Whether it's your first time here or your hundredth, you'll find that Kyoto is full of little-known locales. I'm an American expat living in Kyoto. Come explore the city with me!
By Abby Smith
Originally from California, I came to work in Japan in 2013. A lover of languages and shady spots along the Kamo Riverbank, I have been living in Kyoto since 2016. To this day, this thousand year-old city continues to surprise me--there's always something new to discover hiding in plain sight.
Have you ever stayed in one of Kyoto's traditional inns? The whole ryokan experience can be a little bit daunting if it’s your first time. The staff at centrally-located Motonago, however, are experienced with making first-timers feel at home.
When I arrive, I’m shown into the entryway, almost as though I’m visiting someone’s house. The scene I witness just as I exchange my shoes for slippers and step from the cool, dark stones of the entryway and up on to tatami, though, is decidedly less like visiting a friend: as I enter, a couple passes me as they head out for a morning walk. An attendant in a slate blue kimono shadows them, laying out shoes. As the guests leave, she steps outside with them and sees them off with a bow and a serene smile.
This is part of the experience when you stay at a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn.
Today, I’ve come to visit Motonago, a ryokan located centrally in Kyoto’s Gion area, in a building that dates to 1905. Luckily for the couple I passed on my way in, the neighborhood immediately around Motonago is quiet, but the spires of famous temples like Kodai-ji can be seen from the windows of some rooms, just minutes away, making this a perfect location to sneak out in the mornings to beat the crowds.
The whole ryokan experience can be a little bit daunting if it’s your first time. The Motonago staff are experienced with making first-timers feel at home, though.
A stay begins with a small tour of the facilities, to help you get your bearings on the location of the bathing area and restrooms—some of which are located outside of private rooms. Though the building looks fairly small from the outside, once I’ve entered, I’m following the soft shuffle of the attendant, or nakai-san’s slippers across the carpet as we wend our way through the passages that seem to twist around to secret rooms within.
Beyond a sliding door and a noren curtain brushed artfully out of the way lies the bath. For those unfamiliar with Japan’s bathing culture, the whole thing can seem a bit daunting. The large wooden basin here is meant for soaking—the quick shower you take before entering is just a precursor to the long, relaxing bath.
Although this bath isn’t attached to your room, you won’t be bathing in front of strangers, which is, to be fair, common practice in most onsen (hot spring) or public bathing facilities. The baths here are somewhat uniquely used by appointment—reserve a time slot when you check in, and you’ll be free to relax in the warm waters in complete privacy. (In addition, some rooms at Motonago do feature private, en-suite baths, as pictured below).
With the bath system in order, we continue on to the rooms.
Motonago has ten rooms of various sizes and styles, ranging from cozy to spacious, and from the more traditionally Japanese to rooms that incorporate some Western comforts, like beds instead of Japanese futons (unlike “futons” you’ll find in Western countries, a futon in Japan is a few layers of fluffy, mattress-like padding laid out afresh every night, usually atop tatami flooring).
“Our foreign guests are sometimes surprised,” the owner explains, leading me to an upstairs room that looks out over old tile roofs. A bit of the small street outside is visible beyond the eaves. “They’ll enter a room with just a table and no bed and say, ‘Is this everything?’.”
Large or small, the rooms can be completely transformed to serve a different purpose: where there was a table for tea or dinner beforehand, once you’ve returned from the bath, or from a day out, what was a dining room will have been transformed by the hands of the nakai-san into an inviting bedroom. Ryokan typically provide cotton yukata robes for sleeping, and Motonago is no exception, even providing a pair of tabi socks (with a separate pocket for the big toe) for warmth in the colder months.
Once we arrive in the room, the nakai-san serves tea. Usually, this is when she’ll also confirm with guests about their plans–what time they would like to have dinner and breakfast, and use the bath. Because of Motonago’s location in the Higashiyama district, the nakai-san can often give pointers on local events, like night-time illuminations along the old streets and temples here—as well as ryokan etiquette, if you’re unsure!
The table in your room will also serve as your breakfast and dinner table. Ryokan stays typically include both of these meals, and at Motonago, dishes are prepared meticulously by the on-site chef.
In the morning, you won’t have to go searching for something to eat (needless to say, you can skip the coffee chain you have at home), and you’d be hard pressed to find a better option for a traditional Kyoto-style breakfast. Enjoying these luxurious dishes hot and fresh in your room is the kind of service you can only enjoy at a ryokan like this one.
For dinner, again, multiple sumptuous courses appear, delicate and colorful, arranged on tiny serving dishes, from the cup of sake apertif, to the budding flowers arranged as though sprouting from between artfully arranged slices of sashimi.
Meals are usually eaten at low tables, where guests sit on floor cushions with a wooden support for the back. “This is an older building,” I’m told, “So guests remove their shoes when they enter. After that, they can relax on the tatami. Japan has a floor-based culture, and I’d love for guests to experience that.” Motonago is also well prepared for guests with longer legs, or those for whom kneeling may be difficult, and has a separate, private dining room with a taller table and chairs available on the first floor.
From a typical Western hotel perspective, the efficient use of space in the traditional rooms here may look small, but when seated, with a lower line of sight, not only does the room itself look larger, but the guest is better positioned to peak out the window—to bathe in the strip of sunlight shining onto the tatami from beneath the blinds, or to observe the soft falling of snow in the garden outside in winter, just visible at the base of the window when the curtains are lowered.
The ryokan experience at Motonago is set apart in the end, though, by the people: in the exacting touch of the chef’s hand in each plate and each course of the meals; and in the nakai-san’s thoughtful guidance throughout the stay. “When people stay here,” the owner explains, “they can experience a traditional way of living in an old machiya. But through connections with the people, and through their assistance, I think you can find a deeper feeling of ‘Kyoto.’ You’re not just staying the night. I think you get that feeling through little interactions with people here. That,” he says, “is Kyoto.”