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The Royal Treatment at Yoshida Sanso

by Elyse Glickman

May 20, 2018

Photo: Elyse Glickman

Adult Children

Some Japanese historians trace ryokans back to Buddhist free rest houses that proliferated during the Nara era, about 1,300 years ago. Others link them to roadside inns that were rest stops for merchants and growers traveling to central markets in major cities. During the Edo era (1603–1868), ryokans were a lodging of choice for samurai, government officials, royalty and upper-class travelers.


Photo: Elyse Glickman


After World War II, a model for luxury ryokans started taking shape, using the Edo-period model. Upscale hotel group Hoshino operates a handful of 5-star Hoshinoya Resorts in Tokyo, Kyoto and other major cities that include traditional Japanese pajamas (yukata) to wear on premise, exquisite multicourse (kaiseki) meals and a variety of decidedly calming, low-tech activities such as morning stretching, breathing exercises, tea drinking ceremonies, incense burning ceremonies favored by the samurai and Japanese whisky tastings.


While these posh lodgings are absolutely splurge-worthy for special occasions like landmark anniversaries and birthdays, those interested in history and authenticity will want to seek out an independently owned ryokan in Japan. For the perfect amalgam of luxury and tradition, Kyoto’s Yoshida Sanso is a true gem. The 1930s-era compound sits on a hill in a residential neighborhood 15 minutes on foot from the landmark Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) Temple and steps from smaller temples used by neighborhood residents.



© Elyse Glickman

Kyoko and Tomoko Nakamura are its second- and third-generation proprietors, respectively, and put their heart and soul into what the guests will experience. The former home retains its original Art Deco-inspired character, and includes elegant yet homespun kaiseki dinners and breakfasts with dishes crafted from generations-old family recipes and seasonal produce.


The inn’s backstory is also a feast for the senses in its own right. In 1938, the structure served as the home of an uncle of Emperor Akihito (retiring in April 2019), who became a monk after World War II and left behind his former lifestyle as a crown prince and lived to the age of 103.


“This home became a ryokan in 1948 when its owner, the uncle of Emperor Akihito, became a monk after World War II,” said Tomoko. “Although my father’s grand uncle, a successful Tokyo women’s magazine publisher, purchased the house as a sort of dormitory for his traveling colleagues. He wanted a home-like setting for his colleagues doing business in Kyoto and Osako. He insisted it have the comforts of their own homes, and then some. They did everything from provide home cooked but elegant meals, to drawing the baths — replicating a home stay. However, it was my grand aunt that ran the daily operations, and it was unusual for a woman to have this career back then.”



© Elyse Glickman

“(Our aunt) did everything from provide guests elegant home cooked meals, to drawing the baths and creating beautiful spaces for them to relax,” added Kyoko. “As Kyoto was Japan’s original capital, (my goal as an innkeeper) is to try to show how you can appreciate your stay by learning a little about the history of Kyoto, and getting in touch with nature.”


Past guests from the worlds of politics, religion and business have come to Yoshido Sanso through the years to unplug from their full schedules and take advantage of the serene, semi-rural setting of the neighborhood and the home’s gardens. Kyoko spoke of a visit by a prominent Indian monk who stayed at the property for nine days (the average stay is two nights), and loved that it was walking distance to a number of shrines, including Yoshida Temple and the Silver Pavilion.


That said, Tomoko and Kyoko offer advice to guests for the most advantageous way to appreciate the inn, neighborhood and a Japan of times past.



© Elyse Glickman

“Don’t just appreciate the setting with your eyes,” says Kyoko. “Use all your senses to get a fully rounded perception of Japanese culture. Tea ceremonies, calligraphy, flower arrangements, kimonos and so on, food, gardens, architectural details — these are things a Western-style hotel cannot give you. We’re about pulling the guest into our world and great care to craft the entire experience by hand, so don’t just regard the house as a place to spend the night.”


Kyoko also sends guests away with a perfect memento — a custom piece of calligraphy tied in with the season and other circumstances surrounding the visit.


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