Dispatch, Japan: Kyoto charm



 Travel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski is visiting Japan as a guest of the Japanese National Tourist Organization. His second of three dispatches follows. Click to read his first dispatch. 

Japan remains Japan, and the Japanese, Japanese — despite whatever emotional and ecological havoc this spring’s terrible trifecta of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear has visited on the Land of the Rising Sun.

Trains still pull in and out of stations exactly on time. Meals that arrive tableside are edible works of art. Not a scrap of rubbish sullies city streets.

And locals always flash a smile when you whip out a word or two of Japanese. Konichiwa (hi), sumimasen (excuse me) and arigato go zai masu (thank you very much) are the top three on my vocabulary playlist this week.

These things are true in Tokyo and even truer in Kyoto, an ancient city that was once Japan's capital and is the country's cultural capital to this day.

After spending two days in Kyoto, I can report that Japan's top storehouse of cultural treasures, tangible and intangible, is safe, sound and spectacular — but still suffering from a lack of tourists, just like the rest of Japan.

Attendance was sparse at both the 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. showings of the one-hour Japanese cultural sampler program at the Gion Center. There were plenty of empty tables at Ganko Takasegawa Nijyoen, the restaurant where I and my travel companion savored a beautifully presented kaiseki, a traditional multicourse dinner.

And we basically walked right up to the three streams at normally busy Kiyomizu Temple and chugged down as much (reputedly) lucky and (most definitely) refreshing spring water as we liked.

Crowds also were not an issue at our accommodations, but for different (and very good) reasons.

The Hoshinoya Kyoto — an upscale, hillside ryokan (Japanese inn) that opened along the Ohigawa River in Kyoto’s historical Arashiyama quarter in December 2009 — has just 25 high-end rooms. So less (as in fewer people) is more when it comes to the property’s raison d'etre.

Usually reachable only by small boat or, in emergencies, a very narrow path, the highly exclusive Hoshinoya is housed in government-protected structures that have served as a ryokan for more than 100 years. The nightly rack rate for my Yama ("Mountain") Suite runs at about 125,000 yen, or about $1,500, double occupancy and room only.

Exquisitely manicured and expertly managed, the property was only half full at best this week. Apart from me and my friend, all the guests were Japanese. Lower occupancy was bad news for management but good news for us, as we had the staff's mostly undivided attention during my two-night stay.

The Hoshinoya Kyoto offers a traditional ryokan experience enhanced by interactive cultural activities and all the upscale, modern conveniences and services travelers demand, said general manager Masae Kikuchi.

Kikuchi and her staff worked with Nori Akashi of the Japan National Tourism Organization in New York to, well, organize the perfect two-day itinerary for me in Kyoto. Here’s how my stay panned out.

Day 1:

• 11:51 a.m.: On-time arrival (no surprise there) in Kyoto aboard the Nozomi 23 shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo. The train ride was two-and-a-half hours.

Our guide, Kondo, greets us for half-day city tour. We take in the amazing Golden Pavilion — the gilded, three-story former lakeside residence of a retired 14th century shogun — at the Rokuonji Temple and then contemplate one of Kyoto's only surviving Zen Buddhist rock gardens, at Ryoanji Temple.

I soak in the serene scene, created around 1500, but am truly moved by the temple’s de facto motto, inscribed in four Chinese characters on a 17th century wash basin on the other side of the temple: "I," "Only," "Learn" and "Contentment." Kondo explains the meaning: Peace of mind and inner happiness are the most important things in life.

• 3 p.m.: Arrival at Hoshinoya Kyoto pier, for the 10-minute boat ride to the ryokan. As we glide up the misty river, I spy wading herons and a boat full of fishermen training cormorants to dive for fish, an ancient Japanese and Chinese art.

We approach the ryokan’s dock, where three staff members bend forward in deep bows of greeting as we glide ashore. I'm shown to my Yama Suite, a two-story affair with two bathrooms, one with a square wooden tub, stool and bucket for Japanese-style bathing. There’s a two-bed bedroom and an upstairs sitting room outfitted in tatami mats and other traditional furnishings.

A highlight: Large picture windows offer stunning river gorge views right out of an 18th century Japanese watercolor.

• 4 p.m.: Hotel site inspection. In addition to my own Yama-category unit, I get to poke around two of the other eight types of rooms: the top-end, three-room Tsuki Maisonette and the room type just below mine in price, the Tani with Tatami room.

