One of the highlights of our trip was staying in a Ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn – for one of our 3 nights in Kyoto.
The Kikokuso Ryokan has been owned by the Yoshitomi family since the 19th Century, and they have been running it as a traditional inn for three generations. The family were immediately welcoming and from the off we felt like real house guests, rather than customers, as we were brought inside and served brown rice tea.
The daughter/mother of the family (patiently, and with much bowing and smiling on both sides) explained to us some of the traditional customs involved in staying in a Ryokan, such as replacing outdoor shoes with a series of slippers/sandals, and the ritual of bathing. This was brilliant. Having been experiencing the acute absence of my usual bubble bath for the last 6 weeks it was incredibly soothing to slip into the deep, deep, ever so hot pit of the Ryokkan stone bath – even though it did remind us of an oversized rock pool.
We were staying in a large tatami room (a Japanese style room with minimal furniture and mats on the floor) split by a sliding door. After changing into our Yucata (traditional robes) for dinner, we were served an immense 15 course traditional Kaiseiki meal. Slightly nervous about this (Nick especially, ha) we did pretty well in polishing off the lot (save one teeny sea snail… following the sea urchin incident I just couldn’t…) and washing the whole thing down with sake (sometimes literally, depending on the particular mouthful). The meal was not only astonishing in its scale (the courses just kept on coming) but also in the artistry of the service. Every single mouthful (and some courses were only that) were executed with such a high level of care and thought that it was almost a shame to eat anything. Not only that, but the ceramic plates and dishes the food came in were all different shapes and colours – all in all a truly beautiful spread (we tried not to think about the amount of washing up created).
After dinner the mother and grandmother converted our dining room into a sleeping area, laying out futons on the floor that were really comfy, giving us a great night of sleeping and breaking up the onslaught of food as suddenly it was morning and… breakfast time!
This time we were served downstairs in a lovely small tatatmi room overlooking the inner garden and pond, complete with its own bridge and 30 year old resident carp. A great breakfast view. The breakfast was just as sumptuous as dinner the night before, albeit slightly more overwhelming given the time of day. Once my head got over the fact that it was still breakfast time, the clam miso soup was delicious. Similarly the boiled egg seasoned with soy sauce, the rice mixed with pickled radish, carrots and cabbage, and the sesame greens. Less so the fermented seaweed and tofu (blancmange) porridge – maybe later in the day for those dishes. We had really enjoyed the whole experience though, that was rounded off perfectly by the grandfather taking pity on us with our heavy bags and offering to drive us to the train station.
We spent the rest of the day looking round Nijo castle in Kyoto (the former residence of the Shogun) and seeing even more food in the amazing Nishiki market – brace yourselves for even more food pictures!