The Best Ryokan in Kyoto

While staying in Kyoto, I wanted to find a traditional Japanese Ryokan where we could relax and unwind after a busy week in Tokyo. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that originated from the Edo period when inns were a home for weary travellers. Ryokans were once a fairly inexpensive option, but in recent years some Ryokans have become quite the luxury. So finding one with charm at an affordable price, that was also still available, was somewhat of a challenge. But then I came across Ryokan Shimizu.

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Although this Ryokan doesn't serve the fancy, traditional dinners to your room that others feature, Shimizu offers up every other aspect of a traditional Ryokan with the best service and hospitality I've received anywhere in the world. Ryokan Shimizu was located about a 15-minute walk from the train station, which would have been a lovely little walk but unfortunately, when we arrived it was pouring rain, so we spent most of the journey running for shelter.

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When we finally arrived, we were greeted by the friendliest Japanese owners who welcomed us into their establishment. They gave us two glasses of cold, Genmaicha tea in a ceramic glass to welcome us in. Already we felt right at home.

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On the wall, as you entered, there was a mural of cards, letters and photos from fellow travellers expressing their gratitude and love of their stay.

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The entrance to the Ryokan was complete with small cubby holes for your outdoor shoes and a fresh pair of slippers to put on once entering the house. We immiedately threw our wet shoes into the cubby and slipped into the comfy slippers.

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The lobby of the Ryokan was complete with a small sofa where you could admire the Zen garden just outside the window. There was also a large area for pouring water and tea should you need a refreshment while sitting downstairs and reading any of their large selection of books on Kyoto. Once settled, a kind gentleman took our bags and we headed upstairs to our room.

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All the rooms in the ryokan were built with tatami flooring and sliding doors, traditional in all classic Japanese houses. Tatami mats are made using rice straws and covered with woven, soft rush. They are tough to clean but are gentle yet firm to stand or lie on. When you open the door, you immediately can smell their soft, earthy scent. Like bamboo and sandalwood permeating the air.

Ryokan Shimizu

Japanese style futons are synonymous with Ryokans and might seem strange to Westerners. Theses are light, quilted mattresses laid out on the floor. Usually, there is one per person, slightly larger than a single bed would be. The mattresses are thin enough to allow them to be moveable so they can be put away during the day to allow for more room in the home. For many westerners, these might be very hard to get used to but compared to the hard style of Japanese beds we experience in Tokyo, these were actually much nicer to sleep on and roomier too!

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In addition to the large living/bedroom room, there was a private bathroom (complete with private bathtub), a large closet for our luggage and extra bedding, a fridge, tiny TV (local Japanese stations only) and a beautiful wooden table with floral mats to sit on. A small tea set was provided along with supplies for making tea right in the comfort of our room. We were wet and cold from the rain and made a pot of hot tea immediately. After so many busy days in Tokyo, we were dying for a break. We made the tea, went out to a local convenience store for some snacks and spent the rest of the day inside. I had a big nap, read my book and studying the binder left for us by the Ryokan. Inside were laminated pages of maps to the big attractions right from the hotel, the best places to eat and drink, places to do laundry and more. It was like having a local tour guide right there to give you all the advice you'd ever need. It was so lovingly created and made a difference in our experience of Kyoto.

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The Ryokan also provided us with yukatas to wear while we were at home. A yukata is a light, cotton kimono, generally made for everyday use. They were very comfortable and nice to relax in a while lying in bed. Made the whole experience feel very authentic.

