In Kyoto’s bamboo-clad Arashiyama district, the Suiran Hotel is an intimate stay languishing on the banks of the Hozugawa River. Once the private summerhouse of 19th-century industrialist Shōzō Kawasaki – he of motorcycle fame – the Meiji-era architecture and surrounding temples make for a thoroughly traditional break in the City of 10,000 Shrines. Manned by yukata-clad staff, Suiran’s finer details have been chosen for authenticity, right down to the spring water in the cedar- and bamboo-encased onsen bath. Across the river is a lush bamboo forest and a handful of Unesco-listed shrines, but you don’t have to leave the hotel for a soul-stirring experience.
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One set of Hisui rice-jelly balls each at Café Hassui
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £636.47 (JPY86,660), including tax at 23.8 per cent.
Rates usually include a full-English or Japanese breakfast and a free one-way transfer from Kyoto, Saga-Arashiyama, Randen-Arashiyama and Hankyu stations.
Suiran’s concierge team are an imaginative bunch, they can organise an array of unique activities, including sake tasting and chakra cleansing, as well as frequent dinner nights focusing on the delicacies of Japanese cuisine, such as kinshu, where chefs sculpt edible art.
At the hotel
Spring-water-filled onsen baths, spa treatment rooms, gym, free WiFi throughout. In rooms: flatscreen TV, Bose sound system, Nespresso coffee machine, tea-making facilities, minibar, air-conditioning and Remede bath products. The Yuzunoha Deluxe Room and higher categories have a private onsen bath too.
Our favourite rooms
Traditionally Japanese but with cloud-soft, western-style beds – with full mattresses rather than tatami mats – the Gyokuto Garden Terrace rooms have tranquil little gardens and private onsen baths, as well as gold-accented artwork splashed across the walls. Within the cavernous, clean-lined bathroom of the Shirosumire Premier King, staff will set up a massage table. After you’ve been pummelled into peacefulness, make use of the suite’s open-air bath, which is nestled into a rock-lined courtyard. The style in rooms is ryokan-lite: mat flooring, black-lacquer furniture and cedar wood-clad walls, but enhanced with contemporary comforts like flatscreen TVs and lightning-fast WiFi.
There’s no pool, but those in higher category rooms can soak and soothe in a personal onsen bath filled with fresh spring water and sheltered by bamboo and volcanic-rock walls. If you don’t have your own, two baths can be booked for private sessions. Dubbed Raku and An, they're kept cool by cypress trees overhead and are built using traditional cedar wood.
Line your suitcase with linen for day-wear, structured tailoring and pared-back separates for night.
Spa treatments can be enjoyed in two private treatment rooms, or in your hideaway if you prefer.
Children can stay, but they may disturb the temple-like tranquility of the place.
Saryo Hassui has leagues of riverine charm – nab a table on the terrace to ogle Japan's natural splendour.
Ditch your biking leathers and go for geisha-kimono-inspired colours and origami-esque tailoring.
The hotel’s two restaurants each reside in the original buildings, which have been painstakingly restored to create understated dining rooms offering varied Japanese-fusion fare, such as miso-marinated butterfish topped with a smoked soft-boiled egg. Formal dining at Kyo Suiran is a mix of French-inspired dishes and washoku – traditional Japanese cuisine – set within Kawasaki’s well-preserved summer villa; book in advance for your own private teppanyaki table. Café Saryo Hassui is set overlooking the water. Reserve a table on the terrace – the ideal setting for Japanese afternoon tea, an elegant affair with unique sandwich options (winter melon with mustard, spring onion and orange…) on rice-flour bread accompanied by sashimi slices, pickles, rice balls and traditional Japanese confectionary.
There’s no bar, but you can scuttle back to your room after dinner and order sake by the flask or a bottle of local craft beer to drink in your outdoor tub.
Breakfast is served between 7am and 10am, lunch from 11.30am to 2.30pm and dinner from 5.30pm to 9pm. The café is open between 11am and 5pm.
In-room dining is served 24-hours a day, with bountiful American-style breakfasts and Japanese fish dishes, vegetables and pickles on the menu. Drink choices are ample too, if you can’t bear to leave your room.
The hotel is located to the west of Kyoto in the hilly Arashiyama district, which is clad in sakura (pink cherry blossoms) from March until early April and bamboo throughout the rest of the year. Suiran overlooks the Ōi River and the Arashiyama Mountain.
International hub Osaka Airport (www.osaka-airport.co.jp) is the closest, just 27 miles from the hotel (around an hour’s drive); frequent flights arrive here from Tokyo and KLM flies from London Heathrow via Amsterdam; arrivals from the US stopover in Hong Kong. You could also fly into Kansai (www.kansai-airport.or.jp), a 90-minute drive away from Suiran, whose claim to fame is that it’s never lost a single piece of luggage. The hotel can arrange charged transfers on request.
The hotel’s a 30-minute drive from Kyoto Station or a 10-minute walk from Randen Arashiyama Station; hotel transfers from train stations are free – just let the concierge know when you’ll be arriving. The speedy Shinkansen bullet trains will get you here from Tokyo in around two-and-a-half hours.
Outdoor parking at the hotel is JPY1,000 a day. If you’re driving from Tokyo, the journey takes around five hours; you may need to factor in tolls. If you want to visit Kyoto’s lively centre during your stay, a taxi to Gion takes around 20 minutes.
Some local train stations have a line of waiting rickshaws outside if you want to arrive in unique style.
