Away from Tokyo’s neon flashes, Monisha Rajesh drifts into the soothing embrace of Suiran’s rustic sanctuary.
After the flash of neon and soaring towers of Tokyo, Kyoto is a soothing balm for a weary traveller. Where Tokyo roared, rushed, honked and hurried, Kyoto drifted. As gently as the rivers that flowed around the city, Kyoto calmed and quietened my nerves. So it was of little surprise that Suiran, a luxury ryokan resting on the banks of the Hozu river, featured the Japan of American movies: cherry blossoms, tatami matting, and silk kimonos folded at the foot of deep low beds.
A long drive from the centre of town, Suiran sits behind high wooden gates amid maple and cherry blossoms, a pink visual treat in spring’s sakura season, the former flaming down the hillside towards the river in autumn. And it is on the edge of this river that I dined on arrival, a spectator to the tradition of ukai – a Japanese fishing method whereby trained cormorants on a rope are sent into the water to seize fish under the wild light of fire on each wooden boat. In summer months, guests can sit under the straw-thatched roof terrace of Saryo Hassui with a special chef’s dinner. Served over a number of courses, each item was either hand-rolled or hand-carved with the delicacy and lightness of touch of chefs with an overflowing love for their trade. Slivers of abalone gleamed alongside pinhead-sized mushrooms, two deep-fried fish with their faces intact were crunched in one, and a billowing piece of tempura sent out a burst of steam from the sweet prawn inside. Pickled vegetables spiked and pricked my tongue sending myriad flavours shooting around my mouth. This is not the sort of food even Zuma and Nobu will attempt to serve and so much the better for it takes the locally fished, handpicked-that-evening ingredients to do this kind of food justice.
Bedtime was a treat. If you want the full-on kimono and cold tea experience, book a room on the ground floor where shoes are left to one side, and the doors slide open to reveal a wooden deck with a private hot tub filled with healing Arashiyama spring water. A small wooden bucket bobs around the surface with a tiny net for catching midges and nosy flies, and there is nothing better than sinking into the tub under the open sky as cicadas croak and chirp in chorus, before showering off under the thunder of a rainfall faucet. The downside is that there is, naturally, a high wall to protect from peering eyes – so the view across the river is obscured. But if a more modern take is what you’re after, then book a room on the higher floors where rooms are contemporary, carpeted and less characterful, but blessed with a beautiful view across the river. There is no hot tub in these rooms, but the communal one is available to book for an hour at a time and sits amid a rockery, under the watchful eye of a cool, green forest.
Suiran is so calm and so beautiful it’s worth the long drive to experience one of Kyoto’s finest little secrets.