The Hiranoya Tea House in Autumn, © Risa Sekiguchi, 2009
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Kyoto, Japan

Despite my best intentions, we arrived at the Kinmata Ryokan late. I had longed to stay at this historic and elegant Japanese inn for many years, after reading rave reviews in guidebooks and admiring the photographs on the inn’s website for hours. The description was just what I wanted in a ryokan: elegantly simple, with fine original woodwork throughout, and marvelous food. It was not the most expensive ryokan in Kyoto, but it wasn’t inexpensive either. Therefore, I was determined to enjoy our stay for as long as the check-in and check-out times allowed, so that we could gain the maximum amount of enjoyment, and therefore, our money’s worth.

However, travel sometimes has a way of foiling your best-laid plans, and we were delayed by a delightful visit to an antique shop run by an eccentric and charming lady. We had to convince her that we were worthy of purchasing her favorite bowl, which was in the window and which she insisted was only for ‘display.’ It was a large Edo-era hand-formed blue and white bowl, featuring a daikon painted in such an untethered, bold and fierce fashion that it stopped us both dead in our tracks when we were walking down the street. The resulting dance took several hours, as she showed us the rest of her (often museum quality) collection, talked about life, family, etc., until we were finally able to gain her trust and approval.

“Why is it that such peak moments have to all come at once?" I thought as we hurried to the inn, clutching our hard-won purchase carefully in hand past the pulsing lights, lurid colors and giggling teens of Shijo Dori. After a few blocks, we turned north onto the quiet side street of Gokamachi Dori, arriving at the inn harried and out of breath. It was already 7:00 pm, and the check in time was 3:00 pm! But there was Kinmata before us: lit up like an exquisite Japanese lantern, its wooden lattice screens emitting a warm amber glow; its doorway crowned by a copper lantern with the name in kanji; the pavement frontage freshly splashed with water to welcome us. There was Kinmata, looking as tranquil and inviting as any place we have ever seen.

Just as we poked our heads through the door and before we could even announce our presence, we were greeted by a young assistant chef, who must have run to the genkan (entry) as he heard the rattle of the wooden sliding door. Immediately, the master of the house, Mr. Haruji Ukai, also appeared in his pristine white chef’s uniform. His gentle, warm and friendly manner immediately put us at ease, even though we gathered that he might have been a bit concerned about the timing of our arrival and the timing of our meal. It was a good thing that I was able to take in the beautiful genkan when we dropped off our baggage earlier that day, as the dark patina of the massive beams; the rich red ochre clay walls; the elegant flower arrangement and screen at the landing – were all so impossibly perfect that I really wanted to linger. Yet, straightaway, Mr. Ukai led us down dark and gleaming hallways of lustrous polished wood, past a small, exquisite interior courtyard garden with a rustic lantern and moss-covered water basin, to our room. 

I had asked for the best room, an expansive suite which faced the large garden in the back, and it was more lovely – and surprising – than I could have imagined. Painted along the fusuma doors was a scene of oversized bamboo shoots. It was done by a contemporary artist in the bold art deco style of the Taisho era, which was years after the inn was built, but which fit the surroundings perfectly. In the tokonoma, a charming display of antique hina dolls announced that it was spring. The serene garden featured a formal lantern and red kurama stones. The back of the garden was bordered by an attractive bamboo gate. Glass doors sheltered us from the chilly spring night, yet provided views to the garden.

Next to the sitting room was the bedroom, and there – in the corner – was the unfortunate sight of our luggage. How ugly and out of place it looked in these elegant surroundings! I made a mental note to send our luggage onwards the next time we stayed at a ryokan. It was what I often arranged for my friends and clients, after all. No matter; we closed off the bedroom and gathered around the low red lacquer table to register and chat while we sipped an excellent variety of green tea. Mr. Ukai asked if we wanted to have a bath before dinner (as is the custom) but since we were late in arriving, we said no, we could have dinner at the usual time. Upon hearing this, he looked a little relieved, and took his leave to continue preparing our kaiseki meal.