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One of the best parts of this Ryokan was their private, on-site, onsen. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring and bathing facility. Since Japan sits on top of volcanically active grounds, the water underneath the earth is almost always hot, providing a natural spring. Many large, public onsens are found all over Japan, but for anyone who is new to experiencing an onsen, a private one is much simpler and less awkward. Onsen water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content. To use an onsen, both in public and private, requires you to follow several etiquette rules. These were expertly explained to us by our lovely hosts as well as detailed on a laminated sheet of paper inside the private onsen. The first step is to make sure you wash your body before entering the water. Bathing stations are located right beside the onsen, you sit on stools and turn on the faucets and use their plastic or wooden buckets to clean your body. Swimsuits are not allowed, this may be particularily awkward in public for some and requires a bit of courage. There are small towels to place over your private parts for modesty, but they are pretty small. Hence why a private onsen might be a little more comfortable to use. Once clean you can step into the bath. Each day, our Ryokan added different types of aromatic baths scents, seasonal fruits, flowers or hot spring minerals. It was immensely relaxing. We had the entire place to ourselves for an entire two hours. The perfect way to unwind after a long day.

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Every morning we would wake up from a cosy slumber. Adjusting to the futons took about a day, but there was certainly lots of room to stretch out.

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Our room had a view down to the garden and front yard patio. There were several tables and chairs set up so you could enjoy a cup of coffee, a bit of lunch or even just sit and read in the shade of the beautiful garden.

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Despite it being the middle of October there were flowers out all over the garden. Yellow, pink and red flowers dotted the bright green grass, and large leafed plants peaked out from along the walls. Hidden in the backyard were different ceramic sculptures of the racoon dog, "Tanuki ". He is a full-bellied Japanese prankster god based off a wild canine native to Japan. After a famous ceramic maker had given several sculptures of the Tanuki to the emperor, who displayed them all over his castle, these figures become popular with the public and having one in your garden likened you to the Emperor himself.

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In the front of our Ryokan is purification fountain complete with flowers and ladles to cleanse your hands before coming into the Ryokan. Although doing this isn't necessary, it's a sign of respect for the household if you do so. Plus, it always smelled fantastic.

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Our favourite thing to do was visit the local bakery in the morning, find a coffee shop and bring our goodies back to the Ryokan to enjoy outside, the sun beating down on our face, watching locals pass by on their bikes on their way to work.

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We were heartbroken when it was time to say goodbye to this place. It was BY FAR the best place we stayed while in Japan. In addition to feeling like we experienced a piece of Japan's history while staying here, it was also the most comfortable place we stayed with the sweetest hosts. They had taken our picture before we left and we put it up on the wall with the other smiling faces, a small memento for them to remember us by. I really hope we return. I can't wait to see them again.

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Ryokan Shimizu 
644 Kagiya-cho,
Shichijo dori Wakamiya agaru,
Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8317, Japan

Tel: +81-75-371-5538

Tokyo to Kyoto via Shinkansen

It seemed as soon as we arrived in Tokyo, it was time to leave and continue on our journey through Japan. We were incredibly sad to leave, there were so many things we had yet to do and see but it was time, and we knew we would come back one day. So with luggage in tow, we headed off to the last of our Tokyo destinations; Tokyo Station. Tokyo Station, located beside the Imperial Palace, is where you'll get on the high-speed Shinkansen trains but the busy station also sees well over 3,000 inner city trains every day. Despite this overwhelming number, it is only the fifth-busiest station in Eastern Japan.

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Tokyo Station was opened in 1914 as a means to connect Tokyo to the Tōkaidō Main Line and to the Nippon Railway. Back in 1914, only four platforms were serving two electric trains and two non-electric. The current design of the building reminds people a lot of the train station in Amsterdam. But the original design did draw this same comparison. Originally, the roof tops were domed with intricate designs on the interior. After the war had destroyed much of Tokyo, as well as the station, the roofs had to be rebuilt and were designed with a slanted style you now see today, which is what draws the reference to Amsterdam.

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In addition to being a railway station, Tokyo Station is also an excellent place to shop, explore and dine any time of the day. "Kitchen Street" is a maze of restaurants serving up Japanese style meals and some of the best ramen in town. The lines here for the most famous ramen shops can stretch around the station so be prepared to wait or come at off hours. For shopping, you have to check out "Characters Street". This long passageway is filled with shops selling toys based off famous Japanese characters like Hello Kitty, One Piece, Domo-kun or Pokemon.

