by Linda Okazaki
An ancient city. Once the former imperial capital. Largely unharmed during WWII.
We arrived May 23 via the Shinkansen. Soba for lunch. A visit to the Kiyomizu Temple. Then check-in at Hiiragiya; the second oldest ryokan in Kyoto was established more than three hundred years ago. Simple and unassuming, the high walls and gate hid the treasure inside. Several employees greeted us with deep bows in the genkan, a stone entry. We changed into slippers and followed a kimono-clad attendant to our room then removed our slippers before stepping onto the tatami mat. The smell of clean tatami is a little like freshly cut grass. Surrounded by shoji and glass, we had a garden view from both the main room and the ofuro, or bath. It was hard to believe that we were in the middle of a bustling city. After our ofuro, we donned yukata and were served kaiseki, a multi course traditional meal, and a flight of sake. Miyuki was our attendant for the duration of our stay. After dinner, it was back to the ofuro before collapsing into the heavenly futon. Sweet dreams.
Day 2. Miyuki arrived to put away the futon and serve a traditional Japanese breakfast. Fish, fresh tofu, vegetables, rice, miso soup, tea. Another bath. The ryokan has been in the current owner’s family for six generations. She and Miyuki gave us a personal tour, then suggested some sites to visit in the city.
First stop, Nanzenji, a series of temples nestled in the hills, surrounded by maple trees. Next stop, Okazaki Shrine (we couldn’t resist!); the kanji is the same as for our surname. Locals call this shrine “Usagi Jinja”. After that, a stroll through Gion, best known for it’s Geisha, at least at night. During the day it is mostly a tourist spot. Fresh Kyoto-style udon for lunch, a little shopping, then off to Nijo Jinya, a former inn used by feudal lords. We took a tour and saw secret passages, hidden doors and stairwells, low ceilings with trap doors and tiny hallways which curtailed the use of swords. The building is privately owned by the Ogawa family, decendants of the original owner. Then to Ninomaru Palace adjacent to Nijo Castle.
At the end of a long day, it was back to the ryokan and another ofuro. Another meal served by Miyuki, this time shabu shabu with French chablis. Ofuro in the main bath. Back to the ofuro in our room. Collapse again into the futon for a good night’s sleep. I dreamt of samurai and ninja, sword fights and Heian period clothing, geisha and zen gardens.
Morning arrived too soon, so it was off to the ofuro again. Why not? We are leaving soon. My skin feels so soft from all of the scrubbing, soaking and minerals. Miyuki arrived at 7:30. Green tea. Coffee. Umeboshi. Breakfast is served while church bells ring in the distance. Tofu with natto, crab omlette, oshinko, miso shiro, an array of local fish and vegetables, fruit, tea. And more. After breakfast we are served shiso tea.
But alas, it’s time to return to reality. I love staying in ryokans, but my back and knees are starting to complain about sitting on the floor.