The author’s husband, Niklas Quarfot Nielson, enjoys a meal at Tawaraya. Photo: Gemma Z. Price
The author’s husband, Niklas Quarfot Nielson, enjoys a meal at Tawaraya. Photo: Gemma Z. Price

Tawaraya: The Ultimate in Japanese Hospitality

While many high-end hotels tout infinity pools, well-equipped gyms, and imposing reception areas, Kyoto, Japan’s acclaimed Tawaraya has none of these things. Instead, this ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) offers omotenashi, a style of hospitality that anticipates a guest’s every need, and 18 serene, minimalist accommodations. 

When I check into my semi-suite, I find it furnished with cushions and a low table for taking tea. When I return from my exploration of neighborhood boutiques, eateries, art shops, and sake bars, two custom-made futons crafted from natural silk floss have been prepared on the tatami mats to assure my good night's sleep.

Tawaraya is widely considered Kyoto’s best ryokan, with Hideaway Report rating it 96 out of 100 points and likening a stay here to travel back in time. In fact, the inn’s roots go way back: it has perfected its artful hospitality over three centuries and 11 generations, serving nobles, entrepreneurs, scholars, and samurai before Japan opened to the West and it began welcoming such guests as filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and current Swedish king Carl XVI.

Rooms at Tawaraya start at around $450 per person per night (inclusive of tax and service and based on double occupancy), but it’s not easy to take one: you can telephone (+81 75 211 5566) to inquire about availability, but you can make and confirm reservations only via fax. Yet the inn is typically always full.

Nevertheless, it’s rare to meet another guest along its silent hallways; and even communal spaces such as the library and sitting areas are designed more for quiet introspection than socializing. Every guestroom faces inwards and is fronted by expansive sliding glass doors that access private contemplation gardens where sunlight and shadow interplay over green leaves and moss-covered stones.

Typical of the ryokan experience, a stay includes an in-room kaiseki dinner—a meal that embodies the current moment in nature through dishes that are carefully balanced in terms of flavor, color, and texture. It can run to 20 courses, but my dinner included five. Among the offerings: clear soup made with local river fish; small bites of tamago, shrimp, tofu, and Maki sushi; trout and grated daikon crowned with purple cicely flowers; and a plate of crab, raw squid, and asparagus. Courses are timed so that I've only just put down my chopsticks and had a few moments to reflect before my room attendant reenters and kneels behind the paper shoji screen partitioning the room to carefully arrange the next dish.

You can request another in-room service as well as a geiko (the Kyoto word for geisha) to entertain you with songs, dances, and drinking games during dinner. Also available: an after-dinner massage on your futon, which I can recommend.