Much like the Japanese art of kintsugi, Gion-based stay the Shinmonzen is bound together with many golden strands: it was conceived by Tadao Ando, perhaps one of Japan’s greatest architects; the owner and art savant behind beloved Provençal retreat Villa La Coste has imbued it with warmth and character; Jean-Georges Vongerichten is helming the Franco-Kyotoite kitchen… It respectfully reiterates the ryokan model in its humbly aesthetic exterior, mindfully minimalist rooms, and the need-anticipating service philosophy of omotenashi. But it's also hung with Damien Hirst and Louise Bourgeois pieces, there are subtle European accents (including a caviar-heavy menu), and Kyoto’s new artisans get their due throughout. The sort of update only a gilded dream team can achieve when they break the mold to fix it.
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A bottle of the Shinmonzen's house sake or a bottle of wine
11am, but flexible until 1pm, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £1230.57 (JPY213,290), including tax at 25 per cent.
Rates usually include a Japanese or western breakfast made using farm-to-table ingredients, one-way transfer from Kyoto Station, minibar items, bike hire and a one-hour walking tour.
The Shimonzen’s sister stay Villa La Coste is practically a living artwork, with its huge-scale and interactive installations, well-hung walls and architectural follies, and this ryokan is as much a shrine to culture, placed as it is in a creatively thriving neighbourhood. Casually loitering about are works by Damien Hirst, Louise Bourgeois and Gerhard Richter, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s eerie photo prints, Mary McCartney’s intimate geisha portraits, Annie Morris’ Canvas and Thread assemblage, Kohei Nawa’s eye-zinging Direction, Yoon-Young Hur’s moon jars and a signature contemplative blue work by Makoto Ofune – plus a Charlotte Perriand check-in desk.
At the hotel
Spa treatment room and gym, riverside lounge, concierge, free-to-hire bikes, laundry service (charged), free high-speed WiFi. In rooms: 55-inch Sony Bravia 4K TV, sound-system, yoga mats, free gourmet minibar, selection of Uji farm teas, Nespresso machine on request, Ploh Plush bathrobes, pyjamas, yukatas, Dyson hairdryer, Kurotani washi paper and USB chargers.
Our favourite rooms
Rooms offer a respectful bow to Kyoto’s craft tradition and the divine – in all senses – materials revered in Buddhist philosophy: bamboo, silk, stone, marble and lacquer. At first glance, these are humble, uncluttered spaces with wood finishes, shoji screens, tatami mats and enough furnishings for a comfortable stay. But, like a ukiyo-e woodblock or a painstaking work of kyo-nui embroidery, rich detail emerges, whether it's the sycamore headboards and live-edge tables by master carpenter Paul Longpré, Takayuki Watanabe’s perfectly imperfect ceramics, bento boxes by fifth-generation bamboo masters Kohchosai Kosuga or Toan Nguyen’s sculptural seating. Subtle nods to its Provençal sister are evident in French-silver door handles and jasmine growing on the balconies, and owner Paddy Mckillen has added sweet personal touches: Irish moss for his homeland and keys engraved with his late pet puppy Erin. First-time visitors should note that twin beds are more common in Japanese hotels, so if you want to snuggle up, choose Tooki, Washi, Urushi or Hinoki, which all have king-size beds; and note that some rooms don’t have a hinoki bath tub or a balcony. For a full house of luxuries, choose Hinoki, which has a double-aspect balcony and plenty of space, and for a little gallery outside your door, choose Urushi – the corridor leading up to it is lined with some of the hotel’s big-name artworks.
There’s just one mind-clearingly minimalist treatment room, but it smells amazing, thanks to the range of aromatherapy-led massages offered – or get a boost from the universe with reiki energy healing. Private yoga and Zazen (a Bhuddist meditation practice) can be booked on request, and the 24-hour cardio-focused fitness room has Technogym bikes, cross-trainers and treadmills. Therapists can also set up their tables in your equally restful suite.
Leave your loungewear at home – your room has cuddly Ploh bathrobes, yukatas and pyjamas to ensure maximum cosiness.
Jiki and Take suites are fully accessible for guests with mobility issues, plus there are elevators, roll-in bathrooms and free wheelchair hire if needed.
One pooch under 15kg can stay for free in the following suites: Washi, Tooki, Jiki, Urushi, Hinoki and Suisho. And, a bed, bowl and other treats will be provided. See more pet-friendly hotels in Kyoto.
What’s the sound of one hand clapping? It’s hard to tell when there are smalls tearing about… Children can stay, and there’s babysitting and a dedicated menu, but you may feel more Zen without them.
The hotel has signed the Unesco sustainable tourism pledge to show their commitment to environmentally sound practices. The building has largely been built using sustainable natural materials sourced locally, and its design is in keeping with the city’s historic district. They recycle, use LED bulbs, conserve water where possible, have eliminated plastics and use eco-friendly bath products (packaging is biodegradable and toothbrushes and hairbrushes are made out of bamboo. And, the restaurant runs on seasonal, local produce, with more plant-based options and no breakfast buffet to cut down on waste. And, they’re community minded too, reaching out to help farmers in Ohara and Keihoku, and organising guest meet-ups and donations.
Leave kimonos to the locals and slip into something clean, crisp and cool. Here’s where your most ergonomically mind-bending Miyake and Yamamoto pieces can come into play.
