Hiiragiya

Prologue

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For centuries, Japan’s ryokans have carved a niche for themselves with their unique blend of hospitality and service. These family-operated guesthouses have strived to maintain the special atmosphere and appearance from when they were first built to welcome weary travelers who needed to rest before continuing on their long journey.

 

Kyoto’s Hiiragiya has consistently ranked amongst the top ryokans in the country. Established in 1818, ownership of the inn has remained within the same family for 6 generations, who have been hosting renowned individuals in the fields of art and science, world leaders and members of Japan’s imperial family.

 

Join us as we spend a night there in search of a slice of traditional Japan.

 

Location / Accessibility

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Tucked at the corner of Oike Dori and Fuyacho Dori, Hiiragiya is easily accessed from Kyoto Station by a short 10-minute taxi ride and down the road from the beautiful Nijo Castle. While the urban sprawl had slowly surrounded its traditional low-rise compound with modern buildings and widened roads over the years, it had also brought the Kyoto subway and a suburban mall to the ryokan’s doorstep, offering better accessibility to the rest of the city for guests. Despite this, the inn and its immediate neighbourhood have managed to retain the peace and tranquility it has enjoyed for the past 198 years.

 

Arrival Experience

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Stays in Japanese ryokans have often been likened to being welcomed into a traditional home as a honoured guest rather than a paying customer of a room-from-rent. We had a first-hand experience of this as our taxi came to a stop outside the nondescript main entrance of Hiiragiya, where porters and staff members quickly came to greet us and carry our bags while we were led inside and invited to change into slippers for comfort.

 

The modest tatami-floored foyer is centered by a framed calligraphy piece hanging just above eye-level. Our hostess proudly explained its meaning of “all who come shall feel a sense of returning home”, which represented their wish for us during our stay as she ushered us to the adjacent guest lounge to complete check-in formalities over refreshments of tea and homemade cookies. As it was still early in the day and our room was still being turned around, we elected to head out for sightseeing first.

 

When we returned, we were again met by our hostess and the proprietress, Nishimura-san, who led us to our room on the second floor and provided an insight into the history and service philosophy of the inn. The bags had already been placed there, with the next order of business being the confirmation of our preferred timing for dinner before she excused herself.

 

Guestrooms

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Our corner room on the second floor exuded a quintessential Japanese minimalist elegance. A small foyer opened up to an expansive living space complete with sliding shoji (paper screen) doors and tatami floors, where our hosts had set a low table and cushioned seating. Flanked by a traditional tokonoma (alcove), this served as the main area of the room, transformed for dining and sleeping at the appropriate times by the tireless staff.

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The kimono-clad staff returned to perform the turndown service shortly after dinner. A key element of the ryokan experience is sleeping on a futon, which had been hidden out-of-sight from guests behind fusuma screens in the day. These were methodically laid out and lined with crisp linen as the living room was transformed into a cozy bedroom. We initially had reservations about sleeping on the floor, but soon realized these were unfounded as we ended up having one of the best sleeps on the trip that night.

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Our room was also one of several in the ryokan that had an attached bathroom and shower, a consequence of the modernisation required for today’s travellers. This had a large vanity stocked with Hiiragiya’s own house-brand amenities and a separate room housing the shower and bath. In keeping with tradition, guests were expected to cleanse first before stepping into the hinoki bathtub to soak, whose distinctive wood-scented aroma permeated the bathroom. Whilst not natural hot spring water, the warm bath rejuvenated our tired bodies after a day of sightseeing and we emerged refreshed in our crisp yukata ready for dinner.

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A blend of modern and traditional amenities including a flatscreen television and telephone (which remained un-utilised throughout our stay), as well as a very charming ink-and-brush writing kit, was available to guests.

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There was also a complimentary tea-set for convenient servings of aromatic hot tea and a very well-stocked refreshment center, with a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages including beers, wines and spirits, including Hiiragiya’s own sake blend, which we had a chance to sample during the very elaborate kaiseki dinner.

 

Dining

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A highlight of any ryokan stay, the kaiseki dinner is as much about showcasing the hosts’ hospitality and etiquette as it is about the finest seasonal produce. Guests may choose to dine in-room or in the large communal dining hall. We had elected the former and at the pre-determined time, our hostess returns to begin setting the table before inviting us over, where we begin with an aperitif of cold house sake. Each individual course, ranging from the simmered dashi soup and freshly-sliced sashimi to the featured tiger prawn sushi and steamed egg custard with soft-shelled turtle and sea urchin, is intricately prepared and carefully presented on fine lacquer- and porcelain-ware. Taking about 2 hours, the meal afforded us an opportunity to slow down the pace and enjoy the bountiful harvests from the mountains and the sea.

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For breakfast the next morning, we ventured down to the large dining hall overlooking a small manicured garden instead of having it in the room. To cater for western guests, Hiiragiya offers a choice of western- or the traditional Japanese-style breakfast menus. Our individual trays had already been set at the table when we arrived and comprised of staple dishes such as steamed rice and grilled fish. It was a cold, rainy morning in Kyoto and the warm, silky tofu individually-dished and served by our hostess capped off with hot sweet ginger tea made for a heavenly start to the day ahead.

 

Facilities

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Given the history and original purpose of ryokans as highway guesthouses, most do not offer the same level of facilities as one might expect from a modern hotel or resort. Hiiragiya is no exception although the owners have added some communal elements over the years, such as a lounge space with reading materials for guests who prefer to venture from their rooms. In these spaces, they have also sought to showcase and educate guests on Japanese cultural elements with displays of calligraphy scrolls, paintings and ikebana arrangements, with special displays set-up on festivals and religious holidays. Staying over Hinamatsuri (Japanese Doll Festival), we had the good fortune of witnessing the ornamental dolls representing the Emperor, Empress and court officials of the Heian period that families throughout Japan would display for good health and future happiness for girls, which we found fitting given the it is often the women of the family that are responsible for the daily running of the ryokan.

 

Service / Staff

We found the service at Hiiragiya to be top-notch and easily rivals that of many luxury hotels and resorts around the world. The hostesses and staff of the ryokan spoke excellent English, were very polite, friendly and dedicated to ensuring that our stay was enjoyable and all our needs fulfilled, while effortlessly maintaining the poise, etiquette and traditions of Japan that have been handed down over generations. Of particular mention was our dedicated hostess, who took care of all aspects from our arrival to departure with her gentle demeanour and attentiveness. At departure, she was gathered with Nishimura-san to bid us farewell with the quintessential bow and a genuine appreciation of our patronage.

 

Verdict

True to their service philosophy that every guest should feel like they have returned home, staying at Hiiragiya was a very comfortable and personal experience that one will be hard-pressed to find at a modern, luxury hotel. From the elegant surroundings to the attention-to-detail by the okami and her team, this was an excellent display of ryokan traditions, Japanese hospitality and cultural pride which gave us a deeper appreciation for Kyoto and old Japan.

 

Hiiragiya

Nakahakusancho, Fuyacho Aneyakoji-agaru, Nakagyo-ku

Kyoto, Japan 604-8094

+81 75 221 1136

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