullet train, or shinkansen. For the other parts of this Japan series, please see below.
I had purchased two tourist-only tickets for the shinkansen before we arrived which saved us about ~30% of the cost – however the seats were all in unreserved cars so there was a mad dash each time to get a seat and make sure you had somewhere to put your luggage. Next time I might splurge on the better class cars where getting a seat is less stressful!
Before we left our hotel got us a few bento to eat on the train, they were elegant and I felt wasteful throwing away the box.
After a few hours, we arrived in Kyoto and hopped in a cab and headed to our ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn where you typically sleep on tatami mats and there is great personalized service – I’d liken it to perhaps something like a “Bed & Breakfast” in the United States, but still quite different. Today’s post is going to largely be about the ryokan experience.
Kyoto is a city I’d definitely recommend trying out a ryokan in, especially for first time visitors. In the past I had stayed at Tawaraya which we originally had booked – it’s a lovely and historic inn and I’d recommend it. However, the room we wanted wasn’t available and so we decided to swap ryokans, which actually worked out even better. We decided on Shiraume, which is located on a very charming street of Gion (the traditional geisha/geiko district). See how beautiful the street is?
A few houses down we located the entrance to Shiraume.
At the entrance we were greeted by a few employees who immediately took away our luggage, gave us slippers and took us to our upstairs room where we were served some light mochi snacks and tea. Our room was on the second floor and had a great view of the river below – here it is from the outside.
We had wanted a big space (by ryokan standards) and we were really happy with our room. There was a separate dining and sleeping area which made it very comfortable for us – in smaller rooms typically the dining area because the sleeping area later on. Our dining/living space below:
Our sleeping space was very similar in size (I forgot to take photos) only there were very comfortable mats on the ground where we could lie down and rest. We remarked that the rooms were quite big and one of the employees told us that it was because in traditional times, people were taxed based on how big their houses were via tatami mats – so if you had a residence that was of the size of 10 tatami mats, you paid a certain amount of tax, multiplied by 10 mats. In Kyoto they decided to get around it by just making their tatami mats bigger, so that 10 tatami mats in Tokyo = something like 8 or 6 tatami mats in Kyoto. So Kyoto ryokans tend to be larger. Interesting fact right?
We also had a private bathroom in our room (smaller rooms sometimes share a bath). The bath had a cypress wood soaking tub which was really relaxing.
There were also specially selected local toiletries from all around Kyoto.
One thing to note about most ryokans is that they typically include board (breakfast and dinner), with the dinner being elaborate kaiseki or multi-course feasts. A nice thing about Shiraume is that dinner is optional (whereas at places like Tawaraya, there is no choice – you have dinner included each night, with the extra cost). We opted to have dinner one night in at Shiraume and left the next night open so we could explore other Kyoto options.
Around 7 PM, there was a knock on our door and several women came in to ready the dining table for dinner. Then our host (and Shiraume’s owner) Tomoko came in and started off the meal by asking me to choose a cup I liked for hot sake from the ryokan’s collection.
Since my husband ordered cold sake, he had a separate selection of cups to choose from and also had his sake poured from this beautiful vessel.
Here is lovely Tomoko pouring sake while employees served the first dish of the night.
The first dish on the beautiful serving platter - the cloth napkin you see had Shiraume’s logo on it and Tomoko graciously said it was ours to keep (it’s in our kitchen now!)
The first dish was a medley of assorted light appetizers, including an amazing rice/sushi wrapped in bamboo leaves. I have to confess that I still sick at this time and couldn’t remember all the details of the dishes and so my descriptions will not do them justice at all!
This was another light appetizer served in broth…I loved the presentation, see the birds?
Some various sashimi - I adore the little butterfly!
The next dish was lightly battered tempura with a few dipping options to the right of it.
This was a sukiyaki/hot pot with kobe beef in it – the soup in this was one of the most delicious beef soups I have ever had! Wow.
This was a light palate cleanser – mushroom and vegetables with caviar on top.
Some rice, a few more pieces of sashimi, miso soup and hot tea to round out the savory portions of the meal.
And finally dessert – a delicious fresh black sesame ice cream with local fruit.
After dinner we had major food coma and fell asleep almost immediately – some artwork that was in the corner by my mattress.
The next morning, we opted for a one Japanese style breakfast and one Western style breakfast and a feast was brought to our room! Everything was so delicious and fresh just like the night before, and Tomoko gave us a wonderful explanation of each dish. My husband and I shared everything.
A great example of the thought and detail that was put into each dish – this was our fruit plate.
Overall I loved our experience at Shiraume – it was beautiful, clean, hospitable and the food was amazing. The two aspects that were the most impressive for me about Shiraume are both very difficult to show in photographs – the freshness and local aspects of the food, and the wonderful service. All of the food served was so fresh and clearly chosen for the spring season. Tomoko also took care to explain each dish carefully when it was served, and tell us where the ingredients were from – pears from Fuji region, beef from Kobe, etc.
The service was also wonderful and so personalized – as I mentioned earlier I was still quite sick and Tomoko made me a mix of honey, hot water and lemon and brought it up repeatedly over the days we were there, checking on me and making sure I was feeling well. The whole time we were there we felt like we were in the best of hands and all our needs were being taken care of. It’s a unique experience and level of service that you don’t find at many hotels or inns anymore.
Thank you for reading about my time so far in Kyoto! Have you ever stayed at a ryokan before? And if you have any recommendations for fabulous hotels/resorts/inns – please share!