While planning my first ever trip to Japan, I knew I had to stay in a traditional ryokan inn. Ryokans are a good way to experience Japanese hospitality. Common elements include traditional tatami mat rooms, yukata garb (pictured above), and communal baths. Most ryokans include an elaborate multi-course dinner in the kaiseki style, as well as breakfast, with both meals served in your room.
Kyoto was the ideal city for this experience as they are known for their upscale ryokans and the ultimate in kaiseki ryori cuisine. We stayed in Arashiyama, a scenic town 20 minutes outside of central Kyoto. Ryokans usually have limited capacity, so I booked months in advance. Ryotei Rangetsu was well reviewed and offered online booking through English travel sites, making the process straightforward.
As with Japanese custom, you remove your shoes in the lobby. Our ryokan didn’t require slippers to be worn inside, socks were fine. The front desk introduced us to the attendant Naomi, who would serve us the duration of the stay. Naomi showed us the public bath, then led us to our room where we had yukata robes waiting. The yukata is worn during your stay – at meals, going to baths, or just lounging around. You can also wear the yukata outdoors, and they provide a heavier outer jacket to wear over the yukata if needed.
Our room had a low dining table in the main tatami mat area, with a smaller wood floor section leading out to a private patio. Across our private hallway was the bathroom with a smart toilet. The sink was in a separate room between the bathing area and the toilet. The private bath featured a separated bath tub and shower. The provided toiletries included very nice body products and the Dr. Ci:Labo facial line. They had two product lines with different scents for men and women – a nice touch.
Welcome Snack and Tea
After settling down, we were served green tea and senju senbei, a sweet creme-filled cracker sandwich. I later realized this is a unique Kyoto snack and saw the Kogetsu brand shop a few times.
We were given a window for dinner and asked what specific time we would like. Dinner was served in-room on the low table with floor seating. If you aren’t used to sitting cross legged for prolonged periods, it could be a bit uncomfortable. On the plus side, you get a private dinner in your room, so you can stand up and walk around whenever.
Dinner was included in the cost of the room (alcohol was extra), and the menu focused on the freshest local ingredients. We had no dietary restrictions, so we experienced the chef’s vision – and a full vision it was! This was an eight course meal and a wonderful first introduction to Kyoto kaiseki cuisine.
The progression started with appetizers, then a series of main courses, a rice and soup course, and finally dessert. Naomi brought each course in turn to our room. Timing was excellent – as soon as we were done eating one course, Naomi would be knocking at the door with our next course.
I enjoyed the meal and was thoroughly impressed by the detailed and refined preparation of local ingredients. The menu focused on simple flavors that allowed the diner to truly savor and appreciate the elevated cuisine.
The fresh made tofu was silky perfection, the miso soup was outstanding in its depth, the tempura delicately fried, and dessert ended with the sweetest melon at the peak of ripeness. Despite the more simple ingredients, the experience was on par with the two and three Michelin Star kaiseki meals I had later in Kyoto.
After dinner, we checked out the communal baths separated by gender. Ryotei Rangetsu had a very well-kept, smaller bathing facility with one indoor and one outdoor bath. A dressing area provided bath towels, toiletries, high-end bath products, and facial lotion. As this was a smaller ryokan, I had the female bath area to myself. I admit this was a bit of a relief, as it was my first nude public bathing experience.
As we were enjoying the baths, Naomi set up our room with Japanese futon beds. These were individual mats laid down on the tatami mat floor. I wasn’t sure if I could sleep on the hard floor, but the nicely padded mats provided enough cushioning for a comfortable night of sleep.
Breakfast is brought to your room at a prearranged time. We got a head start, so I requested breakfast be moved up about 30 minutes, and they were able to accommodate the change.
Similar to dinner, breakfast featured many small courses, but this time served all at once. There were tofu, salmon, pork, pickled veggies, miso soup, rice, and of course tea. They don’t kid around with the volume of food! I was still stuffed from dinner but tried a little bit of everything. The quality was just as good as dinner.
After our pampared experience, it was time to say goodbye. We were able to leave our luggage in front so we could wander around Arashiyama after breakfast. When we returned, we were greeted with iced tea. The lady at the front called us a taxi and then walked us all the way down the driveway to the road. Finally she bowed deeply and sent us on our way.
A one night stay ended up being the right amount. Though I would be interested in seeing how the meals change in consecutive days, the volume and length of dinner would be a tad exhausting to experience back to back.
My first ryokan experience was excellent all around – the service, facilities, and cuisine were outstanding. The atmosphere was incredibly calming, and I felt renewed. A wonderful introduction to Kyoto!