Tokyo Character Street

But we didn't have much time to shop or eat; we had a train to catch. But the one thing we had to do before we left - we had to find ourselves something to eat on the train. Luckily for us, pre-packaged train meals is what Japan is KNOWN for! These are called Ekibens. "Ekiben" are a bento box, sold on trains and in train stations throughout Japan. Eating one of these ekibens is a necessary part of your Japanese travel experience. Each one is wrapped in intricately designed paper and shiny cellophane. The different colours and designs each vying for your attention, calling out to be bought.

Bento boxes for sale, Tokyo Station

"Ekibenya Matsuri" is the most popular shop in the station here you'll find over 170 different varieties of ekibens. Years and years ago, train stations all over the various regions in Japan, had their regional specialities, showcasing local produce, that was only available in that location. It meant that even if you didn't have time to try all the local foods while visiting, you could always try them out them on the way home with these portable dinners. One of the most engaging bentos sold here is the "train bento" which is in the shape of Japanese train. They are enjoyed by children and adults alike and contains all the same great foods as are options in any other bento. It's not just a "kids meal" of chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes. Oh no, children here eat just what the adults eat - no complaints here. Another one of their highlighted dishes is the "Beef Tsukudani" which is beef cooked in sweetened soy sauce and served on a bed of rice. Everything is cooked fresh so you won't find any day old meals here.

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Tokyo Bento is another trendy place to buy your bento box and ultimately where I bought my bento from. I take these things so seriously, and poor Dan had to walk all over the station with me as I looked for the supreme bento. I settled on Tokyo Bento since their meals looked to be the most traditional and definitely the most attractive. I didn't know much about it when I bought it but what I do know now makes me happy that it was the one I chose.

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Tokyo Bento serves boxes of food made by gourmet restaurants from all over Tokyo. For only 1,650 yen ($16) you can get a gourmet meal on the go. Inside this one little box is a sampler-like platter of signature dishes from Tokyo's best chefs.

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In addition to bento shops, there are also plenty of convenience stores, cafeteria style quick service shops and fancy desserts stands where you can buy a sweet treat enjoy after your lunch.

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The one dessert I was sure to pick up when leaving the station was a box of Tokyo Bananas. Inside the beautifully designed box were 12 individually wrapped sponge cakes filled with banana cream. Perfect for sharing with family and friends when I got home. Tokyo Banana is one of the most popular souvenirs sold here and first went on sale in 1991. There are various flavours; Maple Banana, Banana Shake, Caramel, Banana Pudding and Tree Chocolate Banana but I stuck with the original. I also bought a box of Ginza Strawberry, cakes shaped like strawberries similar to the bananas, but wasn't a good and the original.

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We stood on the platform for a few minutes before our train arrived. People from all over seemed to be queuing up to get onto the trains. Old friends met up for a vacation, families set goodbye as their loved ones were headed home, and tourists like us were ready to set out for new adventures.

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Shinkansen Trains are the most popular way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, and on to Osaka from there. The trip lasts about 2.5 hours and costs about 13,500 yen depending on where you sit and if you get a reservation in advance (there is a slight charge for this, but it's small and very much recommended).

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These trains run at speeds of up to 320 km/h and arrive/depart precisely on time, every hour of every day. No mucking about, this is train travel at its finest. The cars are very comfortable, even in the economy class. After arriving at the station and getting ready to depart for the next destination, employees comes and change the direction of the seats, so they are always facing forward. A service, someone like me who gets sick easily when travelling backwards, really appreciates.

