Hoshinoya Kyoto is a unique contemporary ryokan inside a noble’s retreat on the banks of the Ooigawa River in Arashiyama, just outside Kyoto. It offers a rare vision of authentic Japan incorporating a reverence for traditional culture with a whimsical modern sensibility. There are few Japanese high-end inns, indeed few resorts in the world, whose aesthetic appeals both to well-heeled locals and an informed international clientele. Hoshinoya is breaking new ground.
To get to Hoshinoya, I arrive at a dock near the famous moon-viewing Togetsukyo Bridge for the ten-minute trip in a covered boat along the forest-lined river. Tomoko Tsuchima greets me and shows me around the re-imagined interior and exterior spaces of this protected heritage site. Hoshinoya’s designers have utilised centuries-old techniques of Kyoto craftsmen…hand-crafted washi paper, latticework, ceramic roof tiles, sand plastered walls…to create a modern gem embodying the lightness of touch inherent in good Japanese design.
At the top of stone stairs, the restaurant and clean-lined library open onto a terrace that meanders beside a waterfall and pond. Inside the library are art books, a computer with Wi-Fi and complimentary drinks which can be enjoyed on comfortable lounges. On weekend afternoons, a kimono-clad musician plays haunting melodies on a shamisen, a traditional three-stringed instrument.
Rooms at Hoshinoya
My room is located along a pathway, fashioned from variegated pebbles and inlaid pavement stones and lined with moss gardens and miniature bamboo. Iron cut-outs filled with white stones accompany the path, each one a slightly bigger disk of the moon, until a stone sculpture with a full-moon hole completes the playful reference to the moon-viewing bridge below. We pass the Hidden Garden, a modern incarnation of a carefully raked Zen sand garden, only here the dark lines are made from swirls of oxidised tile thereby allowing guests to walk across it without disturbing the pattern.
Hoshinoya Kyoto has 25 distinctively-designed rooms, with names like firefly/hotaru, moon/tsuki, and water/mizu. From a traditional tatami bedroom to a two-storey maisonette…with bed-style futons in a separate bedroom, a tatami-matted living room featuring a bench-sofa fashioned from curved fossilised pine, and a spacious study with books and audio-visual equipment…there is a multitude of fascinating options.
My spacious room features a king-size bed-style futon backed with intricate Kyoto block wallpaper (an art form that has almost disappeared) and a comfortable couch overlooking the emerald river. Rice paper screens and glass doors slide open or closed for ventilation and privacy whilst the dark chestnut floors can be heated on chilly evenings. A fridge is stocked with French wine, Japanese beer and assorted snacks and 24-hour room service is available. There is a CD player, tea and coffee making facilities, a safe, and even a calligraphy set. In the cupboard are pyjamas and casual leisure wear with raw silk jackets that guests are encouraged to wear around the property. The spacious bathroom has a glassed-in section with shower and traditional deep hinoki (Japanese cypress) bath with a window to gaze upon the maple-framed river. A separate room features the Todo Washlet toilet, which splashes, sprays, deodorizes and air dries your rear end in a mind-boggling array of combinations.
Authentic Japanese experiences at Hoshinoya
For now, I have more salubrious Japanese adventures in store. Hoshinoya is not only a relaxing retreat but also strives to engage its guests with Japan’s living arts. To this end, it offers morning meditation at a nearby Zen temple, ikebana flower arranging, calligraphy and more…a cultural immersion that has become a signature of the Hoshinoya experience. Many of these classes take place in the public tatami room, which is also stocked with traditional games and a remarkable collection of ceramic bowls, drums and gongs for ethereal music making.
First off, Masako Suzuki dresses me in a kimono with its intricate layers and ties. It is fascinating to learn that a block is wrapped both in the front and back of my waist to ensure that my profile is straight and not shapely.
Next Tomoko instructs me in the art of calligraphy, showing me how to grind ink stone with water, explaining formal and cursive scripts, and demonstrating how you must clear your mind for the practice. She offers great encouragement as I use brush and ink to create the characters, transported by the beauty of the script.
Next morning, Ayano Kawase instructs me in monko, the way of incense, which started in Kyoto many centuries ago. We follow an intricate ritual using delicate silver instruments to prepare ash in a small bowl before placing a sliver of ancient sandalwood atop a burning ember. We then listen to the incense, rather than inhaling…a form of meditation since this wood has heard many stories in the ages it has taken to become aromatic.
Dining at Hoshinoya
I am sitting at a long carved cypress bar transfixed by a soba chef’s rhythmic movements as he kneads, rolls and slices buckwheat dough into thin noodles in the softly lit restaurant at Hoshinoya. Savoring a delicate array of seasonal specialties, I enjoy pike eel and pine mushrooms in a clear soup; sushi of cuttlefish, octopus, bonito, and sea bream; assorted tempura mushrooms (my favorite); slices of tender Kyoto beef sizzling on a hot stone, the dish exquisitely presented with autumn leaves and purple berries; and of course the soba noodles, which I am told are ‘like eating the soul of the earth.’ To finish: milk ice cream, two peeled grapes, an orange slice and nashi pear.
Hoshinoya’s English-speaking staff is enthusiastic and graceful to a fault. Indeed, visionary owner, Yoshiharu Hoshino, is revolutionising the hospitality industry in Japan. In his resorts, everyone multi-tasks: from manning the front desk and cleaning rooms to serving breakfast and dealing with VIP guests. There is little hierarchy, initiative is justly rewarded and staff always goes the extra mile. Tomoko, for instance, returns on her day off with my best calligraphy beautifully mounted on cards.
That night, as I sink my head into feather soft pillows, a rarity itself in traditional Japan, I reflect on Hoshinoya’s unique philosophy: It honors but is not enslaved by cultural traditions and offers a lateral management style which results in an enchanting guest experience.
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