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Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto, with much of its old cultural identity intact, abounds with high-end ryokan. Western influences have introduced more up-to-the-moment conveniences. When booking one, the first question will likely be: Hiiragiya or Tawaraya? They are Kyoto’s two most popular. It’s a topic as divisive as Yankees or Mets, or Harvard or Yale. Yet it turns out that there isn’t much difference between the two inns, right down to their locations across the street from each other in the middle of the city.
Dating to 1818, the sixth-generation Hiiragiya (rooms from $340; Nakahaku-san-cho, Fuyacho Anekoji-Agaru, Nakagyo-ku; hiiragiya.co.jp), run by Akemi Nishimura, has 28 rooms. Twenty-one of them are in the historic main building and showcase the architecture of the Edo to Showa periods, with polished dark wood beams and reed ceilings; the seven beige rooms in the new wing feel sleeker, if a little less atmospheric. There are varying design elements throughout: Bathrooms might have lacquer, marble, or tile; some folding screens feature gold leaf, while others have ink drawings on paper. Hiiragiya has welcomed celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor, and Nobel Prize–winning author Yasunari Kawabata. (His favorite room, No. 14, is the largest.)
Tawaraya (rooms from $400; 278 Fuya-cho, Nakagyo-ku; kyoto-club.com), founded in the early 18th century, is technically older, though “old” is relative, since both properties have been periodically rebuilt. The 18 rooms and suites all look out over the property’s mossy rock garden. Eleventh-generation owner Toshi Okazaki Satow’s design sense is apparent in everything, from the whimsical pattern of the yukata robes each guest is encouraged to wear, to the Danish modern furniture she selected for the study and library (which contains Japanese and English books). Tawaraya boasts its own list of notable visitors: Steve Jobs, Alfred Hitchcock, and Simone de Beauvoir. Marlon Brando once stayed for a month, which we wouldn’t recommend: When it comes to ryokan, less is almost always more.
Both establishments are very traditional ryokan. Both offer excellent kaiseki cuisine. And both, from the comfort of their private, in-room cypress wood baths, feel equally removed from city life. So Hiiragiya or Tawaraya? We say sushi, you say sashimi.
There are two good options that are more off the beaten path. They are in Arashiyama, a district in west Kyoto named for the mountains across the Hozu River, which snakes through the area. A 30-minute taxi or train ride from downtown, it evokes the city before the 1980s buildup.
On the former grounds of an imperial villa dating back to 794 now sits Suiran (rooms from $475; 12 Susukinobaba-cho, Saga-Tenryuji, Ukyo-ku; suirankyoto.com), opened in 2015. Set on the banks of the river, backing into Kameyama-koen park and abutting the Tenryuji temple (one of Arashiyama’s draws), the 39-room hotel—the Luxury Collection’s first in Japan—is among the city’s newest (very) Western-friendly ryokan. The secluded location makes it a respite from the packs of travelers along Arashiyama’s main drag.
Suiran describes its design as contemporary Japanese. And its color palette is bright: The rich violets, metallic golds, and jade greens overpower the white linens and beige-colored walls. But care was taken with traditional accents—lacquered boxes, Shigaraki pottery—in the nine types of rooms found across two three-story buildings that look almost like dormitories. Seventeen rooms have open-air baths with water from Arashiyama’s hot spring.
We liked the Gyokuto Terrace Suite for its 1,000-square-foot Japanese-style garden—even if there were no chairs on the outdoor terrace. And for the sliding door painted by young Japanese artist Ryo Shinagawa that separates the bedroom (two double platform beds) from the living room, where four purple chairs sit around a ceremonial tea table. Two historic buildings, each more than 100 years old, house the restaurants. The formal spot, Kyo Suiran, prepares kaiseki and teppanyaki, and is in a preserved private residence with exposed beams made from whole trees from the Meiji era. Possibly the hotel’s greatest asset is its location, perfectly situated to see the area’s main attraction: the Bamboo Forest. It’s a walk of less than ten minutes; go before 9 A.M. But bear in mind that for nightlife, it’s better to stay downtown. Arashiyama has little of it to offer, and Suiran doesn’t have a bar.
Farther north on the river’s opposite side is Hoshinoya Kyoto (rooms from $840; 11-2 Arashiyama Genrokuzan-cho, Nishikyo-ku; hoshinoresorts.com), a resort-like ryokan accessed by a ten-minute boat ride from Kyoto’s Togetsukyo bridge. It opened in 2009 and underwent a renovation unveiled in March. From the boat dock, guests walk up a stone path to the property, which sits on a steep rocky ledge overlooking the water. The area is enveloped in trees, so you feel totally in nature—and not as if bustling Kyoto is just downstream. It’s not ideal if you want to come and go while sightseeing; the idea is to stay on-site and unplug.
There are 25 rooms. We like No. 101; it’s more of a private villa. With so many sliding doors, it’s actually easy to get lost in the mazelike space. The bedroom has two futons on platforms and a window nook accessorized with pillows and a throw. You can hear birds chirping and the river rushing from the large living area with a floor-level sofa. The black bathroom has a cedar bathtub and closet with a selection of traditional Japanese garb to wear (though few people sport the items around the property).
Dinner is served in the dining room. The prime seat is at the sushi counter, where up to 12 guests can watch the chefs turn out artistic cuisine. The dining staff is great: They don’t hover, and they don’t make you feel bad if you can’t stomach eating something too foreign, like a fish head.
Hoshinoya also has programming such as an incense-burning class, a morning stretch in the Zen-like Hidden Garden, and whisky tastings at the bar, which is nice for those who get antsy just sitting around a ryokan. It has a spa; it doesn’t have an onsen.
Compared with Hiiragiya or Tawaraya, Hoshinoya and Suiran are less conventional. But all four share one striking similarity: the exceptional nature of the staff. Everyone is eager to make guests feel at home.