Kaiseki multicourse meals take hours to properly enjoy, and it is customary to arrive at a ryokan in the late afternoon and to immediately take a bath and relax (perhaps strolling in the garden in one’s yukata) before dinner. This custom comes from the role of ryokans in Japan’s past, where they originated as road-side inns along the great highways (often just rural mountain paths) that linked Japan’s cities and towns. Since visitors often walked or rode horses or in palanquins, they arrived at such inns in a hot and dusty state. A nice hot bath was the perfect antidote after a long day of travel. Having stayed at many ryokans myself before and since this stay, I also recommend this practice, but we thought it would have been rude to further delay dinner.

As we took in the wonderful details of the room, the okami-san (lady of the house) appeared wearing a beautiful silk kimono. She was extremely elegant, as most okami-san are, as they are responsible for all the aesthetic touches and general style of the inn, including the flower arrangements. Yet, Mrs. Ukai struck us as down-to-earth, someone we could relate to. She welcomed us, and told us a little about Kinmata’s history, as well as her family’s role in it. The inn was started in 1801 by her husband’s great-grandfather, and they are the seventh-generation proprietors.

The first course then arrived, and Mrs. Ukai introduced us to the beautiful display before us, which came in a beautiful wooden box decorated with a perfect sakura branch. This included bite-sized pieces of temari (small, round) sushi; takenoko (bamboo shoots) with kinome dressing; and hotaru-ika (firefly squid) and rape blossoms in sweet miso and egg sauce, garnished with tiny tips of horsetail. Mrs. Ukai explained that the tiny squid, as small as the tips of one’s fingers, glow in the dark, hence their name. They were exceedingly delicate in flavor and texture, very soft. The creamy yellow sauce was subtly flavored and didn’t overpower the whole.

Mrs. Ukai took leave of us at that point, and various young apprentices arrived with subsequent courses. Each course varied in preparation, texture and flavor, unfolding from delicate and subtle to intense and substantial, before quieting down again, as is the custom in Kaiseki cuisine. All dishes were seasonal specialties: tai (sea bream) sashimi, with a wonderfully firm texture and subtle flavor; simmered bamboo shoots with fresh wakame and kinome sprigs; a single delicate tilefish and lillyroot dumpling floating in a savory clear sauce, topped with a curving piece of bracken fern; chirashi (scattered) sushi with conger eel, topped with a delicious sprinkling of seasoned egg and garnished with lily root carved into sakura petals; a tempura trio of spring vegetables. All the courses were as beautiful to behold as to savor: The inn owns a precious collection of modern and antique dishes, including 100 year old imari porcelain pieces bought by Mr. Ukai’s grandfather that are family heirlooms.

We were more than a little surprised when a gigantic tai head arrived on a large rustic stoneware platter. This, we soon learned, was also a traditional spring favorite, and we later saw them for sale at the nearby Nishiki market, where Mr. Ukai shops early each morning. The tai was simmered with gobo (burdock root) in a sweet sake and soy-based sauce infused with ginger. The cartilage dissolved during simmering, making the sauce rich, thick and viscous, and while it took some effort to eat (as there are numerous bones in the head) it was so good that we rather inelegantly sucked on the bones in order to get at all the succulent, moist and gelatinous flesh, skin and connective tissue.

Mr. Ukai arrived again, as if for a curtain call, towards the end of the meal. He was surprised at how cleanly we ate the tai head. We later learned that most Western guests barely touch this course, perhaps intimidated by its appearance, or mystified by the way in which to eat it. What a shame. He was also a little concerned that we drank three carafes of sake, and asked if we were ok. We thought this was strange, as the portions were tiny, and we were used to drinking much more, especially during such a splurge.

At this point, the meal was winding down, and we enjoyed takenoko (bamboo shoot) rice, pickles and miso soup. Dessert was matcha served alongside a single exquisite wagashi, which was sakura colored and flavored, and was garnished by a sakura blossom suspended in clear kanten (agar-agar). At the very end, a cup of nice, strong coffee was also included; something especially rare in traditional kaiseki.

