To understand the epitome of the Japanese hospitality, a short stay at a ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouse) will make anyone fall in love with the incredible graciousness of the Japanese culture. The beautiful and elegant city of Kyoto is tremendously cultural and a visit to Kyoto without a stay at a ryokan would not be complete.
We begin and end our 3-night stay at Ryokan Motonago, located in a historic and nostalgic house, with a humbling experience. Located in the Higashiyama district, Ryokan Motonago has been operating as a traditional guesthouse for over 30 years but the building is over 100 years old. We are quite literally waited on hand and foot by the kind employees at the ryokan. Upon checking in, we are brought to our room by the room maid, and are served a pot of hot tea and mochi snack. As we sit at the low wooden table sipping our tea, the room maid politely walks us through our stay at the ryokan and what to expect during our stay. Every other sentence that comes from her ends with "Thank you". She asks "Is the room temperature warm enough for you?", and we say "Yes, it's perfect". And she replies "Thank you". Every detail is taken care of to make sure we are comfortable inside and outside. Yukata, a Japanese robe, is provided for each of us to wear in the guesthouse. Tabi, traditional Japanese toe socks, are freshly replaced in our room everyday. Hot packs are given to help us stay warm when we are outdoors.
Each time we walk down the stairs to head out for the day, someone swiftly appears and makes sure that he or she sees us off-- often times, at least two employees are there. One of them slides the inner door open leading to a small outer area and brings our shoes out for us (shoes are not allowed inside the ryokan to protect the tatami mats). The other employee sits on her knees on the floor and bid us a good day. When we return to the ryokan, we remove our shoes while the employee brings out the indoor slippers before keeping our shoes away. I attempt to pick my shoes up to help as the employee puts them away and he graciously says to let him take care of it. T tries to slide the door shut after our return to the ryokan and the employee hurries over and says that he will do it. Every evening when we return to the ryokan they ask us how was our day out. Returning to our room every evening, there is always a thermo flask of hot water, pot of tea leaves, and Japanese snacks waiting for us on the low wooden table. Just before we go to bed, another fresh pot of tea and a pitcher of water are brought into the room.
During the day, the futon beds are kept away to make room for the low wooden table for our meals (which is another experience in itself). In the evening, the wooden table is swiftly pushed aside as the room maid prepares our futon beds. As another sign of thoughtfulness, each night after our beds are prepared, a piece of origami art is placed on each our pillows-- a female crane origami on my pillow, a male crane on T's pillow. The next night I get another female crane in a different shape, and T gets a differently shaped male crane origami on his pillow.
Taking a bath is a very important aspect of the Japanese culture and we are able to be a part of the experience during our stay at the ryokan. The Japanese view of taking a bath is not merely washing off but as a daily ritual to clean and completely relax the body. Traditionally the Japanese bath is a public affair and is done as a social activity where relationships are fostered between family or friends. The Japanese bathing etiquette is such that before stepping into the public bath, the body is soaped, hair is shampooed, and cleaned. This is done outside the public bath where shower heads and wooden stools are provided to sit as you clean, usually next to the wooden bath tub. After making sure there is no more soap on the body, the person is ready to soak in the public bath which is usually filled with very hot water to relax the muscles. The atmosphere is quiet, considerate, and relaxing with no loud splashes so as to not disrupt other people.
Many ryokans in the present day take into consideration that non-Japanese guests may be uncomfortable at the thought of a public bath. At Ryokan Motonago, each room can reserve an hour at a time each day to use the public bath and so in effect, we have the "public bath" to our own privacy every day. This arrangement works out perfectly for couples. We soak in the very hot water and get an even more relaxing evening in our already leisure vacation. Although our room comes with an attached Western-style bathroom, we use the public bath every evening for the traditional Japanese bath that makes up part of the quintessential experience of staying at a ryokan.
Kaiseki, an elaborate and traditional course-by-course Japanese meal, is another highlight so having at least a kaiseki meal at the ryokan is highly recommended. We wake up every morning with kaiseki breakfast served in our room. With the dial of a button on the phone, we inform the employee downstairs that we are finished with our breakfast and our room maid comes in and swiftly clears the low wooden table. On our first night we have the kaiseki dinner also served in the comfort of our room. Each time a course is brought into the room, the room maid carefully kneels by the low wooden table and gently places the food on the table.
We check out on our last morning feeling humbled and impressed by the warm hospitality and incredible graciousness of the people at Ryokan Motonago. Outside, the taxi waits to bring us to Kyoto Station and the ryokan employees assist with our bags. They thank us and say they hope we enjoyed our stay with them. As T and I get into the cab, the employee waves goodbye and takes a very deep bow. He does not stop bowing until our taxi is out of sight. This image will be etched in our minds for a long time.
An attractive aspect for us about Ryokan Motonago is that guests are able to choose the days they want to have their meals in-house. When researching on accommodations for our trip, rates at other ryokans either include meals daily or none at all. Ryokan Motonago provides the flexibility for not wishing to have dinner every night. We chose to have kaiseki breakfast every morning but only kaiseki dinner on our first night. So not only did we get to experience traditional meals at the ryokan but we also got to try amazing restaurants in Kyoto.
There are a total of 11 rooms at Ryokan Motonago. Room rates differ depending on room size and whether there is an attached bathroom. Our room had an attached Western-style bathroom which we ended up only using for a quick shower in the morning. Every evening we used the public bath downstairs for the traditional Japanese bath experience. Rooms without attached bathrooms have slightly cheaper rates and based on our observation, a room with no attached bathroom would not be much of an inconvenience anyway.
Be mindful of your voice when speaking in the room as voice travels easily through the traditional paper walls.
Many thanks to editor Koji Yamaguchi for featuring this entry on the Japanese website "Searchina" here.