Yoshida-Sanso is Kyoto's best ryokan for a reason

Arrival at Yoshida-Sanso sets the scene. A twist of straw over the entrance wards off evil, and beneath it stands owner Kyoko Nakamura in a kimono, obi embroidered with plum blossoms, hair immaculately arranged. At her elbow, one step back, is her daughter Tomoko, with the tranquil beauty of a princess from an old tale.

You exchange your shoes at the stone steps for slippers, and step into a simple incense-scented hallway where a bamboo screen is hung with poetry plaques, and the windows with blinds made from reed. Old parquet floor wobbles underfoot as you're led into a parlour for tea and toffee-like sweets, presented with calligraphy handwritten by Nakamura herself. The few lines are from Japan's oldest surviving poetry collection, penned in the year, 759.

Tomoko will translate. She spent five years in New York, speaks excellent English and anticipates cross-cultural confusion. Yet she embodies Kyoto grace, and the rituals of the ryokan are ingrained. They have to be. This isn't any ryokan, it's one of the best-known in Japan.

Yoshida-Sanso was built in 1932 for Higashi Fushimi, Emperor Akihito's uncle, when he was studying at Kyoto University. The 16-petalled imperial chrysanthemum motif on roof tiles and sliding-door handles is a reminder of the connection. So too is the East-West architecture fashionable among progressive members of the imperial family at the time. You'll see art deco touches such as the lamps and stained-glass windows in the hall and upstairs guestrooms, as well as chandeliers and some Western furnishings.

The house has the quality you'd expect of an imperial residence. It's built of the best hinoki cedar notched together without nails, and has copper roofs and an entrance gateway built by a 1930s master carpenter who worked on the restoration of Kyoto temples. It became a ryokan in 1948 and has been in the same family since. Tomoko, with a profound sense of continuity and duty, is poised to take over from her mother as mistress of the house. 

There are only four rooms at Yoshida-Sanso. Three are in the main building, and corner room Fuku has the best hill views, though Kotobuki is lovely in spring because it looks out to the garden's cherry trees. If your budget stretches, then the detached Hanare cottage is magnificent. The new addition is built of still-fragrant cedar wood in the traditional sukiya-zukuri architecture of teahouses.

All four rooms are minimalist, with tatami mats, low wooden table and traditional tokonoma alcove for a flower arrangement and calligraphy scroll. Staff roll out futons and bedding on the floor while you dine. Don't expect the frills and flounces of Western-style luxury hotels. Ryokans are almost austere. They aren't about thread counts and brand-name toiletries and minibars, but an appreciation of culture, ritual and tradition. Hone your wabi-sabi, or appreciation of the simple.

'We'd like Yoshida-Sanso to be a place for all those in pursuit of beauty to gather and feel at peace," says Tomoko.

Dinner is in the elaborate kaiseki style you expect from upmarket ryokans. The menu is written in Nakamura's elegant calligraphy and delicately explained by Tomoko without ever making you feel you're an ignorant foreigner. You start with salmon sushi and shrimp and baby abalone, and move on to a sashimi course of tuna, mackerel and red snapper. Successive dishes are designed to showcase various cooking techniques, textures and seasonal flavours, and are artfully presented on custom-made ceramic dishes. You might have grilled fish with Japanese ginger and carrot leaves, followed by wild boar hotpot with mushrooms and mustardy mizuna leaves.

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The languid, multi-course kaiseki meal developed from Kyoto's imperial cuisine has been influenced by tea ceremonies and Zen philosophy, and has a meditative quality. Tomoko slides the dining room doors back and forth, floats across the tatami mats, rustles in her kimono. Sake gurgles into dainty cups with the sound of rain in dragon-shaped temple gutters. Take time to ponder the budding twigs so carefully arranged in the dining room alcove, and the beauty of the misshapen bowl in which your rice is served, and the gentle view of the gardens beyond the window.

The gardens, like the house, have a deceiving simplicity and there are visual delights at every turn. A stone purification basin fed by dripping water from a bamboo pipe. A fat ceramic frog. Stone lanterns covered in moss. A Shinto altar on which a staff member might leave a mug of coffee or other offering in the morning.

Sometimes recitals of the koto, a traditional stringed instrument, are held on the lawn, zigzagged with stepping stones. Cherry trees blossom in springtime, then azaleas in May and June. Maple trees erupt in orange during autumn. But Tomoko prefers the maples' subtler pleasures. "I love it after the cherry season, because all the maple leaves are showing fresh green leaves - it's a beautiful moment."

Your breakfast may be served in another room, more European in style. The antique table is graced with a vase of twigs studded with red berries. You can see over the garden and the district's grey roof tiles, like scales on a dragon's back, to the sun rising above the Eastern Hills. You're not far from the start of the Philosopher's Path. Yoshida-Sanso sits in a lovely corner of Kyoto, surrounded by Buddhist temples, the tombs of two emperors and Yoshida-jinja, a large Shinto shrine founded in 859.

The staff will be lined up when you depart the ryokan. Kyoko Nakamura's back is ramrod straight until she bows farewell. Her daughter Tomoko shimmers in a kimono of fawn silk enlivened with an obi of gold thread and embroidered purple flowers. She favours subtle, darker colours in her kimonos. She's a subtle, smiling woman – and sometimes you can't help but think a little sad, the mistress of a tradition that's a world away from her youthful years in New York. But she's a graceful host, and warm, and proud of her ryokan, too. It's about preserving Kyoto culture and providing guests with a pause button in the fabric of their busy, bustling lives just to drink tea, and listen to the patter of rain on windowpanes, and feel like time has stilled for a while.

You might want to give Tomoko a hug as you depart, but don't. Just bow politely back, and wave, and be thankful for the privilege that has allowed you to share her rather special family home.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/japan

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FLY

Japan Airlines flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Osaka, an hour by train from Kyoto. See jal.com

STAY

Ryokan Yoshida-Sanso is Kyoto's top ryokan, with three tatami rooms in the main house and a magnificent garden annexe. Rooms from $447, including breakfast and kaiseki dinner. Non-residents can book lunch or dinner, or visit the cafe. See yoshida-sanso.com

RAIL

A Japan Rail Pass makes getting around easy. Rail Europe offers passes from $390 an adult. See greattrainjourneys.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Japan Airlines, Rail Europe and Kyoto City Tourism Association.

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