The Royal Treatment in Imperial Kyoto
by Kelly Monaghan
Living well on the road is arguably the most cherished perk of the business
traveler. Japanese executives figured this out a long time ago and, in
somewhat stereotypical fashion, they have refined the art of executive
travel to a level that makes them the envy of their Western counterparts.
If you wish to test the limits of corporate travel policy on your next
business trip to Japan, I recommend that you proceed directly to Kyoto and
check into the Hiiragiya. This is the perfect way to reward yourself for
braving a long journey to one of the toughest markets in the world, impress
the heck out of your Japanese clients or prospects and, perhaps not
incidentally, induce heart failure in your CFO, when you submit your expense
The Hiiragiya is a ryokan, or traditional-style Japanese inn, conveniently
located in the modern heart of Kyoto, and yet a few steps through its almost
anonymous entryway takes you to a Japan that seemingly disappeared with the
Meiji Restoration. This is a world of quiet luxury in which every gesture,
every detail is nonetheless exquisite for its radical simplicity. Yes, there
are modern touches like mini-bars, carpeted hallways, and (gasp) televisions
in the rooms. The plumbing is reassuringly modern. But much of the ambience
transports you to a timeless realm of shoguns and samurai, a time when
prowess on the field of battle was matched by a taste for the finer things.
The rooms, each one different, are Japanese in style, which means that the
floors are tatami mats. At first it seems all the furniture has been
removed. Then you realize that, thanks to an attentive and eerily silent
staff, furniture appears magically when needed only to be whisked away when
its purpose has been served. You sleep on the floor, although the futons are
so thick, the linens so crisp, the comforters so, well, comforting, that you
hardly notice. Astonishingly, you begin to notice that the sparseness of the
decor doesn't prevent this from being perhaps the loveliest hotel room
you've ever occupied. There is art on the walls -- not reproductions but
real art, the kind you have to go to museums to see in the States. The
architectural details are exquisite, with some of the oldest stained glass
to be found in Japan. But by far the most stunning part of the decor is the
garden which, thanks to the wide sliding shoji screens seems to be part of
the room. Among the many things the Japanese do just right, these gardens
are shady oases of tranquility guaranteed to soothe the soul of even the
toughest road warrior.
Don't worry about where you'll go for dinner. It's served in your room and
included in the price (as is breakfast). On your first night you will be
treated to a kaiseki banquet, a rarefied cuisine developed at a time when
Kyoto's aristocracy compensated for a lack of ready cash with a heightened
awareness of the virtues of simplicity. There's simplicity and then there's
simplicity, of course, and while the subtle literary and philosophical
references incorporated in the meal may elude you, you won't fail to notice
that every dish is a carefully composed work of art served on a priceless
example of the ceramicist's art. You sit on the floor at a low table.
Thoughtfully, a sort of cushion-seat with a wicker backrest is available to
support Western backs. The graceful and flawless service by kimonoed
waitresses merely adds to the experience. On subsequent nights you can enjoy
less elaborate but still extravagant sukiyaki or shabu-shabu feasts. Before
your morning business meetings you can fortify yourself with a perfectly
prepared American breakfast or request a Japanese style repast.
After dinner, relax in your own private bath in a tub deep enough to sink up
to your nostrils as you gaze serenely at your private, moss-covered garden,
or if you're traveling with your family, take advantage of spacious,
stone-paved bath houses with tubs big enough for everyone.
None of this comes cheap, of course. Rates begin at about 35,000 yen ($300)
per person, based on double occupancy. Single travelers can expect to pay
more and the room rates vary night to night depending on the menu. If you
will be entertaining clients, you may want to invest in the largest room at
80,000 to 90,000 yen per person. If you really want to go all out, the
management can show you how to spend 150,000 yen per person. Somewhat less
expensive rooms are available in a nearby, newer, annex.
The Hiiragiya is used to catering to Westerners -- the Director, Akemi
Nishimura, may even show off her prized snapshot of guest Charlie Chaplin --
and they accept all major credit cards, so you can't really use your poor
Japanese skills or lack of ready cash as an excuse for not checking in.
If your excuse is that it's just too darn expensive, you may be able to save
some money by walking across the street to the even older Tawaraya Ryokan,
where meals are optional. This 300-year old inn, still in the same family,
is smaller than the Hiiragiya (18 rooms as opposed to 33) and rather more
traditional in look and feel.
Here, there are no carpets on the hallway floors; the bare wood has been
burnished to a rich sheen by decades of quietly shuffling stockinged feet.
Sliding doors lead to the rooms as well as to the gardens and there are no
mini-bars to be found. Low slung easy chairs, which are dotted around the
Hiiragiya, are conspicuous by their absence and the Tawaraya has yet to
introduce that most Western of innovations (if that's the word) -- the gift
The Tawaraya's rooms have names rather than numbers and that seems
altogether fitting for an establishment in which each room seems to have
been carefully crafted to the specifications of different, but equally
demanding, clients. The service is on a par with that to be found at the
Hiiragiya, perhaps even a shade better. No less an authority than Baron
Hilton himself declared the Tawaraya "a lesson to hotelmen on what service
is all about." And the aesthetics of the place just can't be beat. Perhaps
that's why the guest book boasts names like Richard Avedon, Isaac Stern,
Leonard Bernstein, and Michelangelo Antonioni.
The Tawaraya's pricing is by room rather than per person and ranges from
35,000 yen to 90,000 yen. Two of the nicest rooms, 'Fuji' and 'Midori,' are
50,000 yen a night. Of course, foregoing those special, in-your-room meals
will prove difficult if not impossible. Dinner rates start at 12,000 yen per
person (about $100) and go to 30,000 or more. Those with hearty appetites
should be warned that the cheaper meal choices may leave them feeling a mite
peckish. Breakfast is a comparative bargain at 2,200 to 3,500 yen, scarcely
more than what many upscale hotels in Kyoto charge.
The experiences offered by these two very special urban retreats have drawn
the rich, the powerful, and the famous for centuries. Today, they represent
the pinnacle of business travel, not just in Japan but in the entire world.
And yet I can't help thinking that it's all wasted on businesspeople who
are, of necessity more focused on tomorrow's make or break meetying then
tonight's delicately perfumed miso shiru. On second thought, cancel the
meetings, call someone you love and create your own pillow book of indelible
The Hiiragiya Ryokan, Oike-kado, Fuyacho, Nakakyo-ku, Kyoto 604. Tel:
011-81-075-221-1136. Fax: 011-81-075-221-1139.
The Tawaraya Ryokan, Fuyacho, Oike-Saguru, Kyoto 6094. Tel:
011-81-075-211-5566. Fax: 011-81-075-211-2204.
For more information on Kyoto . . .
Contact the Japanese National Tourist Organization at (212) 757-5640, (312)
222-0874, (415) 989-7140, or (213) 623-1952. E-mail addresses include
[www.jnto.go.jp], [www.kyoto-inet.or.jp/city-office/kankou/visitor], and