The Tani rooms boast gorgeous "tatami sofas" by design firm Hinoki Kogei. The three-piece couches, of bended bamboo and mauve futon cushions, represent a compromise between Japanese and Western sitting styles.

• 5 p.m.: A private soba-making demonstration by who has to be one of the world's most charming sous chefs. Hundreds of noodles, a 1,000-watt smile.

• 6 p.m.: A nine-course dinner at the property’s chic on-site restaurant, the exclusive province of overnight guests. Head chef Ichiro Kubata, just back from London, creates a new menu every month that fuses the best of French, Japanese and local Kyoto cuisine.

This evening's courses include hassun (assorted seasonal appetizers), wanmono (a chilled green-pea soup described as "fume de poisson meets Kyoto’s white miso"), tsukuri (seared tuna sashimi on couscous salad) and the soba noodles we had watched being made earlier in the day. Kubata autographs a menu for me.

• 9 p.m.: After-dinner coffee by the ryokan's serene pond and waterfall, where cottony egg nests from mountain frogs hang curiously from bush branches. When hatched, the tadpoles drop into the water, I’m told. Croaking but unseen, the frogs serenade us before bed.

Day 2:

• 8 a.m.: Breakfast is prepared for us in our second-story tatami room. I get a Western meal of eggs, sausage, yogurt, fruit and assorted breads. My roomie gets a simmering veggie, rice and egg hot pot; a big slice of fish; pickles; and other assorted exotic Japanese morning delicacies. (He dives into everything but the fish — but then orders the eggs and sausage for the next morning.)

• 9:30 a.m.: Private lesson in karakami (wallpapering-making) in the ryokan’s activities room. We use carved wooden blocks, some ink, gorgeous paper and a few tools such as brushes and sponges to make souvenir wallpaper samples. The Hoshinoya Kyoto's custom wallpaper was created in a similar fashion, I learn.

• 10:30 a.m.: Interview with the charming Ms. Kikuchi in aforementioned Tani room. (More to come on that in a future issue of Travel Weekly.)

• 11:30 a.m.: We take the boat back into town to catch a 30-minute rickshaw ride around Arashiyama with the guys from Ebisuya. In a rare white rickshaw, we tour popular local sites, such as a towering bamboo forest, an ancient samurai farmstead and a Shinto shrine for lovers. The ride costs 8,000 yen, or about $100.

I feel for our rail-thin but apparently superhuman rickshaw puller, Yuki Yamamoto, who manages to tug us around town in blazing sunshine, despite our combined weight of nearly 400 pounds. I jokingly apologize to Yuki that I am hutoi (overweight). He laughs and tells me, "No problem."

Yuki sweats not just bullets, but a nonstop hail of gunfire. Still, he smiles, jokes, engages and informs throughout. At the end, he gets a big tip and my e-mail address. I get souvenir postcards and an e-mail from him later that night thanking me — and assuring me that I am not, in fact, "hutoi."

• 12 p.m.: We meet up with Kondo for visits to two more temples: Sanjusangen-do, a 700-year-old home to 1,001 gilded images of the many-eyed, multi-armed Kannon Buddha; and Kiyomizu, Kyoto’s most popular Buddhist temple. High on a hilltop, the temple (which the faithful, superstitious and/or merely curious visit to sip from a lucky spring) offers fantastic views.

A neighboring Shinto shrine that dispenses romantic fortunes is also popular, particularly with lovelorn young women. The streets below both structures are a charming maze of souvenir and food shops, strolled by young men and women in rented yukatas and kimonos.

• 6 p.m.: We trawl the streets of the Gion district, hoping to spot one of the elusive geisha girls or maiko (geisha trainees), en route to Ganko Takasegawa Nijyoen for dinner. We see nothing.

But after dessert, while strolling the restaurant's garden, we espy two in-the-flesh (or makeup) geishas entertaining a party of businessmen in one of the establishment's glass-walled function rooms. Score!

• 8 p.m.: The curtain rises on the show at the Gion Center, and we’re treated to demonstrations of chado (a tea ceremony), koto (a Japanese harp), kado (flower arranging), gagako (court music), kyogen (a form of comic play), kyomai (Kyoto-style dancing by maiko) and bunraku (a puppet play).

The hour was enriching but all too fleeting. I wished the maiko dancing could have gone on forever, much like my stay in Kyoto itself.

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