Kyoto is a wonderful location to experience a stay at a traditional ryokan inn. You can find ryokan all across the city, from the central to the more rural. These ryokan are overseen by remarkably knowledgeable staff, headed up traditional young managers known as waka okami.
Meeting a Waka Okami: Masayo Ono
Masayo Ono is the waka okami at Watazen Ryokan, a very centrally located ryokan with nearly 190 years of history attending to guests, Kyoto style.
Masayo was born and raised in Kyoto, and even attended university here, at Ritsumeikan University. As a working adult, she decided to move outside of Kyoto, and began working at a large company with locations across the country. Her choice, a large bank, placed her nearby in Osaka. After working for a while, having children, and experiencing life as a homemaker, Masayo eventually chose to return to her family’s ryokan.
By her own admission, Masayo isn’t the type to do things halfway, and she decided to take on her role at Watazen full time, dedicating herself to making the atmosphere cheery for visiting guests.
Masayo is indeed far from a somber presence at the ryokan, going out of her way to put up a goofy photo of herself on the staff page of the ryokan website. “I want to do things that other ryokan aren’t doing,” she says.
Part of those plans involve the future. Masayo wants to welcome young people into the ryokan not only as full-time workers, but as interns, explaining, “I want them to experience the joy of making other people happy.”
She also dreams of setting up a daycare in the future to help support working mothers, and even of teaching small children about “how enjoyable it is to offer hospitality to others.”
Recommendations from the Waka Okami
With all of her years in Kyoto, Masayo is brimming with suggestions for hidden locations, many of which are only really known to locals:
Sagi-no-Mori-jinja Shrine, to Kyoto’s northeast, can be reached on the Eizan Electric Railway. Sagi-no-Mori-jinja Shrine is a location that Masayo says feels incredibly spiritual, with a beautiful path that leads visitors through the forest. “I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was told about it,” she said, “but then I visited, and I knew. The air is different up there!”
Enko-ji Temple is not far from Sagi-no-Mori-jinja Shrine, and is one of Masayo’s favorite places in Kyoto. It’s a beautiful hidden spot for viewing cherry blossoms!
Kurama-dera Temple is a beautiful location surrounded by nature. Masayo says that she loves riding the Eizan train line up to Kurama to see the statue of a tengu, a kind of fearsome-looking mountain deity that frightens her daughter.
Ichijo-ji is an area that’s a particular favorite of Masayo’s. She especially recommends Keibunsha, a “weird bookstore;” and the historical spots around the area, like those where samurai once fought in days past.
For food, Masayo admits a soft spot for Ichijo-ji Nakatani, a producer of exquisite traditional sweets. The matcha tiramisu is a must-try.
If you’re looking for more of a meal, Masayo suggests Giomon, a shop for soba noodles. “The Kyoto menu isn’t too expensive,” she says, but, “I personally love the dashi-maki” (a kind of rolled scrambled egg made with soup stock).
Watazen Ryokan is located near Kawaramachi, in central Kyoto (Nishiki Market is not far away). Though the ryokan’s history is long enough that it has relationships with neighboring businesses that go back one hundred years, its facilities were freshly renovated in 2015. The public bath is a traditional feature of a ryokan, but Masayo made sure that showers were added to many of the rooms in Watazen for guests who may not feel comfortable with this particular Japanese tradition.
Guests can make use of rental bicycles available directly from the property, too, which is also within walking distance of many restaurants and shopping locations.
The decadent kaiseki meals here are a feast for the eyes as well as the palate, and Watazen also offers options to accommodate its guests, like a vegetarian kaiseki course.