On a mission to spend a night at an authentic ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouse), a friend and I journeyed to Kyoto, the nation’s vibrant cultural heart. Home to over a thousand Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and ancient teahouses, Kyoto is the kind of place where turning a corner can feel like stepping into a time tunnel to Japan’s imperial past or stumbling onto the set of a samurai epic. Staying at one of the city’s hundreds of ryokan promised a proper immersion in omotenashi (Japanese hospitality), whose meaning is typically explained as “service without expectations”. The concept is much more complex than that and, to best understand it, in-the-know locals recommend experiencing it first hand.
Also read: The best things to see and do in Kyoto
We’d carted large suitcases heavy enough to dislocate an arm through people-packed, labyrinthine Osaka Station in a bid to catch the 10.48 Thunderbird 15 train, only to miss it by a minute. It took another hour to get another train, and after about 30 minutes of zipping through the scenic Kansai countryside, we arrived at the gleamingly modern Kyoto Station. From there, as instructed, we grabbed a cab to Sumiya, an elegant, century-old ryokan in what the tourist brochures describe as the city’s “main sightseeing area”. By the time the taxi turned into a quiet, narrow street and pulled up to a pale mustard-colored traditional building, we felt like the weary travelers of old, desperate for a hot cup of tea and a warm bath. Or at the very least, we looked the part.
Walking into the ryokan was like entering someone’s well-kept house; we did so quietly and respectfully, in keeping with the atmosphere. As is the custom at Japanese homes and inns, we traded in our shoes for soft, thong clogs and sat down to a welcome drink of hot tea. Hiroko Horibe, the ryokan’s okami (female manager), came out to greet us wearing a formal kimono with a colorful print and soon began sharing a bit of the ryokan’s long history.
It all began in 1914, when Hiroko’s grandfather Einosuke Horibe, originally from Nagoya, and his new wife Haru decided to turn their home into an inn. The couple liked to entertain and had been in the habit of inviting friends over for dinner or traditional Japanese tea. As gatherings with friends often do, their soirées tended to last into the wee hours. There were no trains or taxis at the time, so the couple often put their friends up for the night. Turning their home into a proper guesthouse seemed like a logical extension of their innate spirit of hospitality.
The couple started out with just 10 rooms and were soon running such a tight ship that their stellar reputation owed as much to their attention to detail and impeccable service as it did to their tea ceremonies. Einosuke also had an artisan’s flair — he had started out as a blacksmith — and it shows in the way the original structure was built. Sumiya is an example of sukiya-style architecture, which is closely associated with traditional arts like pottery and paper making, not to mention certain elements of a teahouse. For their unwavering preservation efforts, Sumiya’s proprietors were rewarded with a Kyoto City Award for Architecture, which makes the inn one of the city’s protected heritage sites.
Half a century after Sumiya opened, a new wing of eight rooms was added to help handle the influx of tourists arising from Tokyo’s hosting of the 1964 Summer Olympic Games. The event marked the first time an Asian city had been chosen to host an Olympiad. By that time, Hiroko’s parents had taken over the running of the ryokan. Years later, they handed the reins of the family business to Hiroko.
After tea, Hiroko’s daughter Yumi led us down a hallway with dark wood floorboards, up a short and narrow staircase and into our room on the second floor. I’m still not sure how such a small door could open up into such big room, but the room itself with its elegant, minimalist interior was a triumph of space maximization. The whole room was carpeted in tatami mats and sectioned off with screens, thus creating space for a living room, tearoom, bedroom with closet, toilet and traditional bath. The latter included a shower area with a short stool and a wooden tub filled with warm water, perfect for soaking (there was a bigger tub for groups on the ground floor).
The room with its clean lines was done up in a palette of beige and cream, thanks in part to the presence of bare wood and straw. Just gazing around the room while seated on a floor cushion was enough to clear a few of the cobwebs in my mind. It was late October and chilly outside; all I wanted to do was change into the yukata (Japanese-style robe) that was neatly folded in a square basket and curl up with another cup of tea.
After showing us to our room, Yumi had requested that we set aside two hours that evening for kaiseki, a traditional Japanese meal made up of nearly a dozen courses. Two hours might sound like long time to spend at the dinner table, but after a few days in Japan, we’d come to understand that they don’t mess around when it comes to schedules. Trains leave precisely on time and when a Japanese gives you an estimated duration, it inevitably turns out to be practically to the minute.
To build up an appetite, we made our way to Kyoto’s Kamo River, where we cycled along the grassy banks, past a couple of locals fishing, others lounging on the grass and still others sunbathing while fully clothed. We feasted our eyes on pretty wooden teahouses and a cluster of willow trees showing their autumn colors, and took in the sight of a school band practicing a few Beatles songs. As sunset neared, we pedaled away from the river, covered a few city blocks in the direction of the Imperial Palace grounds and then huffed and puffed our way back to Sumiya.
At precisely 7pm, there was a knock on our door and in came the attendant, all decked out in a kimono, walking gingerly on her knees and carrying a tray with much ceremony. The perfectly orchestrated dinner began with an appetizer of mushroom, crab and okra, served in a beautifully carved and lacquered box with floral accents — as if it were a precious gift — and a shot of Sumiya’s own home-brewed sake. What followed was a dream-like sequence of artistically plated small dishes — fresh slivers of the region’s marquee seafood together with seasonal produce, and pickled fruit and vegetables — each delivered with what seemed like telepathic timing. It was as though our stomachs were synched to the kitchen; by the time we felt we had properly digested one course, the attendant would arrive with the next. The meal was rounded off with a bowl of fragrant Matsutake rice, followed by a dessert of fruit that, because it was autumn, came with a burnt orange blossom. By the time I picked up the last slice of persimmon, exactly two hours had passed.
We decided to walk off dinner by going for a stroll through the Gion (geisha district), which is about 30 minutes from the ryokan. By the time we returned it was close to midnight and a hush had fallen over the entire inn. Unlike the ryokan’s yukata-clad staff, we hadn’t yet mastered the art of soundlessly gliding across the floor in quick, small steps. So we held our breaths and tiptoed awkwardly back to the room. Futons for sleeping had been laid out on the floor, and a small lamp glowed warmly in one corner. It felt like a storybook ending to the our first day in town and we slept peacefully through the night.
The next morning, Hiroko, who doubles as a Japanese tea ceremony master, invited us for tea in one of the ryokan’s five tearooms. The traditional tea ceremony is a major part of the Sumiya experience, Hiroko-san told us as she took up a ritual seated posture and began preparing the tea. Her grandfather, she said, embraced the tea ceremony in all its complexity — it has layer upon layer of meanings. However, she was content to offer us a crash course. She put the matcha or powdered green tea into a rustic-looking bowl, poured hot water over it and expertly whisked the dark green mixture into a light-colored froth.
She showed us how to hold the bowl with both hands and turn it to the right twice before taking a sip. Her voice was soft and though she spoke very little English, she had a charming way of clicking her tongue and smiling as she grasped for just the right word. We learned that some of the matcha bowls in Sumiya were handcrafted by a master potter who was renowned nationwide in the 19th century. She gently inverted an empty bowl to allow us to inspect the potter’s mark. In such moments one truly feels privileged — staying even just one night in a ryokan gives you a sense of how age-old rituals, properly observed down to their tiniest details, add a dose of sanctity to everyday life.
Sumiya; +81 3 6824 1015; www.ryokancollection.com
This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Smile magazine.