Review: At Hoshinoya Kyoto, life as art
Japan's leading traditional inn, where life imitates art amid cherry blossoms, cranes and culture
KYOTO, Japan – There are certain spots in the world where, as (in)famous Irish wit, thinker and author Oscar Wilde put it, life imitates art. Not figuratively, but literally. Places that, although beautiful in and of themselves, seem even more so to the observer because they recall a particular work or style of art, or mood that that art provokes, which you find appealing. The Hoshinoya Kyoto ryokan, or traditional-style Japanese inn, nestled on the banks of the meandering Oi River in the charming Arashiyama (嵐山, “Storm Mountain”) district of Kyoto, is such a place. In fact, for me, it’s the epitome of that kind of location – or experience, really.
Ever see an antique Japanese landscape print, the kind where drooping cherry-blossom branches frame wading herons and, in the distance, a stylized Mt. Fuji? Or where giant, curleycue tsunami waves threaten to crash over a fleet of 17th century fishing boats? Then you know what I mean. This world-famous style of Japanese art is called ukiyo-e (浮世絵), which literally translates as “pictures of the floating world,” an apt description of the ethereal, hauntingly beautiful manner in which its practitioners interpreted the Japan they saw, and felt, around them. Ukiyo-e was most prevalent in Japanese art from the 17th to early 20th centuries, perfected by masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川 広重, 1797–1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎, 1760–1849). Their individual works remain popular and their sensibilities continue to inform Japanese art to this day.
Hiroshige’s interpretation of Hakone (detail)
Hiroshige’s Plum Estate (detail)
Hiroshige’s Wada Bridge at Yoda River
Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa
Arriving at Hoshinoya Kyoto — by water, on the small, cedar-wood boat that ferries guests from a dock near Arashiyama’s iconic “Moon Crossing Bridge” (渡月橋, Togetsukyō) — I felt I’d somehow been transported to an ukiyo-e watercolor or woodblock print come to life. Here, riverside cherry blossom and red maple trees; there, a lone crane standing guard on a midstream rock. Hovering above it all, the exquisite and sedate hillside complex of the ryokan, complementing, rather than marring, the surrounding landscape.
Hoshinoya Kyoto is atypical for a ryokan in that it’s hidden on a riverside slope, rather than lying in the open along a road. Ryokans, which originated in the same 17th century Edo period as ukiyo-e art, were originally inns located along highways between major towns. This particular ryokan also stands out in that it’s one of Kyoto’s, if not all Japan’s, top accommodations venues.
While there are many upscale and/or pricey ryokans in Japan, this luxurious — but elegant and minimalist — property, a part of the Hoshino Resorts chain, was named one of eight “All-Stars” Favorite Hot List Hotels for 2012 by Conde-Nast Traveler magazine. “H.”, the magazine’s reviewer for Hoshinoya, put it aptly when he or she wrote: ” My memory of my time there is proof of how a hotel can, as much as a museum or park or temple, provide one with some of travel’s most transcendent moments.” Couldn’t have phrased it better myself; I was indeed transcended. I’m sure my friend Michael Holtermann, of Holtermann Design, who accompanied me to the ryokan, would agree.
Hoshinoya Kyoto: Guestroom detail
We were greeted at the ryokan’s dock with, of course, deep bows and escorted to reception and the guest library-lounge, furnished in a modernist take on Japanese minimalism, for some tea and refreshments — known as chano-ko — and an orientation. The lounge also features a small gift shop. Then it was off through the elegantly manicured resort grounds, past landscapers serenely sweeping away fallen leaves with twig brooms, to our accommodations, a two-level, one-bath Yama, or mountain, Maisonette category suite measuring 840 square feet. It was exquisitely outfitted with custom furnishings built along traditional Japanese lines; one bathroom with soaking tub; dark, polished wood floors on the ground floor, with two full-bed-style futons; and a spacious tatami living room on the second floor overlooking the ryokan’s Hidden Garden. (A living, breathing ukiyo-e vignette of our very own to contemplate.)
Hoshinoya Kyoto offers 14 room categories, ranging from its premier 1,313-sq.-ft., two-story corner suite Tsuki Maisonette — with a large veranda, tatami living room, large private study with audio/visual equipment, spacious bedroom and one bathroom — for up to three guests, to the 376-sq.-ft. Mizu Single, with a king-size futon bed, writing desk, sofa and bathroom for one.
This being 21st century Japan, there were, to be sure, “mod cons,” amenities and goodies throughout. (eg., refrigerator, electric coffee/tea maker, cups and glasses, tea and coffee, safety box, iPod-ready CD player, desk light, writing set, traditional Japanese games, floor heating, hair dryer, shampoo, conditioner, body soap, face soap, hand, face and bath towels, wash cloth, toiletries [toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, hair brush, razor, shaving cream, cotton swabs, shower cap, cotton puffs], flashlight and an umbrella.) There’s also a free WiFi connection throughout the property.
