Living well on the road is arguably the most cherished perk of the business traveler. Japanese executives figured this out a long time ago and, in somewhat stereotypical fashion, they have refined the art of executive travel to a level that makes them the envy of their Western counterparts.
If you wish to test the limits of corporate travel policy on your next business trip to Japan, I recommend that you proceed directly to Kyoto and check into the Hiiragiya. This is the perfect way to reward yourself for braving a long journey to one of the toughest markets in the world, impress the heck out of your Japanese clients or prospects and, perhaps not incidentally, induce heart failure in your CFO, when you submit your expense account.
The Hiiragiya is a ryokan, or traditional-style Japanese inn, conveniently located in the modern heart of Kyoto, and yet a few steps through its almost anonymous entryway takes you to a Japan that seemingly disappeared with the Meiji Restoration. This is a world of quiet luxury in which every gesture, every detail is nonetheless exquisite for its radical simplicity. Yes, there are modern touches like mini-bars, carpeted hallways, and (gasp) televisions in the rooms. The plumbing is reassuringly modern. But much of the ambience transports you to a timeless realm of shoguns and samurai, a time when prowess on the field of battle was matched by a taste for the finer things.
The rooms, each one different, are Japanese in style, which means that the floors are tatami mats. At first it seems all the furniture has been removed. Then you realize that, thanks to an attentive and eerily silent staff, furniture appears magically when needed only to be whisked away when its purpose has been served. You sleep on the floor, although the futons are so thick, the linens so crisp, the comforters so, well, comforting, that you hardly notice. Astonishingly, you begin to notice that the sparseness of the decor doesn’t prevent this from being perhaps the loveliest hotel room you’ve ever occupied. There is art on the walls — not reproductions but real art, the kind you have to go to museums to see in the States. The architectural details are exquisite, with some of the oldest stained glass to be found in Japan. But by far the most stunning part of the decor is the garden which, thanks to the wide sliding shoji screens seems to be part of the room. Among the many things the Japanese do just right, these gardens are shady oases of tranquility guaranteed to soothe the soul of even the toughest road warrior.
Don’t worry about where you’ll go for dinner. It’s served in your room and included in the price (as is breakfast). On your first night you will be treated to a kaiseki banquet, a rarefied cuisine developed at a time when Kyoto’s aristocracy compensated for a lack of ready cash with a heightened awareness of the virtues of simplicity. There’s simplicity and then there’s simplicity, of course, and while the subtle literary and philosophical references incorporated in the meal may elude you, you won’t fail to notice that every dish is a carefully composed work of art served on a priceless example of the ceramicist’s art. You sit on the floor at a low table. Thoughtfully, a sort of cushion-seat with a wicker backrest is available to support Western backs. The graceful and flawless service by kimonoed waitresses merely adds to the experience. On subsequent nights you can enjoy less elaborate but still extravagant sukiyaki or shabu-shabu feasts. Before your morning business meetings you can fortify yourself with a perfectly prepared American breakfast or request a Japanese style repast.
After dinner, relax in your own private bath in a tub deep enough to sink up to your nostrils as you gaze serenely at your private, moss-covered garden, or if you’re traveling with your family, take advantage of spacious, stone-paved bath houses with tubs big enough for everyone.
None of this comes cheap, of course. Rates begin at about 35,000 yen ($300) per person, based on double occupancy. Single travelers can expect to pay more and the room rates vary night to night depending on the menu. If you will be entertaining clients, you may want to invest in the largest room at 80,000 to 90,000 yen per person. If you really want to go all out, the management can show you how to spend 150,000 yen per person. Somewhat less expensive rooms are available in a nearby, newer, annex.
The Hiiragiya is used to catering to Westerners — the Director, Akemi Nishimura, may even show off her prized snapshot of guest Charlie Chaplin — and they accept all major credit cards, so you can’t really use your poor Japanese skills or lack of ready cash as an excuse for not checking in.
If your excuse is that it’s just too darn expensive, you may be able to save some money by walking across the street to the even older Tawaraya Ryokan, where meals are optional. This 300-year old inn, still in the same family, is smaller than the Hiiragiya (18 rooms as opposed to 33) and rather more traditional in look and feel.
Here, there are no carpets on the hallway floors; the bare wood has been burnished to a rich sheen by decades of quietly shuffling stockinged feet. Sliding doors lead to the rooms as well as to the gardens and there are no mini-bars to be found. Low slung easy chairs, which are dotted around the Hiiragiya, are conspicuous by their absence and the Tawaraya has yet to introduce that most Western of innovations (if that’s the word) — the gift shop.
The Tawaraya’s rooms have names rather than numbers and that seems altogether fitting for an establishment in which each room seems to have been carefully crafted to the specifications of different, but equally demanding, clients. The service is on a par with that to be found at the Hiiragiya, perhaps even a shade better. No less an authority than Baron Hilton himself declared the Tawaraya “a lesson to hotelmen on what service is all about.” And the aesthetics of the place just can’t be beat. Perhaps that’s why the guest book boasts names like Richard Avedon, Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, and Michelangelo Antonioni.
The Tawaraya’s pricing is by room rather than per person and ranges from 35,000 yen to 90,000 yen. Two of the nicest rooms, ‘Fuji’ and ‘Midori,’ are 50,000 yen a night. Of course, foregoing those special, in-your-room meals will prove difficult if not impossible. Dinner rates start at 12,000 yen per person (about $100) and go to 30,000 or more. Those with hearty appetites should be warned that the cheaper meal choices may leave them feeling a mite peckish. Breakfast is a comparative bargain at 2,200 to 3,500 yen, scarcely more than what many upscale hotels in Kyoto charge.
The experiences offered by these two very special urban retreats have drawn the rich, the powerful, and the famous for centuries. Today, they represent the pinnacle of business travel, not just in Japan but in the entire world. And yet I can’t help thinking that it’s all wasted on businesspeople who are, of necessity more focused on tomorrow’s make or break meetying then tonight’s delicately perfumed miso shiru. On second thought, cancel the meetings, call someone you love and create your own pillow book of indelible memories.
The Hiiragiya Ryokan, Oike-kado,
Fuyacho, Nakakyo-ku, Kyoto 604.
The Tawaraya Ryokan, Fuyacho,
Oike-Saguru, Kyoto 6094.
For more information on Kyoto . . .
Contact the Japanese National
Tourist Organization at (212) 757-5640,
(312) 222-0874, (415) 989-7140,
or (213) 623-1952. E-mail addresses include
[www.kyoto-inet.or.jp/city-office/kankou/visitor], and [www.kyoto-inet.or.jp/org/hellokcb].
Note: Information was accurate as of June, 1997.
This article copyright 1997 by Kelly Monaghan. All rights reserved. Editorial inquiries should be addressed to The Intrepid Traveler, P.O. Box 531, Branford, CT 06405. Or email email@example.com.