Last September a friend and I had the pleasure to stay in one of Kyoto’s most established ryokans (traditional Japanese inn), Yuzuya.
After trawling through many websites for the best (and most conveniently located) ryokan in Kyoto, we chose Yuzuya, which is located next to the Yasaka Shrine (you couldn’t get any closer) and opposite the popular geisha and tourist district of Gion.
It has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entrance – we probably would have walked past the unassuming wooden sliding door had I not checked for pictures of the hotel before we arrived.
Note: There are no lifts in Yuzuya, so pack light as the flight of steps up to the hotel are quite steep.
It’s dark inside – mood lighting – and yuzu (Japanese citrus) decorates the foyer and the hotel smells of yuzu. Their private onsen (hot spring bath) is separated by gender, and the bath is filled with yuzu which makes for an extremely relaxing soak. We made it a point to go at least once a day (usually at night after a long day of sightseeing), and always had the bath to ourselves. The hotel also sells their yuzu soap which can be found in your en-suite bathroom.
There are only 9 rooms, which adds to private and peaceful ambiance that fills the establishment. Our room had a Western style bathroom (with a bathtub and shower), and the futons were extremely fluffy. It was so hard to get up in the morning, so hard.
If your idea of luxury is huge, embroidered sofas, heavy curtains and gold trim,or sleek surfaces and marble, this is not the place for you. Yuzuya is understated elegance – simple, yet refined. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi – tender, raw, imperfect, earthy beauty is evident in the rooms and hallways of the ryokan.
There are shoe boxes for each room, at the bottom of the stairs that lead the the first floor where all the rooms are, and slippers for you to wear around the hotel.
You’re provided cotton yukata to wear around the ryokan, (I love how they have pockets to hold your keys or handphone), which is a common feature for most ryokan.
I can’t commend the staff enough – they were helpful to the point I felt like I was troubling them. Each morning after breakfast, our room would be made up before we returned (futons back in the cupboard, table and chairs in the centre of the room), and snacks and tea awaiting us in the afternoon. They also made sure we had a flask of cold water in the room.
Note: They do speak English
Due to their long-established ties with geisha houses, the staff are also able to arrange a private geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) performance, but there’s no interpreter so I wouldn’t recommend paying (not cheap) to go unless you speak Japanese. An elderly staff member also recommended we try Negi-ya, one of the many restaurants owned and run by Yuzuya around Kyoto. EXCELLENT recommendation; I’m not a leek lover but their leek tempura had me craving more.
They also managed to get us a last-minute lunch booking at the 3 Michelin-starred Kikunoi (sublime kaiseki, a must try). which is located nearby. We chose to take a taxi (wise choice, since the steep hill would have killed us).
The in-house restaurant Isshinkyo serves traditional Kyoto cuisine and kaiseki (fine dining), which changes according to seasons. We opted only for breakfast and you get the choice of either a Japanese or Western breakfast, but I don’t see the point of eating eggs and toast when in Japan.
The Japanese breakfast was stupendous – every morning a different variety of mouth-watering dishes, from grilled salmon to sashimi, rice porridge, fresh vegetables, clams… And to start the meal, fresh yuzu juice which really kicks your body into action. They also serve coffee and tea after the meal if you need more caffeine.
Yuzya’s reputation precedes it – all the taxi drivers, restaurant owners and shops we talked to went “Ahh, Yuzuya” in a reverent tone.
We were sad to leave Yuzuya, and tried to pack as slowly as possible. The last soak in the onsen was tinged with sadness, and I tried to inhale as much of the yuzu smell as possible. Two of the male staff (who also work in the kitchens) carried our bags down to the taxi for us and double-checked with us where we wanted to go before confirming with the driver. They bowed until they disappeared from our sight, and we knew we had to stay there again. Here’s hoping another Japan trip will happen this year…
Yuzuya is a great ryokan for either couples or a small group of friends, but if you’re looking for a private or outdoor onsen, try the ones near Arashiyama.