Sleeping under downy, beautifully covered futons on tatami mats. Eating an artfully prepared meal served by kimono-clad women. Soaking in a steaming wooden tub looking out on a rock garden.
There are few things more relaxing, and more culturally evocative, than a good, traditional Japanese inn. And there are few places -- perhaps none -- quite as restful, and otherworldly, as the 300-year-old Tawaraya inn, where we splurged for a night in downtown Kyoto. Unobtrusively situated on an otherwise drab street, Tawaraya is a rare find, sedately beautiful, from the quiet trickling water in a courtyard stone urn to the Japanese screen tucked into a hallway corner, the fragrant cedar wood of the bath and finely decorated garments offered for you to wear during your stay.
In three years of living in Japan we have stayed at many beautiful inns, or ryokans, and all too often found them marred by something jarringly tacky: an ugly plastic flower arrangement on the shelf, or a clunky, cigarette-burned ashtray in the middle of the room's low lacquer eating table, or a pungent hair oil and cologne stand in the corner.
Not so at Tawaraya, where even the smallest details have been attended to in an effort to ensure a feeling of having stepped into a refined corner of old Japan. Nothing is tacky and anything that smacks too much of modernity -- the telephone, television set, laminated map of the inn for finding your way in an emergency -- is covered from eyesight in lovely fabrics, which are changed with the seasons. Even the fire sensors were selected to make sure they could be hidden from sight.
There are only 19 rooms at the inn, each with restful views of trees or mossy gardens. Since the Okazaki family, which owns Tawaraya, began taking in travelers 11 generations ago they have attracted an interesting clientele, from assorted Japanese princes and imperial family members to Jean-Paul Sartre and the King of Sweden.
These days about 30 to 40 percent of Tawaraya's guests are foreigners, according to Tawaraya manager Hidetoshi Yamaguchi. The ryokan has made some slight accommodations for them: The sleeping futons are extra thick, which means they are wonderfully comfortable and fairly high off the ground; the towels are thick and American-sized, unlike most ryokan where they resemble dish towels; and the bathrooms are very modern, with all the necessities of home and more. Tawaraya was one of the first inns in Kyoto to provide Western-style toilets; today, they are the ultra-modern type, with heated seats, so popular in Japan.
In order to maintain what Yamaguchi called the "high cultural sensibilities" of this historic inn, Tawaraya provides impeccable service. Thirty-eight kimono-clad women, or two per room, serve the meals and patiently tend to the guests. In our case, that meant dealing with four adults, as well as three children ages 5, 4 and 6 months, who were provided with pint-sized robes and slippers as well as food acceptable to small, foreign palates. When we went out to sightsee, we were swiftly provided with umbrellas to fend off Japan's frequently rainy weather. So serious is Tawaraya about its service that one can only join the ranks of attendants after doing a one-year apprenticeship to make sure there will be no mishaps.
The downside to Tawaraya is that traveling in the lap of luxury is expensive. These days a good Japanese inn will cost on average about $300 for two people for one night's accommodations with dinner and breakfast. Tawaraya will cost $425 and up, depending on how lavish your meals are and which of the rooms you occupy. The rooms on the lower floor, with access to the garden, are most expensive. In that case it would be easy to spend $1,000 a night for two.