Worth getting out of bed for
Arashiyama, the hotel’s eye-catching country ‘hood, is Kyoto’s second most important cultural enclave (after Higashiyama), packed with shrines and blessed with the scenic backdrop of the Katsura River, Hozu Gorge, and hills that alternate between pink, green and russet coats, depending on the season. All of the district’s best bits are within walking distance of the hotel; the sprawling Tenryu-Ji temple complex is the district’s star attraction as an important seat of Zen Buddhism; however, fellow complex Nison-in, entered through a cherry- and maple-lined arcade, is peaceful and picturesque too. In Kameyama-koen Park, a five-minute walk away from Suiran, monkeys play in the cherry-blossom trees. Book a taxi and in just 20 minutes you can reach Gion, one of Japan’s few remaining geisha districts. Hanamikoji-dori street is lined with historic institutions, while you have the best chance of spotting a maiko (trainee geisha) or a geiko (fully-fledged geisha) on Shirakawa-dori street. Gion’s also home to tea shops and renowned Japanese restaurants.
Arguably the most famous street in Kyoto, Ponto-chō is the place to go for Kyoto’s best dining experiences, whether you’re yearning for yakitori (chicken skewers) or keen to dine on a kawayuka - stilted terraces that appear when the weather’s warm. Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi (117 Ishiyacho Kiya-Machi) is reliably good for gyoza, while Chojiro has the freshest sushi in town. In Arashiyama itself there are few restaurants more attractive than restored tea house Hiranoya; entering the moss-covered building via a ruby-red torii gate - the tea house moonlights as a proper restaurant.
Any visitor to Kyoto is likely to be immediately impressed, as we were, by omotenashi, the famed Japanese hospitality and service that is deeply embedded in the country’s culture. From ticket inspectors and waiters to hotel staff and people on the street, you will be greeted with polite bows, smiles, and faultless service everywhere you go. It’s such an alien experience compared to London that it takes some getting used to, and as we were keen to be terribly British and polite in return, we occasionally found ourselves at desperate pains not to offend our gracious hosts.
One such moment presented itself at check-in at the Suiran hotel, a gorgeous, traditionally-styled stay in Arashiyama, about 20 minutes from downtown Kyoto. Having been picked up by a pre-arranged taxi at Kyoto station (compliments of the hotel, of course), we arrived at the Suiran’s wooden entrance gate and were immediately whisked inside and through the pretty landscaped garden. A procession of smiling staff dressed in kimonos greeted us at reception. Seated at the check-in desk, we were brought warm towels and tea while we watched the Japanese couple next to us eat brightly coloured sweets from a piled-high glass stand.
Keen to do as the locals do, I plucked a sweet from the pile and popped it into my mouth – the taste and texture was, shall we say, similar to perfumed wet cotton-wool. How best not to offend after our warm welcome? As soon as the host’s back was momentarily turned, I took the chance to spit it into my hand and slid the wet, soggy wad into my new white-linen pants. Crisis averted, all form-filling completed and documents checked, we were shown to our room.
While the heart of the Suiran consists of two historic 19th-century villas, which house the hotel reception and restaurants, its 39 guest rooms are all in an adjacent, modern low-rise building, with some rooms boasting balconies with views overlooking the Hozu river. Walking straight through the sliding door of our ground-floor Yuzunoha Deluxe Room, excitement got the better of us, and we were quickly told off by the maid for not having taken our shoes off. ‘Japanese tradition!’, we were curtly reminded as we retreated outside to start again. It was hard, however, not to dive straight into such a beautiful room, which cleverly combined traditional Japanese style – tatami mat flooring, wooden slatted wall dividers, and a black lacquerware dining table – with more familiar western comforts like the supremely comfy king-size bed and rainforest shower.
The room’s absolute stand-out feature was a cedar-wood hot spring onsen (a Japanese soaking tub), which sat invitingly in a small outdoor courtyard. With the water temperature at 42°C, it’s perhaps more of an endurance test than a tub for a long relaxing soak – but after being told the onsen water had magical powers for your skin, we eased in very slowly, burning our bumcheeks as we went. After 10 minutes, we emerged very red, slightly light-headed and with clean, smooth skin just as promised. While recovering, we changed into our ridiculously ornate kimonos.
In the afternoon we ventured out to visit the Tenryu-ji temple, a Unesco World Heritage Site just a five-minute walk away. It’s a beautiful, impressive structure, but we liked the gardens the most; they were still filled with pinks and reds from some late-blooming cherry blossoms. Bordering the north of the temple is the famous Sagano bamboo grove, photos of which adorn the cover of almost every guidebook on Kyoto. While the photos show a serene sea of jade-green bamboo, the reality is more like Tottenham Court Road on a sunny Saturday; gaggles of gleeful tourists filled the path, selfie sticks waving in the air. Underwhelmed, and vowing to return early the next morning to beat the crowds, we strolled back towards home.
Come afternoon, 5:30pm is a very important time at Suiran – it’s when the daily free champagne reception in the hotel’s relaxed Café Hassui kicks off. Taking a seat on the outdoor terrace, we felt that even the group of rather boisterous Americans couldn’t detract from the joys of a glass of fizz – ok, probably a bottle after we’d been there for an hour – or the picturesque views of the Hozu river and forests before us.
For dinner, we moved – or rather, stumbled – to the hotel’s smart fine-dining restaurant, Kyo-Suiran, a low-lit room overlooking the gardens and decorated with natural woods, calligraphy paintings and shoji screens. There’s the option of a 10-course tasting menu, but after spotting the Omi beef – one of Japan’s most prized breeds – on the à la carte menu, it was too much to resist. Two thinly sliced steaks arrived with a selection of dips and sauces, and was every bit as incredible as everyone says; butter-soft and juicy. Dizzy from champagne and sake, we collapsed into bed fully-clothed and yes, I’m ashamed to say, with our shoes still on.