Tel: 81 75 871 0001
"This hybrid ryokan-hotel, a series of low buildings inspired by traditional Japanese houses, clings to the banks above the Hozugawa River in the temple-rich Arashiyama district, and is accessed by a lazy boat ride in a hinoki (Japanese cedar) vessel. Its 25 elegant rooms too are redolent of cedar, and although they don't have TVs, they do have heated wooden floors, hand-blocked wallpaper, shoji-inspired sliding glass doors and picture windows (all the better to lean out and watch the foxes, deer, and occasional monkey that prance through the forest), deep cedar soaking tubs, and lofty duvets that sigh when you flop down on them. From the iron lanterns that light the moss-traced stone walkways to the lashed bamboo fences, every detail has been well considered. In lieu of a bar, there's a library, refreshed throughout the day with complimentary snacks by the gracious staff (who speak excellent English). As in a traditional ryokan, there are some restrictionsthe boat back to the docks runs only from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.but Hoshinoya is a retreat not only from town but from modernity. At night, after you've eaten an excellent Japanese or French meal and changed into the provided lounging clothes (complete with raw-silk robes), you can sit in the Zen rock garden, look up at the star-smeared sky, and forget what century you're in."
901 Higashi-Shiokoji-cho, Shiokoji Sagaru Karasuma
Tel: 81 75 344 8888
If you've only got a night or two in Kyoto, there's nothing as convenient as the 535-room Western-style Granvia, which sits, literally, on top of Kyoto Station, a modern, mammoth, and controversial complex (local wags say that the "mother ship" has landed). You can step off the bullet train—the best way to arrive into Kyoto—and head straight to your quiet, comfortable room. The Granvia is nothing to write home about design-wise, but it has a lap pool, exercise room, and sauna, and you have access to dozens of restaurants, shops, and even department stores, without having to step outside. When you're ready to start sightseeing, the subway runs right from the station, as do most city bus lines.
Karasuma-dori, Rokujo-sagaru, Shimogyo-ku
Japan 600 8176
Tel: 81 75 344 3815
Plopped like a spaceship (albeit one owned by aliens with superlative taste) amid undistinguished houses, this 29-room hotel is a serene oasis in a city that, despite its mythologies, often dismays first-time visitors because of its workaday plainness. The contemporary interiors feature distinctive Japanese design touchesclean wide-open spaces, precise bamboo surfaces, ingenious storage, and a skilled use of soft, diffused light. The large rooms all have futon-topped platform beds, fragrant cedar soaking tubs, and sliding shoji windows and closets. A tatami-mat sitting room doubles as an additional sleeping area, and a bamboo shade can be lowered to conceal the master bed from view. Each of the Kanra's five floors feels like a small village; an avant-garde ikebana-like arrangement sits at the center, and the guest roomsall with lantern-lit anterooms and their own lockable shoji doorssurround it like houses edging a town square. It's a perfect, low-key fantasy of a hybrid ryokan, and a perfect example, too, of Japanese minimalism's warmth and elegance. Although the Kanra's immediate surroundings lack charm, you can stroll to Gion, Kyoto's fabled geisha neighborhood, in half an hour. The staff's English isn't uniformly fluent, but their graciousness is as matter-of-fact as the hotel they inhabit.
Tel: 81 75 541 1234
This March 2006 addition to Kyoto's hotel scene raised the bar (and a few eyebrows) with its stunning public spaces and guest rooms fashioned by the trendy Tokyo-based firm SuperPotato. The 189-room hotel is a combination of contemporary design sensibilities—white oak, frosted glass, dramatic lighting—and traditional Japanese elements, such as freestanding soaking tubs, washi paper lampshades, and swatches of colorful kimono fabric hung on the walls. The lobby ceiling—a backlit grid whose patterns derives from ancient Japanese designs—is a knockout. You can expect the usual garnishes of a brand-new property: flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi in the lobby and broadband in the rooms (rarities here), plus the best-equipped health club in town. The location in Higashiyama—10 minutes by taxi from Kyoto Station and walking distance from several temples—is excellent as well.
