The Best Ryokan in Kyoto
While staying in Kyoto, I wanted to find a traditional Japanese Ryokan where we could relax and unwind after a busy week in Tokyo. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that originated from the Edo period when inns were a home for weary travellers. Ryokans were once a fairly inexpensive option, but in recent years some Ryokans have become quite the luxury. So finding one with charm at an affordable price, that was also still available, was somewhat of a challenge. But then I came across Ryokan Shimizu.
Although this Ryokan doesn't serve the fancy, traditional dinners to your room that others feature, Shimizu offers up every other aspect of a traditional Ryokan with the best service and hospitality I've received anywhere in the world. Ryokan Shimizu was located about a 15-minute walk from the train station, which would have been a lovely little walk but unfortunately, when we arrived it was pouring rain, so we spent most of the journey running for shelter.
When we finally arrived, we were greeted by the friendliest Japanese owners who welcomed us into their establishment. They gave us two glasses of cold, Genmaicha tea in a ceramic glass to welcome us in. Already we felt right at home.
On the wall, as you entered, there was a mural of cards, letters and photos from fellow travellers expressing their gratitude and love of their stay.
The entrance to the Ryokan was complete with small cubby holes for your outdoor shoes and a fresh pair of slippers to put on once entering the house. We immiedately threw our wet shoes into the cubby and slipped into the comfy slippers.
The lobby of the Ryokan was complete with a small sofa where you could admire the Zen garden just outside the window. There was also a large area for pouring water and tea should you need a refreshment while sitting downstairs and reading any of their large selection of books on Kyoto. Once settled, a kind gentleman took our bags and we headed upstairs to our room.
All the rooms in the ryokan were built with tatami flooring and sliding doors, traditional in all classic Japanese houses. Tatami mats are made using rice straws and covered with woven, soft rush. They are tough to clean but are gentle yet firm to stand or lie on. When you open the door, you immediately can smell their soft, earthy scent. Like bamboo and sandalwood permeating the air.
Japanese style futons are synonymous with Ryokans and might seem strange to Westerners. Theses are light, quilted mattresses laid out on the floor. Usually, there is one per person, slightly larger than a single bed would be. The mattresses are thin enough to allow them to be moveable so they can be put away during the day to allow for more room in the home. For many westerners, these might be very hard to get used to but compared to the hard style of Japanese beds we experience in Tokyo, these were actually much nicer to sleep on and roomier too!
In addition to the large living/bedroom room, there was a private bathroom (complete with private bathtub), a large closet for our luggage and extra bedding, a fridge, tiny TV (local Japanese stations only) and a beautiful wooden table with floral mats to sit on. A small tea set was provided along with supplies for making tea right in the comfort of our room. We were wet and cold from the rain and made a pot of hot tea immediately. After so many busy days in Tokyo, we were dying for a break. We made the tea, went out to a local convenience store for some snacks and spent the rest of the day inside. I had a big nap, read my book and studying the binder left for us by the Ryokan. Inside were laminated pages of maps to the big attractions right from the hotel, the best places to eat and drink, places to do laundry and more. It was like having a local tour guide right there to give you all the advice you'd ever need. It was so lovingly created and made a difference in our experience of Kyoto.
The Ryokan also provided us with yukatas to wear while we were at home. A yukata is a light, cotton kimono, generally made for everyday use. They were very comfortable and nice to relax in a while lying in bed. Made the whole experience feel very authentic.
One of the best parts of this Ryokan was their private, on-site, onsen. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring and bathing facility. Since Japan sits on top of volcanically active grounds, the water underneath the earth is almost always hot, providing a natural spring. Many large, public onsens are found all over Japan, but for anyone who is new to experiencing an onsen, a private one is much simpler and less awkward. Onsen water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content. To use an onsen, both in public and private, requires you to follow several etiquette rules. These were expertly explained to us by our lovely hosts as well as detailed on a laminated sheet of paper inside the private onsen. The first step is to make sure you wash your body before entering the water. Bathing stations are located right beside the onsen, you sit on stools and turn on the faucets and use their plastic or wooden buckets to clean your body. Swimsuits are not allowed, this may be particularily awkward in public for some and requires a bit of courage. There are small towels to place over your private parts for modesty, but they are pretty small. Hence why a private onsen might be a little more comfortable to use. Once clean you can step into the bath. Each day, our Ryokan added different types of aromatic baths scents, seasonal fruits, flowers or hot spring minerals. It was immensely relaxing. We had the entire place to ourselves for an entire two hours. The perfect way to unwind after a long day.
Every morning we would wake up from a cosy slumber. Adjusting to the futons took about a day, but there was certainly lots of room to stretch out.
Our room had a view down to the garden and front yard patio. There were several tables and chairs set up so you could enjoy a cup of coffee, a bit of lunch or even just sit and read in the shade of the beautiful garden.
Despite it being the middle of October there were flowers out all over the garden. Yellow, pink and red flowers dotted the bright green grass, and large leafed plants peaked out from along the walls. Hidden in the backyard were different ceramic sculptures of the racoon dog, "Tanuki ". He is a full-bellied Japanese prankster god based off a wild canine native to Japan. After a famous ceramic maker had given several sculptures of the Tanuki to the emperor, who displayed them all over his castle, these figures become popular with the public and having one in your garden likened you to the Emperor himself.
In the front of our Ryokan is purification fountain complete with flowers and ladles to cleanse your hands before coming into the Ryokan. Although doing this isn't necessary, it's a sign of respect for the household if you do so. Plus, it always smelled fantastic.
Our favourite thing to do was visit the local bakery in the morning, find a coffee shop and bring our goodies back to the Ryokan to enjoy outside, the sun beating down on our face, watching locals pass by on their bikes on their way to work.
We were heartbroken when it was time to say goodbye to this place. It was BY FAR the best place we stayed while in Japan. In addition to feeling like we experienced a piece of Japan's history while staying here, it was also the most comfortable place we stayed with the sweetest hosts. They had taken our picture before we left and we put it up on the wall with the other smiling faces, a small memento for them to remember us by. I really hope we return. I can't wait to see them again.