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With our reserved tickets in hand, we made our way to the numbered seats where we were situated. We quickly put our bags away and get comfortable. Unlike many other train cars, the seats are incredibly roomy. They are usually in rows of 3x2 but the "green cars" (basically the business class) all come 2x2 and provide slightly wider and cosy seats. But we thought the economy was splendid, and we wouldn't need any more space than we had. We had been worried about our luggage fitting in the overhead area, but they fit fine, and if our luggage had been any bigger, we could have easily set it in front of our feet with ample room to sit down. All in all, this was the best train car I'd ever had the pleasure of travelling and we hadn't even left the station.

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Throughout the journey, the announcements for the upcoming station were made in both English, Korean and Japanese so it was easy to know when to get off. The train cars were generally fairly quiet and surprisingly smooth for how fast we were travelling. Watching the urban sprawl of Tokyo disappear and transform into countryside vistas was an enthralling thing to watch unfolding out my window.

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After we go on our way, it was time to dig into my bento box. Unwrapping the bright vermillion box was like opening up a colourful jewellery box. Inside were neatly organised sections dedicated to each separate piece of cuisine. There was Uokyu’s Salmon Kasuzuke (pickled fish in sake lees), Tsukiji Sushi Tama Aoki’s special omelette, and Nihonbashi Daimasu’s braised vegetables. It was accompanied with a few pieces of pickled ginger and some other unidentified substances, all of which tasted amazing. The Japanese eat with their eyes first and never was this more clear than when eating a Tokyo Bento. I also grabbed an onigiri and some other Japanse drinks and snacks to enjoy throughout the rest of the journey.

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All shinkansen are equipped with multiple toilets. The train toilets I'm used to are pretty basic and sometimes pretty gross. But these - of course - are spacious, clean and very modern. Older trains might still have Japanese style toilets, but the Shinkansen has western style toilets with a large sink and mirror located outside. The toilets have all the same bells and whistles as they do in the rest of Japan and it's almost too comfortable....

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After a few hours, we pulled into Kyoto Station at the exact time, almost to the second, as listed on our ticket. There isn't much time to exit the train once arriving at your station, we had read this before, and we were ready at the door with our luggage to exit as soon as the train pulled into the platform. During our journey, the rain had crept up on Kyoto's skies, and once we exited the station, it was coming down hard. Although we could have taken a taxi (and we should have), it seemed so expensive for how close we felt we were to our hotel. So we set out, umbrellas in hand, to face the rain and race off down the old streets of Kyoto.

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We hardly had time to take in the sights as we stumbled along the rain-soaked cobblestone streets. The glowing light of our Ryokan (a Japanese Inn) in the distance was a welcome site to our soaking wet clothes. I have another blog all about our wonderful experience at the Ryokan so for more information of a traditional Japanse Ryokan - check it out!

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After settling in and having a nap, we had to head back out for dinner. Feeling a little overwhelmed in this new city, we decided on eating at "Coco Curry House" (a chain we'd eaten at before in Tokyo). The map in hand, we headed back out on the rainy street of Kyoto.

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There is nothing better for a cold, rainy day that a warm bowl of Coco Curry. Japanese curry is a thing onto itself. It's not like Thai, Indian or English curry; it's something totally unique. At Coco Curry House you can completely customise your meal. Choose your curry base flavour, meat, veggies, toppings and the level of spiciness. Every dish is unique and customised to you. I ordered mine with pork curry served on rice, with a chicken cutlet, mushrooms, cheese and garlic bits. Pretty spicy as I needed the heat to help warm me up from the inside out. Served on the side were these crunchy, sour pickles which helped cut the creamy and heavy nature of the curry, so you didn't feel as full afterwards. After finishing off our curries, we headed back out into the night. Kyoto already felt like a different city despite only really being able to explore in the dark, cold rain. It was quiet. It felt aged. And more than anything, it already felt more laid back. We seemed to be the only ones rushing.

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We went in search of a sweet treat and some Asahi Super Dry (both with and without alcohol) to enjoy in the comfort of our cosy hotel room. It was the ideal way to end a lovely relaxing day. Head on our pillows, I couldn't wait to get to sleep and start our exploration of Kyoto.

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