You know how there are some places you feel an inextricable connection to even though you've never been there before? Kyoto, Japan, was that place for me, familiar yet foreign. It makes sense in a way, considering that the city's fabled pagodas and thriving geisha culture have continued to grace the covers of glossies for the better part of an eternity.
Expectations were high, and as the taxi slowly made its way from Kyoto Station to Gion last spring, I was immediately struck by the fact that reality did not meet expectations. It was busy, like what I'd imagine Pamplona, Spain, is like on a San Fermin festival day when it's jammed wall to wall with revelers -- but in place of the mozos in their red bandanas, it was hordes of women and men dressed in traditional attire. Maybe that's an extreme recounting, but keep in mind I was visiting Japan during cherry blossom season.
By the time we crossed the river and arrived at the hotel, I was relieved, to say the least. The Sowaka hotel is neatly tucked away on a side street in the heart of one of Kyoto's oldest neighborhoods, just a stone's throw away from some of the city's most famous temples and shrines. As I made my way across the stone foyer, it was as if I'd entered into another world altogether.
Sowaka, I later learned, is Sanskrit for happiness, which after a long day of travel and that painfully long cab ride I desperately needed. Unlike other luxury properties in Kyoto, the hotel Sowaka opened just last March, having spent the majority of its 100-year history up until then as a traditional Japanese restaurant.
The property has since been transformed into a beautiful, 23-room ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) with an award-winning Japanese-French fusion restaurant called La Bombance Gion. In addition to the main building of the hotel, an annex was constructed to add a few more modern rooms to the mix.
My first night at the property found me in the main building in the aptly named Tea Room. A two-story, townhouse-style abode, the first floor included a traditional Japanese bedroom and separate ceremonial tea room. Upstairs, a Japanese cyprus soaking tub with an adjoining relaxation room called the gorge that overlooked the hotel's private courtyard. This was the Kyoto I had envisioned, a delicate blend of tradition and nature with all of the modern amenities you could ask for.
That night, after an exquisitely tailored kaiseki dinner at La Bombance, I retired to the tea room to soak in the cyprus tub and laze about in the gorge as I listened to the sounds from the garden below. If I never left this little slice of paradise, could I still claim to have seen Kyoto?
The next morning, I managed to pry myself away from the tub, but not before a delicious, three-course Japanese breakfast. I spent the morning packed in among the throngs at Nishiki Market before a lovely stroll along the Philosopher's Walk and lunch at a soba spot.
That night, I said goodbye to the tea room and moved into a room in the hotel's annex. Sprawled across one level, this more modern interpretation of a traditional ryokan had a floor-to-ceiling window that extended across the length of the room and overlooked a private garden. In the middle, an outdoor veranda for meditating connected the bedroom and the bathroom.
That night, I drew myself a bath, where I stayed for a long while. Sometimes, especially in travel, your expectations don't always match reality. But in my experience, there's nothing a good bath and a glass of chilled sake in a beautiful hotel can't fix.
Rooms at Sowaka start at $393 per person, per night. Inquire in advance and the hotel can arrange exclusive access and private tours of nearby Kodaiji temple.