Review – Momijiya Ryokan, Kyoto
Our final day in Kyoto was all about ticking off one of my wife’s items in her bucket list – spending a night at a ryokan.
Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that has been in existence since the eighth century.
They are typically found in rural areas, especially by the mountains or the sea, and used to serve travelers along Japan’s highways. It is similar to the Western bed and breakfast but for unique features like tatami flooring, communal hot baths and the much vaunted kaiseki dinner.
We did quite the research to find the best ryokan in Kyoto that fits our budget. Accommodation in Japan is not cheap and a full-board stay at a good ryokan would start from RM1,000 (USD 245, at time of writing) a night. After an extensive trawl across the internet, we decided to go with Momijiya Ryokan in sleepy Takao.
It took about 20 minutes for northwestern Kyoto‘s scenery to change from glass and concrete to hills and valleys as the shuttle provided by the inn took about 15 of us guests up and down an ever winding road. It was quite apt then to see Momijiya located right by a horseshoe bend while perched on a cliff.
We booked the quadruple room and it is impeccable in its simplicity.
The room revels in its square and rectangular design from the floor to the walls in a minimalist manner. There was no show of opulence or a display of 101 ornaments – in fact, the star of the show is the view of the lush forest and faint surges of the Kiyotaki River down below.
A ryokan is truly a place to unwind and find a peace of mind, free from all the unnatural sounds and unwanted clutter that has become part of one’s life.
Our feet was the first thing to get pampered by the tatami-matted floor, made from the softest of rice straws, as the hostess led us into our room. We were then invited to sit on the cushioned seats in the middle of the room and the hostess proceeded to explain about our stay in Japanese while serving us sencha.
The room’s amenities are very simple – the television and air purifier are the two standout items other than a rather cheap-looking alarm clock, a mirror and a blast-from-the-past rotary dial telephone. Meanwhile, the ensuite toilet is typical of a Japanese lavatory of which the toilet bowl, wash basin and shower are physically separated.
We were excited to wear the yukata, a casual summer kimono, given in a pair of red and blue (unfortunately, there wasn’t one for our child. How cute would that be if there’s mini yukata for toddlers?) to be worn throughout the stay. The set comes with a pair of socks and rope to tie the kimono and complemented with a pair of bathrobes.
Much has been said about omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality, and Momijiya is never short of it.
As soon as we stepped out of the shuttle, our bags were quickly whisked away and upon entering the reception, we were duly invited to switch our shoes with their indoor slippers. Our footwear were left by the genkan, the space between the entrance and elevated wooden flooring, and were arranged to point towards the door.
We then sat down with one of the front desk staff where he briefed us about our the ryokan from the on-site facilities like the onsen hot bath to the short walks we could take around the inn. After we booked our dinner and breakfast times, another staff whisked us away to our room.
Talking about precision, a staff was already stationed in front of our room right on the dot at dinner time and he prepared our futon beds while we feasted on the kaiseki. The same thing happened in the morning as our room was tidied while we had our breakfast.
Most of the staff could converse well in English and it was nice to strike up a conversation with them (the hot topic of the day was the Emperor’s granddaughter planning to marry a commoner thus relinquishing her royal status) and they were also more than happy to take a family photo – one of our better ones throughout the trip.
After a good rest, we decided to take an evening stroll all the way down by the river.
The 200-odd steps right beside the inn took us around the steep cliff to the bottom of the ravine. We crossed paths with an old lady whom we had a bit of small talk and she was clearly enamored by our little one (she kept saying “kawaii” while looking at Aqil after every other sentence).
We then crossed a vermilion bridge to find a row of shops on the other side of the river – a convenience store and a yakishabu restaurant among others. We lingered around while taking in the cool spring air before our grumbling tummies told us it was time to get ready for dinner.
We have finally come to the main attraction.
Kaiseki-ryori is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner, similar to the Western haute cuisine. Fresh local ingredients are used to craft each meal and they are curated seasonally, in this case spring offers a lot of plant-based dishes from bamboo shoots to wild plants.
As far as our 12-course dinner went, it was an exquisite feast for the eyes and the palate.
We were served with one or two small plates for each course and every piece of fish, tofu and vegetable was delectable even the ones we couldn’t figure out! Each dish was presented tastefully in its own ceramic bowl, bamboo basket or wooden tray I could not stop taking photos of them.
While I’m still looking for someone who can translate the menu from Japanese to English, the folks at Japan-Guide.com has a breakdown of a typical kaiseki dinner.
*UPDATED* A Hana Shazwin Azizan was great enough to help translate the menu (by far the most impeccable translation I’ve seen) – I’ve posted it on my Facebook page here.
Meanwhile, our breakfast was equally impressive it felt like lunch! A small bento box in the middle was packed with jungle plants and an assortment of tofu with hot pot and rice on one side and garden salad and miso soup on the other. The whole set was completed with freshly cut fruits.
Momijiya was definitely the icing on the cake throughout our four days in Kyoto.
A ryokan is truly a quintessential Japanese experience for travelers like us yearning to learn a bit more about Japan’s hospitality, tradition and cuisine. The price for a full-board stay might put off some travelers on a budget but if you have the money, make this the one thing to do in Japan.
- Although 20 minutes away from Arashiyama, Momijiya Ryokan (official website) is situated in a rural area and the nearest convenience store (Lawson) is a 10-minute drive away.
- The inn provides complimentary shuttle service to and from JR Hanazono Station (Sannin Line) and Tenjingawa Station (Subway Tozai Line). E-mail them to confirm pick-up time and location.
- We e-mailed the inn earlier to inform them of our dietary requirements and we were assured by the server that no pork was served as part of our dinner and breakfast.