The stay at a luxury ryokan is the highlight of our trip to Kyoto, Japan. Since this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, we knew we only wanted the best. So we did some research to track down a few that are highly recommended. It didn’t take us long to pin our sky-high hopes on Hiiragiya.
There is good reason why we want to indulge in a luxury ryokan in favor of a 5-star hotel. The revitalized notion of luxury inherent in a ryokan emphasizes first-class experience and peace of mind over more traditional opulent proclivities like wealth, status and power. In essence, those who seek to maintain a peaceful mental equilibrium will undoubtedly appreciate the draw of the ryokan – for its tranquil seclusion, impeccable service, and zealous attention to detail. In addition, staying at a ryokan is THE way to experience a complete and comprehensive immersion into the Japanese culture.
Difference between Luxury Ryokan and 5-star Hotel
The luxurious experience one can expect from staying in a luxury-level ryokan is completely different from a 5-star hotel. The term “luxury” here refers to different notions – Luxury ryokans are expensive not because of sleek, modern amenities and facilities that 5-star hotels provide. Rather, the high costs of staying in a luxury ryokan is justified by the wabi-sabi philosophy and aesthetics integrated into them. A luxury ryokan may be defined as one that has a long history, with traditional furnishings and atmosphere, typically made entirely of wood, and extends an intrinsic sense of outstanding hospitality in the true essence of omotenashi (the heart of Japanese hospitality). Guests at a luxury ryokan can expect an almost intangible sense of personal service that is extended with the utmost sincerity, grace and respect. Hence, luxury ryokans are very expensive, substantially more costly than 5-star hotels.
Opened in 1818, the centrally located Hiiragiya apparently started out offering lodging to samurai, but over the years its futon have also welcomed luminaries such as Elizabeth Taylor and Charlie Chaplin. Today, this gracefully ageing hotel is regarded as one of the finest ryokan in Kyoto. Comprising of only 28 rooms, a night at Hiiragiya including breakfast and dinner range from ¥30,000 (S$365) to ¥90,000 (S$1,095) per person per night, excluding tax.
Renowned for its unobtrusive, meticulous attention to detail in hospitality, design, food preparation, and service, Hiiragiya is considered as Kyoto’s finest traditional inn. Our room (#31) was impeccably decorated in wood furnishings – the floors were covered by tatami mats, and sliding doors (known as shoji) were made of wooden lattices and Japanese paper that is translucent to filter light into the room. Placed in the centre of the room was a low table, and it’s accompanying cushioned chairs that have no legs (see image above).
The corner room we were given looks out on an exquisite ornamental garden, that exudes a tranquil and harmonious vibe as we gazed upon it, while we seeped Japanese green tea and savored the zangetsu (traditional Japanese sweets served during a Japanese tea ceremony) that were served to us upon our arrival.
*Zangetsu – A batter of flour and egg baked into a firm, ginger-flavored pancake, which is folded over a filling of smooth azuki bean paste. The name of this confection alludes to the fading form of the moon at dawn. The drizzle of icing on the half-moon shape of the confection represents a thin veil of clouds.
We were properly orientated in our room by our private female room attendant (known as a Nakai) Eri, who is dressed in a kimono, exuding a cordial demeanour and is highly professional. Eri handed us the sets of Yukata (traditional robes similar to kimono but more casual and made in cotton) for us to change into, before we had our baths in our private onsen.
The Tokonoma is a raised alcove with a piece of pottery, flower arrangement and a painting. These decorations are frequently changed to reflect the different seasons accordingly. Traditionally, the most important person in the room (who is none other than J) sits near to the Tokonoma, particularly during mealtimes. Also, we should sleep with our heads close to it – that is why our futon beds were placed in that manner.
The en suite aromatic cypress bath and the fully automatic western toilet were in separate areas. All the elements in the room are in keeping with the wabi-sabi aesthetic of spare simplicity, with each item carefully chosen and placed. This is Japanese accommodation at its traditional best!
Dining at a a ryokan is the highlight of the entire experience. Hiiragiya serves only the finest quality Kyoto-style Kaiseki cuisine, meticulously prepared with the freshest seasonal ingredients. They are then elegantly presented on exquisite handcrafted Kiyomizu ceramics and the finest lacquer ware, and served to us by our personal Nakai, Eri.
The elaborate multi-course Kaiseki dinner we had consisted of the following (Clockwise from top left):
- Appetizer (Sakizuke) – Steamed Barracuda with Sake, Boiled Tiger prawn, Simmered Abalone with Jelly, Steamed Sea Urchin, Simmered Asparagus, Pumpkin and Taro, Yuzu Powder
- Simmered Dishes (Nimono-Wan) – Clear Dashi-soup with the paste of Pike Conger, Wax Gourd, Carrot, Water Shield, Yuzu Peel
- Sashimi Dishes (Mikouzuke) – Slices of Japanese sea perch washed in cold water, Tuna, Grilled and iced Pike Conger, Green Perilla, Ear of Perilla, Laver, Wasabi
- Feature Dishes (Hassun) – Jellied simmered Tiger prawn and Okra, Dressed Fig with Sesame sauce, Tamago mixed with flakes of Pike Conger, Braised Duck Breast, Simmered Octopus, Boiled. Edamame, Jellied Tomato Paste with Salt, Sushi of Pike Conger, Simmered Ginger in Soy sauce and Sugar
(Clockwise from top right)
- Grilled Dishes (Yakizakana) – Grilled Grunt with salt, Manganji sweet Green Pepper with dried Bonito, Simmered Sweet Potato with sugar, Ginger
- Simmered Dishes (Takiawase) – Lightly deep fried Kamo Eggplant, Sliced Beef Sirloin, Carrot, Kidney Bean, Sweet Miso sauce, Mioga
- Deep Fried Dishes (Agemono) – Deep fried Sillaginoid, Kidney Bean, Corn, Dashi-soup, Salt
- Soup (Tome-Wan) – Aka-miso soup with Yuba (soy-milk skin), Taro stem, Torefoil
- Rice (Gohan) – Cooked Rice with Unagi, Lotus Root, Salted Red Perilla
- Pickles (Kou-No-Mono) – Pickled Eggplant, Fermented Japanese white Radish and Cucumber in Rice Bran
- Dessert (Mizu-Mono) – Watermelon, Grape, Rice Cake of Kudzu starch with Brown Cane sugar
Halfway through the hour-long dinner, the owner of Hiiragiya came by our room to greet us and we had a short chat. She noticed Baby E and asked us if she could fetch her some toys to play with while we continue to enjoy our dinner. Such caring and attentive service is only achievable in a ryokan like Hiiragaya.
After our dinner, we changed out of the Yukata, and went out for a walk on our last night in Kyoto, before we travel to Osaka tomorrow. When we returned from our outing, Eri had helped us clear away the table and chairs, and in their place laid the futon beddings. Sleep came easily on the comfy futon. All 3 of us slept like logs throughout the quiet night.
Come morning, we went out again to visit Fushimi-Inari and Kiyomizudera temple. When we returned, the futon beds were already stowed away, while the table and chairs reappeared in their original position. Breakfast was served to us in the privacy and comfort of our room, brought in item by item till the table was filled with tableware. J chose the Japanese breakfast, while I chose the Western breakfast (just to experience both options). Although the breakfast was not as elaborate as the dinner we had the night before, the spread was sumptuous nonetheless.
We enjoyed every bit of the breakfast served to us, and had time to relax and enjoy the serenity of the ryokan. The experience of our stay in Hiiragiya formed one of the most memorable aspects we enjoyed in Japan.