Right. Ryokans. Tell me a few years ago that I should be paying $800 a night to sleep on the floor in a spartan room in Kyoto and I would have checked you into a spartan room with padded walls.
But, the older, wiser me has reconsidered this. Especially the older, wiser me who has realized that by the time you add in the kaiseki dinner and breakfast for two, realistically speaking, the $800 starts dwindling down to be around, say $200 for the room.
(Just a guesstimate, considering how expensive a kaiseki meal is which you could view as the Japanese version of a haute cuisine degustation menu).
And so, we checked in to Gion Hatanaka, one of Kyoto’s most popular ryokan. We had stayed the two nights before at New Miyako Hotel, which is near Kyoto station (a very good, convenient, reasonably-priced hotel) so to get to Hatanaka, we hopped into a taxi, since we had luggages to lug around.
Driving into Gion, that’s when your imagination of how Kyoto streets should be like start coming into play. Little tea shops selling the yummiest matcha drinks, craft shops featuring traditional Japanese products and quaint restaurants line the Gion district. This is also known as the geisha district, but beware! That camera-toting geisha is definitely not a geisha! It’s one of the tourist attractions to get dressed up like a geisha and walk around, but I think the camera should be a dead giveaway.
Back to the ryokan – the grounds aren’t very big but your room is. With your own private bathroom (not a given in ryokan), separate “outdoor” seating area and huge flat screen TV.
The highlight, though, are the meals. Tray after tray of treats were brought up to our room, and each delicate item explained in detail, with enough time given for you to savour the food and drinks between each course. By the time we were done with our appetizers and the “main” tray came, we were actually full!
The key premise behind kaiseki is seasonality, so you’re always assured of the freshest ingredients. As it was summer, we saw a lot of ayu (sweetfish) and hamo (conger eel).
Tip: This is one instance where you want to time your travel with what’s in season. For example, if you really love mushrooms, you may want to go in Autumn for the famous matsutake mushrooms.
After the big meal, your seating area is turned into the sleeping area and it was not that bad sleeping on the floor at all.
As for breakfast, well, that was a shock to us. We were thinking the usual, simple Japanese breakfast of some grilled fish, pickles and rice but, no! It was almost as huge a meal as the dinner! Not to mention, we had fugu for breakfast – how cool is that? Fugu, as you know, has the infamous reputation of being deadly if not prepared well. Exciting!
After all that, we left feeling pretty darn satiated and happy that we decided to “splurge” for a ryokan stay. Do it…if only just once in your lifetime!
Tip: Nothing to do with food, but I’m never going to Kyoto again in summer (we were there in July)! It is just way too hot and humid for me (and this coming from a Singaporean who is born to brave the heat and humidity!).
That said, the Gion Matsuri festival, which is the key event in Kyoto’s annual calendar, happens in mid-July so just for that, it might be worth it to brave the humidity!
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