Out of Japan: Room at the inn where less is more

KYOTO - Imagine a hotel that, from the outside, looks like a small, plain warehouse, with no windows on to the street. Inside this hotel there are neither beds nor chairs - in fact there is very little furniture at all. There is no bar or restaurant, and no choice of menu for the food that is served in the rooms. There are only 19 rooms in this hotel - and they cost up to pounds 600 a night.

Imagine, now, that this hotel is one of the most exclusive in Japan: built in the ancient capital of Kyoto three centuries ago, discreet as a priest's whisper, but pampering its guests more thoroughly than any international five-star hotel chain could ever do. The great hotels of Asia are not normally so shy. The Mandarin in Hong Kong sits on some of the world's most expensive real estate, smug in its black marble and gold trimmings. The Oriental in Bangkok presides over the Chao Phraya river as it did when Somerset Maugham stayed.

Raffles in Singapore has been newly restored to the elegance of palm courts, ceiling fans and white decor that Sir Stamford himself would have approved of; the Manila hotel has the same grand facade and portico that General MacArthur strode across in 1945, having made his promised 'return' to the Philippines in the war against Japan.

Even the old French Metropole in Hanoi, Vietnam, after years of Communist drabness and rouble- paying guests, has had a facelift, and is once again the queen of buildings in Asia's most romantic capital.

But Japan resists such beauty parades. While much of East Asia is bewitched with gold and showy extravagance, Japan, as ever, has gone its own way. The Japanese turn in on themselves, revering understatement, subtlety, and luxury that is almost invisible.

The Tawaraya hotel is the epitome of Japanese discretion. Inside the plain door is a private world of polished wooden floors, narrow corridors and sliding screens. They open on to private gardens - moss-covered rocks, bamboos, ferns and stone lanterns.

The Tawaraya, which in fact is a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, surprises newcomers with its austerity, and then surprises them a second time with how comfortable it is none the less.

The rooms are nearly bare: just one low table, two cushions, and a single flower arrangement in the corner. Nothing else. Underfoot is tatami rice-straw matting - you cannot even wear slippers here, barefoot only.

Everything is wooden, in different tones of brown for the pillars and window frames and the split-bamboo blinds. The bathtub is made specially of cedar wood, which perfumes the warm water with its sap. On the wall is a simple scroll of Zen calligraphy.

Room service seems to operate by telepathy. Tea appears in the morning, afternoon and evening at times that the maidservant for the room thinks are appropriate. She will have greeted her guests on arrival by going down on her knees and bowing to the floor. If you actually have to ask her for something - fresh towels, a clean glass - she will feel she has failed in her job.

Established in the first decade of the eighteenth century by Wasuke Okazaki, a textile merchant, the Tawaraya has been in the family ever since. Today it is managed by Mrs Toshi Okazaki Sato, the 11th-generation owner.

The original Mr Okazaki was from Tawara district in Shimane prefecture in the south-west of Japan. He told his son to build a house in Kyoto in order to develop his textile business in the city. In the beginning the 'house of Tawara' was also a rice wholesale establishment, but gradually it became an inn for travellers.

Because of the wooden construction, the Tawaraya has burnt down twice: in the great fire of Kyoto in 1788, and then again in 1864. Japan, with its typhoons, earthquakes and volcanoes, is well used to the cycles of destruction and renewal: flower arranging glorifies this impermanence of nature.

The highlight of the day is the dinner, served in one's room. It is an elaborate affair of many courses in pottery dishes selected according to the season and the food being presented. The chef - a man of much experience - and not the guest, decides what is good to eat on any particular evening.

One can only presume that the maidservant watches the meal through a spyhole in a screen, since she never brings the next dish too soon or too late. And as the final glass of sake is disappearing and the lanterns are glowing in the garden, the maid quickly transforms the dining room into a futon bedroom. 'A lesson to hotelmen on what service is all about,' according to an entry in the visitors' book, signed by one Baron Hilton.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Barnardo's: Corporate Audit and Inspection – Retail Intern (Leeds)

Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

Recruitment Genius: Content Writer - Global Financial Services

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future