In the small common entrance way to the building that housed our suite, we slipped out of our shoes and into the tabi socks and Japanese-style slippers, or zori, laid out for us. Awaiting us on each bed were two choices of outfit: a traditional yukata robe and sash, in a checkerboard pattern, and a gray, silk set of jinbei, a type of daytime pajamas. Once we donned the yukatas, our transformation was complete, on both the mental and physical planes. Then it was time to relax, soak in the scenery and sip a bit of tea by the ryokan’s pond, where the foamy nests of unseen, but much heard, tree frogs dangled from drooping bush branches over — and occasionally dropped tadpoles into — the still waters.
Soon, we were asked if we’d like a pre-dinner demonstration of soba, or buckwheat noodle, making by one of Hoshinoya’s sous chefs. We tore ourselves away from the serene scene by the pond and headed into the restaurant. And soon found ourselves once again transfixed, only this time by the sheer skill, strength, speed — and warm smile — of our instructor. Clods of heavy dough were transformed into wisps of hair-thin noodles in no time. A bit later, we enjoyed the soba we’d seen created as one of nine courses we partook of for dinner (mainly seafood dishes for Michael, and meat and tofu-based substitutes for me), in the company of a newlywed couple down on a weekend visit from Tokyo.
Hoshinoya Kyoto: Soba-slurping
Executive chef Ichiro Kubota crafts two types of kaiseki, (会席) or traditional, multiple-course Japanese dinner, menus: a “special course” menu and a “seasonal course” menu. Both highlight local Kyoto specialties, informed by foreign and modern techniques and innovations. Kubota, scion of the family that runs traditional Kyoto restaurant Hassun, studied the basics of Kyoto-style kaiseki cuisine at home before moving on to an apprenticeship in France. Later, he served as head chef at London Japanese restaurant Umu, which was awarded one Michelin star. According to the ryokan’s management, Kubota’s leveraged his cosmopolitan experience to create a new kaiseki style, unique to Hoshinoya Kyoto, that harmoniously blends five flavors: sour, sweet, spicy, salty and bitter. No gourmand, I detected one: delicious. It goes without saying that each dish was also a visual tour de force (see pictures below); the presentation of food has been raised to a high form of art across Japan. At dinner’s end, Kubota himself came out from the kitchen to greet us and our Japanese dinner companions.
The morning of our second day at Hoshinoya Kyoto, we awoke to breakfast served en-suite in our second-floor tatami living room. Screens thrown open to reveal the glorious garden and river valley outside, two smiling and soft-spoken ryokan staff members (one quite fluent in English) prepared and served a veritable feast of a Western-style breakfast for me –scrambled eggs, toast, grilled meats, a fruit platter — and traditional Japanese-style morning fare (lots of broth, fish, veggies and noodles) for the more adventurous Michael. Fresh teas and coffee were brewed, and generous servings of freshly squeezed juices poured. Once satiated, we again draped ourselves in yukatas as best we could (there’s a couple of correct and many more wrong ways to do so) and headed over to the library-lounge to rendezvous with our arts instructor for the morning. A lesson in traditional Japanese-style wallpaper-making was on the agenda.
Hoshinoya Kyoto not only resembles a scene out of a Japanese watercolor. Art, or rather, the arts, are an integral part of a stay at the property. In addition to off-site activities such as rickshaw rides, boat outings, and temple and tea house visits, the ryokan offers in-house cultural activities such as monko, or incense-appreciation; kado, the art of flower arranging (also known as ikebana); and lessons in donning and wearing a kimono. We were treated to an hour-long lesson in the time-honored but now rarely practiced methods employed to create the subtly beautiful type of lightly printed wallpapers used through Hoshinoya Kyoto. The process involves lightly brushing inks or paints onto woodblock stamps, and then applying them to various exquisite paper stocks. We walked away with one large and two small samples we’d each created.
In addition to arts and cultural lessons, Hoshinoya Kyoto thoughtfully offers spa services. Tasked with busy days of touring Arashiyama and the rest of Kyoto, Michael and I had no time to avail ourselves of these. Guests with more time and less activity on their hands and itineraries can reserve in-room spa treatments such as shiatsu massages and acupuncture, as well a one-day, two-night Zen Sojourn: Internal Purification Program, “to balance the ying and yang” inside you. It’s based on both traditional Chinese practices and “philosophies” endemic to the Kyoto area.
I give the artful, awe-inspiring Hoshinoya Kyoto 5 out of 5 possible “toKENs.”
COMING SOON: An exclusive video interview with Masae Kikuchi, general manager of the Hoshinoya Kyoto.
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