A couple of hours on the bullet-nosed Shinkansenis all it takes to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, the seat of Japanese nobility and an altogether more refined environment than the infinite skyline of the capital. But to get to HOSHINOYA Kyoto, there are a few more steps to take, because the hotel spreads over the riverbank north of Arashiyama, 15 minutes upriver from the station.
The chosen few who get to stay at HOSHINOYA are conveyed by a private boat from Togetsukyo bridge up the Ooi river to the hotel; the recent typhoon makes this too dangerous for us so instead we circumvent the raging waters on four wheels, via a precarious riverside path.
Autumn has arrived in Kyoto and the foliage is on the turn from green to gold; as we climb the steps to check in, a musician sits cross-legged on a rock serenading us quietly. In classic HOSHINOYA style, before we know it our shoes are off and we’re admiring a suite full of knee-level furniture, with a huge cedar bath and a centrepiece window that opens onto the fast-flowing river.
There’s an eye-catching curved sofa crafted from a single pine, where we sip our tea in the mornings, under the traditional woodblock-printed wallpaper. Outside, up the hill, is a hidden garden – a rock-strewn area for meditation and gentle exercise each morning, with cherry blossom trees overhead.
Our first engagement is a Monko ceremony. This is a celebration of incense that has us fashioning the perfect cone of hot ash and charcoal, before delicately placing tiny squares of fragrant wood in prime position. Monkoasks you not just to smell, but to listen to the wood and indulge in its character. As the rich odours circulate around the room, remember to take your time – the finest raw materials for this ceremony are worth more than gold, pound for pound.
Venturing out in Kyoto, lungs full of earthy scents, we find plenty to distract us. There’s an owl café, sure; but also a bamboo forest, a monkey sanctuary, a hilltop shrine, elegant shopping and a rich depth to the nightlife. We end up in a jazz bar snacking on wagyu croquettes, before stumbling into a tiny four-seater Okinawa-themed bar where a tipsy salaryman educates us on the finer points of Japanese volleyball. We sip Suntory and stretch the outer limits of our Japanese vocabluary. Sufficiently lubricated, we head back to HOSHINOYA for dinner.
Dinner is kaiseki – a traditional banquet, whipped up in real time by two chefs behind the counter in front of us. Intimidatingly sharp knives and meticulously accurate blow torches get to work. Under the guidance of executive chef Ichiro Kubota – who racked up a Michelin star at the ripe old age of 31 – we ascend through eight courses, with paired sake and wine along for the ride. I brazenly ask the chef to see his knives, and being unfailingly polite, he obliges – I’m not sure how willingly. They appear to be sharpened at the atomic level, explaining how they glide so nonchalantly through our sashimi, fresh enough as to be almost still breathing.
A tour de force of a meal culminates in wagyu beef, resting on wood, warmed by stones, deliciously rare and flecked in smoked salt; each time I swallow I shed a metaphorical tear because the mouthful is over. When I can’t draw it out any longer I admit defeat, resign myself to there being no more wagyu to melt in my mouth, and attempt to steal the last piece from my wife. But just as I hit rock bottom I remember the other secret weapon hiding at HOSHINOYA Kyoto: the whisky bar.
The Mrs is hurtling headfirst into a beef coma and heads back to the gargantuan bath to unwind. But for me, it’s time to climb the stony steps up to the small building that houses the hotel’s whisky bar. A beautifully curated collection of big hitters – from Nikka and Yamazakura through to Hakushi, Yamazaki and blend gods Hibiki – spreads itself across polished wood. There are board games and books to accompany your drams, but I head outside onto the terrace and watch the lights glitter towards the city in the south. I have a 17-year-old blend in my hand and a wry smile on my face as I settle down for the night.
The next day, I join a few other early risers for the morning stretch in the hidden garden, with the gentle roar of the river in the background and the chimes of traditional music creeping up from below. When breakfast comes, it’s in the shape of a 15-dish feast served in our suite, with personal stew pots and piles of fresh ingredients to throw in. We dine facing out onto the raging river, as a small train chugs past on the opposite bank. With the boat unnavigable for the moment, one might feel stuck at the hotel: that doesn’t seem so bad to us.
Tom was hosted by HOSHINOYA Kyoto, a luxury resort in Kyoto, Japan, nestled in the peaceful Arashi Gorge on the banks of the beautiful Ôigawa River. The contemporary Japanese ryokan has 25 elegant pavilion-style bedrooms, a renowned restaurant serving seasonal Japanese cuisine and a range of activities including early morning stretching/breathing exercises (complimentary), tea-drinking ceremonies and incense burning appreciation. An overnight stay costs from £555 per room per night (two sharing; room only). For more information, visit www.hoshinoya.com.