Tel: 81 075 352 0211
Though Kyoto's famous temples and shrines are under government protection, the city's traditional houses, or machiya, are rapidly being destroyed. Enter Iori. The company, which also runs cultural programs in the city, has been restoring machiya and adding modern conveniences like Wi-Fi, air conditioning, and Western-style bathrooms. As a result, guests get many of the traditional benefits of a ryokan—fragrant wood soaking tubs, tatami mat rooms, sliding bamboo doors—along with Western comforts that make the experience more accessible. Whereas staying at a ryokan requires rising at a set hour and leaving the room for much of the day, renting an entire machiya allows you to come and go as you please. And instead of being tied to a prescribed dining schedule, you can dine out or have Iori's concierge service arrange for a chef to prepare a meal in your residence. There are ten different houses on offer, from a rambling mansion near the palace grounds that sleeps 14 to a cozy two-bedroom Gion town house that was once a florist's shop. The staff can help you determine the best fit for your needs, but our favorites are the riverfront properties—Minoya-cho, Izumiya-cho, and Zaimoku-cho, once home to a geisha—whose bamboo screens open to reveal the gurgling waters of the Kamo below.—Colleen Clark
407 Gokomachi, Shijo-agaru
Tel: 81 75 221 1039
This inn, now in business for more than 200 years, is worth experiencing—if you're lucky enough to get a room. There are seven, but owner Haruji Ukai is so determined to give the best service and to preserve the inn's traditional (read quiet) atmosphere that he only books three "groups" at a time, which sometimes means only three rooms are occupied. This gives Mr. Ukai all the more time to concentrate on his cooking, which has earned him justifiable fame. Even if you're not staying here, you can partake of one of his exquisite kaiseki meals in Kinmata's attached restaurant. Your dinner might end with his memorable seafood zosui, a rich rice porridge served in a copper pot from Aritsugu, the famous kitchenware store around the corner. None of Kinmata's rooms have private baths, but all have beautiful antique furnishings and lamps, and views of the garden or interior courtyard with its ancient stone lantern.
Shinbashi-dori, Shirakawa-hotori, Gionmachi
Tel: 81 75 561 1459
Fax: 81 75 531 5290
Though less rarefied and far less expensive than Tawaraya, Shiraume ryokan ("White Plum Inn") is poised on a picturesque canal along one of the most beautifully preserved streets in the Gion district. Reachable only by its own miniature footbridge, it's ridiculously charming—especially in spring when the cherry and plum trees bloom. The service is warm and motherly, and the rooms are delicately decorated with flower arrangements and hanging scrolls. Still, nothing is so overwrought that you're afraid of committing some horrible foreigner faux pas (bathroom slippers in the bedroom!). Shiraume's six rooms don't have private baths, but bathing times are deftly juggled so you'll have all the privacy you need (and there's a Jacuzzi). The inn has comfort food—like lower-priced nabe (one-pot) dinners in winter—along with the usual expensive kaiseki meals. And, in a nod to modernity, Shiraume offers rooms sans meals, at a substantial savings, for those who'd rather dine out. Unusual for a ryokan, Shiraume also serves a kaiseki lunch. When you reserve, ask for the ground-floor room with the garden view.
Tel: 81 75 211 5566
Fax: 81 75 211 2204
If you've heard rumors of Tawaraya, you've heard that it's a favorite of heads of state, movie stars, and obsessive Japanophiles. You may have also heard that it's devastatingly expensive. All true. Tawaraya, the three-centuries-old ryokan located in the heart of town, is Kyoto's über-inn—perhaps one of the finest in the world. Its wabi-sabi elegance and attention to even the tiniest details will make the aesthete in you swoon: the wetting-down each morning of the stone path in the garden; the perfectly aligned slippers inside the front entrance; the candle lamps in the hallway; the deft intermingling of mid-century Danish pieces among the Japanese furnishings; the sublime service performed by maids whose kimonos reflect, in design theme and color, the season. There are only 18 rooms, and they're almost always full (though, as one visitor remarked, you feel as if you're the only guest). If you want to experience traditional Japan in all of its excruciatingly understated splendor, call—way, way in advance—for a reservation at Tawaraya.
Tel: 81 75 771 7111
Long considered the Western hotel in Kyoto, this rambling property, which opened on the slopes of Higashiyama (Eastern Mountain) in 1890, has only gotten better since 2002, when Westin stepped in to manage. It's still the place to stay if you want to make the right impression on your local business associates or Japanese in-laws. Happily removed from the noise of Kyoto's center, it's a short and pretty stroll from some of the city's most beautiful gardens and temples. We have a few quibblesthe executive floor lounge and the gym are both too smallbut the 501 rooms, all renovated in early 2007, are bright and spacious and couldn't be more comfortable; we prefer those with a city view and terrace. For runners, this is a great location; ask for a map of nearby wooded trails. The hotel also has a concierge at Kyoto Station, where you can check in, leave your luggage, and spend the day shopping.