You call this romance?

Zen and the art of romance: This little getaway certainly isn't traditionally romantic.
Zen and the art of romance: This little getaway certainly isn't traditionally romantic. Photo: Getty Images

Romance doesn't usually come with a wake-up call. But there it is, buzzing away with Japanese precision, shaking us from our slumber. Breakfast. We both groan. Romance doesn't usually mean sleeping on the floor either. But here we are, choosing to share a single mattress just a few centimetres above the tatami-matted ground, snuggled under a doona fit for a very cold king.

This little getaway certainly isn't traditionally romantic. There are no plush bathrobes here - instead we'll be getting out of bed to slip into traditional yukatas, a sort of thin kimono-type gown that goes perfectly with our brown leather house slippers.

There'll be no breakfast in bed. And we certainly won't be having bacon and eggs, or French toast dripping with maple syrup. We'll have to go downstairs, sit on the floor and eat tofu. First, however, we've got the toilet to negotiate.

A take away food store in Kyoto.
A take away food store in Kyoto. Photo: Nicolas Walker

"AARGH!" There's a scream coming from the bathroom, where my girlfriend has just gone. "I can't turn it off! Aaargh!"

I'd encouraged her to give the bidet a go, given these fancy Japanese toilets come with all sorts of bells and whistles. This will be the first and last foray into the world of bidets. Still, nothing says romance like a toiletry disaster.

Eventually the two of us are up, have made a hash of dressing ourselves in our yukatas, have struggled with the leather slippers, and have finally made our way, bleary-eyed, to the breakfast room, where we're ushered to a private area and asked to sit in front of an army of small plates and bowls.

The Nishiki street market.
The Nishiki street market. 

We stare at each other over the brightly coloured array, confused.

This, as tradition dictates, is not romantic. Here's what's romantic: beaches are romantic. Long lie-ins to the sound of crashing waves are romantic. Sultry evenings with sand between your toes are romantic. Here in Kyoto, meanwhile, we're up at the crack of dawn, it's hammering down with rain outside, and we're expected to eat fermented soybean paste for breakfast.

And yet this is strangely romantic. It's an experience shared. It's luxury on a different level. We're staying at Kyonoyado Kagihei, a ryokan, or traditional boutique hotel, in the centre of Kyoto.

Tranquil beauty: The Kinkakuji Garden.
Tranquil beauty: The Kinkakuji Garden. 

This is the splash-out section of our holiday, a trip that will be spent predominantly in budget hostels and a shoebox-sized Air BnB apartment. In Kyoto, however, we're going all out.

The ryokan doesn't look much from the street, just a normal house on a quiet lane behind the Nishiki-koji food market. We walk through a small garden before entering reception and being met by an immaculately kimonoed woman who brings tea and asks politely about our holiday plans.

"Well, I think we'll do some shopping," I venture.

She bows her head slightly. "Oh, shopping dozo!" ("Dozo" being the Japanese catch-all phrase for "you're welcome", or "please".)

"And then probably sightseeing as well," I add.

Our host smiles. "Sightseeing dozo!"

It's a bemusing and charming welcome to a bemusing and charming little place, a traditional house of six or seven rooms, each decked out in Japanese finery, a slice of local culture that could never be matched by a big hotel, and could never be repeated on a romantic island.

Our room is a model of spartan restraint, a tatami-matted space with a few mattresses and a low table at which to sit and drink tea. There's a television, but that's only useful for laughing at bizarre Japanese game shows. There's an en suite, which is useful for both ablutions and playing tricks on your girlfriend.

But back to breakfast, which we're enjoying after our first night of surprisingly comfortable floor sleeping. The Whac-A-Mole array of coloured bowls in front of us hides a culinary journey of epic proportions, from soybean paste to gently boiled tofu to grilled salmon and miso soup.

Afterwards, we toy briefly with the idea of shedding our yukatas and getting ready to face the world for a day of shopping and sightseeing in Japan's cultural capital, before making the considered decision to just go back to bed. After all, there's plenty of culture right here.

The ryokan even has, we're told, a traditional onsen, a bathing area separated for each gender where we can later go to soak and wash and ease the day's cares away. And I'll do that this afternoon, finding myself in a hot bath with a naked male stranger.

Romance doesn't usually come with a naked male stranger. But there he is.

The writer travelled at his expense.

What has been your most romantic or least romantic experience? Leave a comment below.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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