Staying in a ryokan in Japan is an experience not to be missed. Ryokans are traditional inns that for centuries allow the weary traveller like yourself to experience Japanese culture, cuisine and hospitality in all its traditional and modernist forms. Each ryokan is independently owned. The inn reflects the personal history and attention to detail reflecting the innkeepers sense of omotenashi (お持て成し), hospitality and whole-hearted entertainment of the guest.
Yoshikawa Inn is my favorite ryokan in Kyoto. Formerly the residence of a wealthy merchant, it is located a stones throw away from the Kamo River Walk and Nishiki Market. If you are going to Kyoto to experience the fall colors or the spring cherry blossom, this Inn is perfectly centrally located to the sights and other transportation options.
Hands down, the food is amazing and the rooms are spacious even by western standards. Each room has a private onsen, where a weary traveler can soak in a deep tub made from fragrant cypress trees. The eight rooms overlook a magical Japanese garden that serves as the centerpiece of the Inn living and dining spaces. I quickly forget that I am in the middle of bustling Kyoto!
When I enter the inn, I am stepping back in time. The innkeepers in traditional kimono’s keep me warm by seating me by the irori (居炉裏), the sunken hearth where a century-old kettle steams away. They serve my wife a cup of tea and sweets while they check us in and take up our luggage.
All you hear is the babbling water from the streams that feed the various ponds in the garden.
The Sukiya-style architecture is reflected in its operations refined, elegant and immensely welcoming. Even with a full house, it is near impossible to come across other guests. That is how deftly they coordinate the flow of movement in the Inn. You feel as if you are the only guest at the Inn.
The Inn is famous for their tempura and Kyoto style kaseki (懐石) meals. What ever fancy schmacy place you went to in London or NY just can’t compete. You won’t find an oblong thickly batter mystery piece of food typically found in Wisconsin or Scotland either. The chef at Yoshikawa Inn can do better and with panache. The fry is so perfect that you can tell the directionality of the chef’s toss based on the fine spires that emanate away from the tempura. Whaaa!?
You can tell the time the chefs devote to mise en place. Each piece of food is optimized so each piece can be finished in one to two bites. Each piece is sized such that it can be quickly dipped in batter and tossed into the fryer. The object of the game is to use the batter to steam the vegetable or protein inside. (This isn’t your grandma’s deep fried cheese curds!) The batter is so light that you can see clearly see what was fried. Tempura at Yoshikawa Inn is all about rich colors, whether it be eggplant, carrot or winters eel. As with all kaiseki meals, the menu reflects seasonality. The menu constantly changes. There is one dish they almost always have: tempura ochazuke. It is a dish made by pouring green tea over a bowl of cooked rice and tempura made from seasonal vegetables and fish. It is not to be missed because it reflects the style of the Inn, an elegant expression through sight, sound, taste and smell.
If you don’t get the chance to stay at the Inn, it is possible to experience the cuisine there for lunch or dinner. The Inn has a 10 seat tempura bar that can be booked in advanced. It is a sight to see the chef work. There is efficiency in motion as the chef transitions from frying to placing the tempura on your plate. Watch the chef’s hands. He is a magician delivering tempura crispy on the outside and joyously steamed and flavorful on the inside. Who needs sauce when the ingredients are so perfectly cooked?
The inn is located three blocks from the Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae station. If you are coming from the Shinkansen, you can hop on the Kyoto subway line directly from Kyoto Station or grab a cab.
Kent is a management consultant who has spent years traveling for work. His refuge is looking for the perfect meal so that he can reproduce it at home with his wife and friends.