You’ll Want to Stay Here Once, A Traditional Kyoto Inn Alive with The Spirit of The Tea Ceremony: Sumiya Ryokan
Located right in the heart of Kyoto where the city’s grid-like streets running east-to-west and north-to-south intersect. Sumiya Ryokan has been called one of Kyoto’s most famous, traditional inns. This ryokan inn has remained largely unchanged since its establishment around the 1910s, with its gate on the corner of Fuyacho-dori street and Sanjo street.
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Hospitality based on the spirit of the tea ceremony
The stately building stretching upwards radiates a sense of tradition and prestige. A sign at the customarily water-sprinkled entrance proclaims “We are always ready to welcome guests. We are looking forward to your visit,” in the unique hospitality of the tea ceremony.
Looking back at the history of this inn, it originated rather unusually as a swordsmith workshop. The former owner here made a habit of inviting friends he had met through his numerous interests such as tea, pottery, and songs from Noh drama to tea ceremony gatherings. This became a place where friends traveling from afar could stay. Here, we are going to introduce the tearooms and guest rooms that capture the essence of Sumiya Ryokan, widely known as a “tea inn.”
Sukiya-zukuri style (teahouse style) rooms where guests can enjoy a Japanese atmosphere
Combining the main building and the new building, which was built to coincide with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, there are 20 guest rooms in total. The rooms are built in the sukiya-zukuri style (teahouse style). The tearooms have names such as “Sengetsu” (moon in the waters) and “Zangetsu” (a morning moon) or names from Noh drama chants such as “Izutsu” (Well) and “Matsukaze” (Wind in the Pines).
Sengetsu in the main building is one of the inn’s oldest guest rooms. It is even sometimes called the guest room most representative of Sumiya Ryokan. Now, it is not used for overnight stays, but instead welcomes countless guests as an event venue or drawing room when tea ceremonies are held. It is a recreation of Sengetsu-tei in the Togu-do hall of Ginkaku-ji Temple (The Silver Pavilion). The ornamental design from the drop of the decorative alcove (tokonoma) to the ornamental wooden bar in front of it (tokogamachi) depicts the moon rising over the water’s surface. This innovative design captivates the imagination.
The room layout without a bath or toilet was usual at the time the inn was established. It reminds guests of a past age when “having a room to sleep in was enough.”
Similarly, another of the oldest guest rooms, Zangetsu, was modeled after the Omotesenke school of tea’s Zangetsu-tei tearoom.
This guest room has two adjoining rooms, a restroom, and private bath featuring Japanese umbrella pine. The Zangetsu-toko alcove takes up the size of two tatami mats (roughly 3 m2) within the room the size of 12 tatami mats (roughly 19 m2).
The Izutsu guest room displays the lyrics to the room’s namesake Noh chant on the tearoom wallpaper. The combination of this compelling song from generations past and the unique, tearoom-style design has a playful feeling to it.
As for the garden views from the guest room windows, it would not be an overstatement to call these a special perk unique to the first-floor rooms. A well in the corner of the courtyard garden gives this space a historic atmosphere.
There are also Japanese-style rooms with tatami beds. Eitoku is a Japanese-style room arranged around a central courtyard. The bedroom has a spacious layout with tatami beds and a connecting hallway. This room is just right for groups or even for two-generation trips.
Guests with limited mobility or who use wheelchairs can also feel at ease here thanks to thoughtful considerations such as sloped connecting hallways and bed heights arranged with accessibility in mind.
The bathroom offers a large, relaxing bath made from Japanese umbrella pine. A fresh and rich scent will fill the room as the hot, “smooth” water flows into the bath.
Interior decorations and amenities with the uniquely refined feeling of Sumiya
The guest rooms are not excessively ornate, but the detailed, tasteful decorations are worth seeing. Since the hotel takes its name from its past life as a blacksmith workshop, the door handles, decorative nail covers and chest drawer handles of the guest rooms incorporate various designs such as bamboo leaves, gourds and thread spools.
When the Gion Matsuri Festival season arrives, the sliding doors are removed, bamboo blinds are put up and wickerwork is laid on top of the tatami mats. And during Higan (the spring/autumn equinoctial week), the bamboo blinds and wickerwork mats are put away, and the sliding doors and paper screen doors are put up. Just as wardrobes change with the season, so too do the flowers that brighten the inn and the guest rooms, as well as the hanging scrolls and silk partitions.
The subtle seasonal changes felt all around the inn are another unique aspect of the detailed care that this traditional inn offers its guests.
Experience the world of the tea ceremony in this tearoom maintained over generations
One of the charms of this inn is that even guests who haven’t yet had a chance to become familiar with the tea ceremony in their normal lives can easily experience the world of the tea ceremony here. On the night of the 7th and 17th every month, the inn holds a tea ceremony that is open to all guests.
Among the five tearooms, Gyokuto-an is an especially renowned yojo-daime room (a tea ceremony room the size of four and three quarter tatami mats (roughly 7 m2)). This room was named generations ago in dedication to the former owner who was born in the zodiac year of the rabbit (“to” in “Gyokuto-an” uses the Japanese character for “rabbit”). The magnificent ceiling features alternating rows of Japanese red pine and paulownia boards in a checkerboard pattern.
A hanging scroll from poet Isamu Yoshii adorns the tokonoma decorative alcove, and the tokowaki (a smaller, secondary alcove) showcases a rabbit motif.
The peaceful central courtyard features items originally gifted for the construction of Osaka Castle but which were never used, such as a stone washbasin made from dark colored stones called zannen-ishi, and tiles that were previously used for a well, adding a sense of history.
Look at the room features and the courtyard, drink the carefully whisked powdered tea, and your heart is bound to grow calmer alongside nature.
Sumiya Ryokan is located on the lively Sanjo-dori Street, yet is still somehow wrapped in its own quiet atmosphere where time stands still. Why not come to the heart of Kyoto to forget your daily cares? Try leisurely experiencing wabi-sabi, the concept of beauty in imperfection, in this completely different world. See and feel the unique hospitality that can only be found at a traditional Japanese ryokan.