Hoshinoya Hotel, Kyoto
Monkey magic meets zen-like calm in rural Japan…
On many occasions – both in print and in person – I’ve told people to slap me. It’s not some 50 Shades of Grey kink, but a genuine offer in instances of smugness or inappropriate toys-out-of-the-pram scenarios. Parts of this article are going to sound like one of the latter.
By the time we reached Hoshinoya, a place where five-star service meets traditional Japan with a splash of Michelin and more than a dash of Bond villain, I was broken. Japanese hospitality is generous. In restaurant terms that boils down to Kaiseki – essentially a multi-course tasting menu where each course celebrates a particular ingredient or cooking style. Which is why, by the time I got to Kyoto – the old capital – dinner at Hoshinoya in Ichiro Kubota’s recently starred restaurant, was my fifth Kaiseki in 60 hours. It was also my second Kaiseki of that day, and my third in 24 hours. However you measure it, I was broken. I could still admire the artistry, the beauty, the seasonality of the ingredients – something Kyoto cuisine is famous for – and the artistry. I could smile wryly at the playfulness of “potage of Kyoto red carrot in the image of the New Year’s rising sun”. I just couldn’t eat much of it. As ungrateful, smug and pathetic as that sounds, I just wanted a cup of tea and a lie down.
Happily, cups of tea and lie downs are something Hoshinoya can deal with, and deal with very well. Set in the Arashiyama region of Kyoto, which is a name that meant nothing to me, but does mean something to the Japanese and cherry blossom spotters as it’s been a celebrated vacation area since the eighth century. No, really, it’s a thing. Apparently. What it essentially means is ‘quiet, remote’ – it’s a fifteen minute boat trip from Kyoto’s Togetsuky Bridge along the Ooi River – hidden in the hillside like a Bond villain’s lair and achingly pretty.
It’s a traditional “ryokan” hotel, albeit a ryokan for the 21st century where paper screens and clean lines sit alongside iPod docks and other techno accoutrements. The ambience tranquil. When night falls, it cascades. The location means there’s no light polution and after dinner you’ll need a torch or a rudimentary knowledge of braille to find your room again. It’s also utter bliss. The air is so clean and crisp that the first breaths almost hurt and act as a natural high. The room is sparse but relaxing. The darkness is simply wonderful. The combination of those – and a body struggling to digest five Kaiseki meals probably – means I sleep as well as I ever have. I’m so relaxed and refreshed that the childish screeches and splashes that wake me the following morning do not arouse my ire or prompt the usual rant about indulgent parents sparing the rod. When I subsequently discover my 7:30am alarm call has actually come from a group of playful monkeys, well, I’m just left beaming.
That surreal feeling continues throughout the day: Japan is one of those places, Kyoto doubly so. Breakfast is served in the room although distance means that many dishes would arrive cold, so breakfast is prepared in your room, thanks to a hidden hot plate, staff bringing their own pans and a collapsible table that is laid with a view of the Ooi and those monkeys. There’s a moment of panic when it appears the very gracious young Japanese man who’s just prepared my eggs is going to stand in silence and watch me eat, but he bows and leaves me to surprisingly good green tea pastries and other such local eccentricities.
Breakfast is rapidly topped on the hoof up in the marvellous Nishiki market, a startling collection of previously unheard of, frequently unidentifiable ingredients and hand-held snacks. The fugu shop advertises itself with a mobile of inflated blowfish carcasses in hats that makes them look like hipsters rather than the killers they can be. Now brace yourself – as a gourmet writer, I’m obliged to try everything that’s put in front of me and I’m going to have to mention the whale meat stall, where between the slabs of whale bacon stands a clockwork toy cat that plays and sways to a Shania Twain tune. However, in the dreamlike state that Hoshinoya has left me in, it all seems to make perfect sense.