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A week ago I was tapping out this column on a spiffy Japan Railways bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo. In case you missed it, last week’s dispatch was all about the fine art of inn-keeping, and how few properties manage to master the business of offering a pleasant environment, complemented by excellent service and tasty food and drink. This week, I’m on a functional Deutsche Bahn ICE service from Frankfurt to Hamburg but I’m picking up where we left off – having promised you a two-parter on the hotel theme.
The Tawaraya ryokan has long been my hotel of choice in Kyoto. Set on a small plot in the heart of the city’s best retail district, the Tawaraya defines Japanese hospitality with its traditional architecture, warm, woody scents, low lighting, accents of Nordic design, hinoki soaking tubs and perfectly made futons.
It does everything a good hotel should while leaving out the bits you’re not interested in. For a long, luxurious weekend, it’s pretty hard to beat. For a pacy business trip, though, it requires a bit of patience and is perhaps not ideal if you require a gym, a buzzy bar or the services of a business centre.
As my tour around Japan was a mixture of business and pleasure, I decided that the city’s new Ritz-Carlton might be worth a visit, as it promised a more Japanese experience than its siblings in Tokyo and Osaka.
I had spent a bit of time on the property’s website and had seen images we’d featured in Monocle, but I didn’t have much sense of how it looked from the outside or how it related to its surroundings. To be frank, I wasn’t expecting much. My opinion and expectations shifted dramatically when our driver, Mr Tanahara, pointed it out as we drove along the opposite side of the Kamo River. (If you ever need an English-speaking driver in Kyoto, it would be a challenge to find anyone more gracious than Tanahara-san of the MK Taxi company.) “Ahhhhhh, Brûlé-san, that is your hotel over there,” Tanahara said, gesturing with a white-gloved hand to the opposite bank. “As you know, we have very strict height restrictions here in Kyoto, so that’s why the hotel is so long and low.”
The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto combines grey stone with dark steel and glass. It stands proudly alongside the river but is boxed in from behind by existing properties. While I was expecting a grand entrance around the back of the hotel, we instead made a hard right shortly after crossing the bridge and pulled into a dimly lit covered courtyard, where men in beige suits and top hats were directing Toyota limos into parking positions and ushering private cars in and out of the magical vehicle lift.
A gently sloping stone sidewalk led the way to the hotel entrance. A clever combination of sliding doors, geometric screens and twists and turns created a sense of mystery and arrival that made the property that little bit more private as we got closer to reception. Greeted by the hotel’s general manager, we were whisked away and shown to our rooms. “How much did they spend on this?”, my mother whispered to me. “There was clearly no budget.”
I relayed the question to the general manager, and he said the hotel had collaborated with an Osaka-based company known for being the biggest homebuilder in Japan. “This is clearly a bit of a showcase for them,” commented my colleague Noriko, as she enjoyed the views across the river.
“And thank goodness they managed to design proper bathrooms with solid doors that close properly,” said Mats, while touring the shower, tub, toilet and dressing room set-up.
Come nightfall, the hotel’s lighting (in its rooms and in the public spaces) was warm and recessed, and the lobby was nicely hushed, with a bit of buzz coming from the Italian restaurant on the main level. From room layout to gym to public spaces, there was little to fault – save for the slightly too large lobby branch of French patissier Pierre Hermé that was dead and lifeless after hours, and the lack of some type of traditional onsen in the pool area for hot soaks and frigid dips.
In the morning, our location above the running paths along the river made for the perfect six-kilometre jog up one side and down the other. Most of the joggers and walkers greeted us with a friendly “good morning” or “ohayo gozaimasu”, and the Kamo river trail had become my official favourite city run by the time I got back to the lobby.
Deep pockets and a beautiful setting are always a good start when developing a new hotel. The Ritz-Carlton has followed through with a great offering. In many other cases, I find that cash only goes so far if the basics aren’t put at the forefront, and if service is sacrificed in favour of useless design details.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine