This post is part of my 2015 Japan series. For the rest, please see below.
For our last stop in Kyoto (and this Japan trip), we decided to stay at a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn. We would have loved to return back to our old favorite Shiraume, but it was closed for renovations. So instead we decided to stay in another one on our list – Hiiragiya.
Hiiragiya is a six generation ryokan established in 1818, and is probably one of the two establishments mentioned most frequently in relation to Kyoto (the other being Tawaraya). Both are famous for being old and having high profile guests – our host kindly let us know that we were right next door to – but sadly not in – the Elizabeth Taylor room.
Hiiragiya was located very close to Kyoto downtown, which was a nice change of pace from Shiraume, which was in the Gion district. Our taxi driver pulled up to a very unassuming building, right across the street from Tawaraya, and we were greeted at the entrance.
Inside, the decor was what we’d come to expect from a traditional ryokan – carefully selected pieces, spotlessly clean room. If you’ve never stayed in a ryokan before and are used to more traditional luxury hotels, you might find the decor sparse at first. After some time though, you’ll find the environment perfect for relaxation.
And…our room! There was a large open space where by day we dined, and by night we slept. Room attendants came in each evening and put away the dining set, and set up our sleeping mats.
We booked Hiiragiya maybe a month out or so, which in high season would be unthinkable (reserve as close to a year in advance if you want your choice of rooms). At the time of our booking, we still had a few rooms left to choose from,but they were quickly filling up due to Chinese New Year. I was worried that the room we chose would be too small as it was one of the ryokan’s smaller ones, but it was fine for the two of us. For a family, I would have selected something a little larger.
There was also a private bathroom with its own onsen bath, a dressing area with a closet, and a small private sitting area which overlooked the gardens.
Each evening, our main room attendant would enter with maids and set up our sleeping mats and pillows. Then, two shiatsu therapists would come in right on the hour (to the minute) and massage us to sleep (this was an extra service, of course). We only meant to book shiatsu treatments on the first night, but they were so relaxing we had them every evening! And the prices were incredibly reasonable – I want to say something like $50 per therapist, per hour.
A detail I definitely appreciated – all of the toiletries were great Japanese brands, and ones that I would actually use…yup, even the facial ones!
Each morning after waking, we’d go get ready while the room assistants put away our sleeping mats and set up breakfast.
Fresh Kyoto tofu! So delicious.
And the full breakfast spread. There are few better ways to start your day than with a complete ryokan breakfast…especially at Hiiragiya!
Besides breakfast each morning, we also enjoyed a kaiseki dinner one evening. While staying at a ryokan, usually a kaiseki dinner is part of the traditional experience, and in higher end ryokan, will certainly be quoted as part of the price of your room. It’s a key part of the luxury ryokan experience, and one that I’d recommend for everyone.
What not everybody may know however, is that you don’t have to have the dinner each evening, especially if you’re staying multiple nights. While Hiiragiya, for example, will happily have you for the meal each day (usually serving different types of cuisine, like hot pot, so it doesn’t get repetitive), you can actually opt out altogether. We did this on our first few days and saved maybe ~$150 or so a night. Not much in comparison with the total room cost, but still something. For us, the key advantage was not as much the savings, but the ability to free up more time to explore Kyoto!
Anyway, some highlights from our kaiseki dinner. Hiiragiya has been historically ranked with a Michelin star, and the food was very good. Each of our dishes was seasonal and reflected ingredients both locally and from all around Japan. The servers did an excellent job of explaining each dish.
I’d probably rank Shiraume’s food actually above Hiiragiya’s – but at this level it’s really just personal preference rather than quality/execution, in my opinion.
My favorite dish from dinner? Dessert! Only in Japan do seasonal fruits and jellies end up more delicious than any cake or pastry.
We chose to have our kaiseki dinner on our last evening at Hiiragiya, and it was the perfect way to end our stay. Having this delicious meal in our room allowed us to stay in it most of the day, and enjoy our surroundings and the natural beauty of Hiiragiya.
The next morning, as we checked out, our attendant and the manager came and brought us a lovely parting gift of lacquered chopsticks decorated with their house motif – the holly leaf, and then escorted us outside. They waved until we were gone.
Overall, I enjoyed our stay at Hiiragiya. It was the perfect place for us to stay to cap off our stay in Japan – starting from the modern, and ending with the traditional.
What I loved? Of course, the service. It was flawless, and every request was attended to perfectly and incredibly fast. We never had to say our room number to anyone. Plus, I loved the “shiatsu on demand” service, which was available until 1 AM! The prices were also so incredibly reasonable compared to a traditional luxury hotel spa ($50 an hour versus $200+) that you didn’t feel guilty indulging.
Areas for improvement: There were no issues and we enjoyed our stay, but I would say that we still enjoyed our overall ryokan experience at Shiraume more. In particular, we found that the food at Shiraume was slightly better…and that there was just more of a “personality” feel to that ryokan experience.
Still, I think anyone would be happy to stay at Hiiragiya (provided that they understand the culture of ryokans), and the establishment’s long history and roster of famous guests throughout the centuries cannot be beat. This was one hotel on the “legend list” that we were happy to check off our list, and though we may be back in the future, we would probably try out some other places first.