Wholly satisfied, body and soul, we then took turns bathing. Donning an elegant blue and white yukata, I padded quietly down the hall and down the stairs to the inn’s Japanese bath. One of the reasons Kinmata’s rates are not among the highest in Kyoto is because some of the rooms do not have private baths. This is actually the traditional custom, and suits the inn perfectly. I thought it was well worth the small inconvenience that the inn’s architecture was not altered to accommodate en-suite baths.

The bath (located separately from the toilets) was humble, yet elegant. The walls were lined with cypress, which is commonly used in Japanese baths because it thrives in moisture and exudes a wonderful fragrance. The bath itself – also hand-hewn in cypress – took up half of the room. After washing up outside of the tub, I slowly immersed myself in the scalding hot water, sliding my body down the velvety smooth contours of the tub until I was chin-deep. There, I soaked contentedly while gazing out the window at a tiny garden of bright green bamboo, watching the steam rise all around me, thinking of nothing in particular, until I turned bright pink.

After my bath, I wanted to see the rest of the inn, so I tiptoed silently down the hall to investigate. I had also arranged a stay for two of my clients, and I was curious to see if I would bump into them. However, just as I passed the interior courtyard garden, Mr. Ukai magically appeared to ask if I was lost. Plan foiled. I would have to wait until the next day to inquire after our friends. In fact, during our stay, we were enveloped in a serene privacy, encountering no other guests besides our friends, no doubt due to the watchful eye of Mr. Ukai and his hard-working staff.

Upon returning to the room, I found that our futons had been laid out and an andon (Japanese lantern) placed by the pillows. Japanese futons are supremely comfortable; firm, yet surprisingly soft, and nothing like the futons of the west. They consist of a thin cotton mattress which is placed on top of a thick foam mattress. The tatami floor provides additional cushioning. Fluffy feather-light down comforters complete the ensemble. With the warmth of the bath still upon us, we settled down and drifted off into blissful sleep.

In the morning, we enjoyed a huge traditional breakfast of grilled fish, simmered vegetables, rice and miso soup, as well as a perfect slice of Japanese omelette. I noticed that there was no soy sauce at the table, so I asked the young server, who replied that the dishes were already flavored. This is typical of Kyoto cuisine, which relies on subtlety and features a light touch with salt. I explained that I wanted the soy sauce for the grated daikon that accompanied the omelette. She must have approved of this use, for she came back straightaway with a small decanter. I thought this was a touching gesture. The chefs are justifiably proud of the flavor of their dishes and I can understand the exasperation they feel when foreigners drown their food in soy sauce.

After breakfast, Mr. Ukai asked if we would like to visit our friends, and we were delighted to find them happy and content in their spacious suite on the second floor. Especially captivating was their treetop-like balcony that looked out over the interior courtyard garden – where they admitted to sitting all day long. Indeed, it was lovely, and with a private bathroom, so comfortable that I could imagine living there happily for months.

Check out time came all too soon, and as it was also our last day in Kyoto, marked a doubly sad occasion. To preserve our memories, we purchased one of the inn’s beautiful books, which features photographs by famous landscape photographer Katsuhiko Mizuno and includes photos and descriptions of the cuisine served during all four seasons.

When we departed, Mr. and Mrs. Ukai sent us off in the traditional way, continuing to bow and wave as our taxi drove off. They were still waving and bowing until we turned once more down Shijo-dori. There, we left the gracious and peaceful bubble that was Kinmata – a perfectly preserved slice of traditional Japanese life that is rapidly disappearing – as we headed back to modern Japan and the taxi sped towards the airport to return us to our modern lives.

Traditional Japanese breakfast at Kinmata Ryokan, Kyoto
407 Shijo-agaru. Gokomachi-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-8044
TEL: 075-221-1039 FAX: 075-231-7632
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