Getting 'inn' on a Japanese experience at a Ryokan in Gion, Kyoto

Getting 'inn' on a Japanese experience at a Ryokan in Gion, Kyoto

Wanting to immerse herself in the rich culture of Japan, our reader traded modern-day amenities for a night in a traditional inn at the country's most popular heritage site.

After watching Memoirs Of A Geisha, I yearned to stay in the Gion district to get intimate with Japan, and also to catch a glimpse of geisha. So during my recent visit to Kyoto, Japan, I booked a night's stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, despite its exorbitant price.

We arrived at our ryokan at 1.30pm and were greeted by a man in yukata (a casual summer kimono). Looking like a fierce Japanese warrior, he gestured to us to leave our luggage at the vestibule as the check-in time was 4pm (ryokan have late check-in and early check-out times).

With the spare time, we sauntered around the famed Gion district, investigating stone slab streets and enjoying sights of well-preserved temples and shrines. The deep walnut wooden walls of the ochaya (tea houses), and the cleanliness gleaming from the buildings, despite their antiquity, enchanted us. We also strolled along the Shirakawa Canal where we could peek into the rear of the ochaya. Willow trees lined the preserved street along the canal.

In the evening, we returned to the ryokan. Before entering the premises, we had to change into the slippers they provided. Throughout our stay, the staff tirelessly kept our shoes and took them out for us each time we walked in and out of the ryokan. The Japanese are so particular about cleanliness that even the wheels of our luggage bags were cleaned before they were taken to our room!

We were served tea in our room upon arrival, and asked to pick our breakfast time. We then booked the family bath for evening use. The family bath is a good alternative to a public bath house or an onsen, for modest Malaysians who crave to try out the Japanese bathing experience.

The family bath was equipped with a mirror under each shower so that you could view yourself while you scrubbed your body with the washcloth.

After a good scrub, I lowered myself slowly into the wooden bathtub or furo. The water was at near-scalding temperature, but I soon found the heat soothing. After our bath, the water in the furo was not drained, as instructed; it was probably to be used by the next family!

At dinner time, we hunted for a kaiseki restaurant. A kaiseki dinner is a traditional multi-course Japanese meal found usually only in Kyoto. A modern-day kaiseki meal is inspired by imperial court, samurai and tea ceremony cuisines. Most restaurants serve seven to nine dishes, although the number can go up to 15. This explains the hefty price of between RM300 and RM1,000 for a meal for one person.

Many ryokan come with half-board, serving traditional Japanese breakfast in your room, and a kaiseki dinner. We did not opt for the kaiseki dinner in our ryokan as we thought we could get a better deal elsewhere. How wrong we were!

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