Like Tadao Ando’s dynamic Japanification of Paris’s Bourse de Commerce, adding a concrete cylinder under the gallery’s glass rotunda roof and expansive 19th-century trade mural, famed French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant here will be another exciting cultural exchange. The influence of Kyoto cuisine will be strong, and ingredients will be sourced from its rural outskirts, but there will also be caviar by the tin-load, with a savoury take on ‘bubble tea’; a pairing with crispy potato strands, sea urchin and yuzu-ranch dressing; and egg toast topped with caviar and fines herbes among other tastefully fused favourites.
As red as a Shinto shrine’s gates and inspired by ‘fire’ – the most passionate of the elements – the bar adds some bolder local colour to the Shinmonzen. Slung over the bar are sakes and cocktails with European roots plus a little Japanese verve.
Breakfast is from 7am to 10.30am, lunch from 11.30am to 2pm, and dinner from 5.30pm to 9pm.
Whether you want a warming matcha or a romantic meal to enjoy on your balcony, you can order to your door 24/7.
The Shinmonzen is in Kyoto’s photogenic Gion district, from which the enshrined city unfurls like lotus petals, at the criss-cross of historic Shirakawa and Shinmonzen streets.
Osaka International (AKA Itami) is the closest hub, around an hour’s drive from the hotel, but flights only arrive here from across Japan (from Tokyo the journey’s around an hour). Kansai is a 90-minute drive, but flights land direct here from the west coast of the US, major cities in continental Europe, Australia and South East Asia; and it’s possible to charter private-jet landings here. Transfers can be arranged from both from JPY40,000 one-way for up to six guests (in a limousine if you’d like); these need to be booked more than 48 hours in advance of arrival.
The fastest connection between Japan’s major cities and Kyoto is the Tokaido Shinkansen (more commonly known as the ‘bullet train’); tickets are pricier, but you’ll have a comfier seat and arrive an hour sooner than the regular Japan Railways trains would – from Tokyo the journey is around two hours, and the station is a 15-minute drive from the hotel. Kyoto’s subway only has two lines criss-crossing the city – you’re more likely to explore on foot, but if you start to flag, Sanjō Station is just a five-minute walk away.
There’s really no reason to rent a car in Kyoto; go as gracefully and meditatively as the maikos in their towering geta footwear, so you don’t miss rows of exquisitely crafted wooden machiya, scarlet torii gates leading to delicate shrines and serene temples, or its colourful seasonal coats (from pink blossoms in spring to flaming momiji come autumn). To cover more ground, go it like the locals who zoom up and down the banks of the Kamo, and rent a bike. Hire is free at the hotel, roads are flat and fellow cyclists courteous; and if you do hire a car to explore the Kansai region’s more rural areas, there’s free parking close by.
Worth getting out of bed for
A stroll along Shirakawa Street, in the scenic – and immensely popular – Gion district, will take you back in time to the Meiji era, with its artfully composed wooden machiya, cosy teahouses and inns, and bustling geikos and maikos (geishas and their apprentices) shuffling along between appointments. Here, the rabble of telephone wires that criss-cross Kyoto’s streets are hidden away, leaving just willow boughs overhead, and there’s a lower concentration of tourists than in Hanami-koji Street close by. And, crossing that is the hotel’s namesake street Shinmonzen Dori; less picturesque, but no less refined, it’s renowned for its antiques and artisans, where spaces such as the Ezoshi Gallery sell traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which reflect the timeless scenes carrying on around you, R Kita (256 Shinmonzen) stocks vintage kimono and fine antique Imari tea sets, and Kawasaki Bijutsu offers intricately decorated folding screens. If you’re in over your head when it comes to cultural immersion (after all, the prefecture has more than 1,600 temples, a dizzying mix of modern and traditional, and a fine-tooth-comb approach is needed when it comes to authentic experiences), then turn to the Shinmonzen’s concierge. They can send you off on a private rickshaw tour from Tatsumi Bridge (after a quick photo session) to give you the lay of the land, set up a bespoke Zen and mindfulness meditation session at Ryosoku-in Temple in the grounds of the oldest Buddhist temple Kennin-ji (established in the 13th century), and set up a hosted tea ceremony in the restful confines of Kōrin-in Temple. Or you can choose to embark on a tea-house crawl through the city. It’s hard to whittle down the sacred landmarks of Japan’s spiritual heart, but Kiyomizu-dera which roosts among woods in the eastern hills, gleamingly gilded Kinkakuji to the north and the infinitely regressive gates of Fushimi Inari shrine will all be familiar with travel-porn enthusiasts. However, you may prefer to pay deference at the bunny-dedicated Okazaki shrine, or clock the unique faces of each of the 1,001 statues of Kannon (the Bhuddist god of mercy) at Sanjūsangen-dō. In spring, see the sakura burst into baby pinks in Maruyama Park – or take a 30-minute cab ride to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, where the dulcet sound of swaying stalks has been officially recognised by the government and offers plant-based Zen. Your pathway back to the modern world is through Kyoto’s museums and galleries, say the National Museum of Modern Art, or more niche spaces such as the Kodama Gallery whose works have much to say, or up-and-comer-supporting Maeda Hiromi. Or delve into Japan’s fantastical comic-book worlds at the International Manga Museum before swinging by Ichijo-dori street, where curious folk monsters known as yokai stand guard.
The just-so nature of Japanese style extends to dining in Kyoto, where highly seasonal kaiseki menus see each discrete ingredient as an indispensable element – say, a sliver of sashimi, intricately carved vegetable or finishing-touch flower. It can be costly (Michelin stars are liberally scattered about here), but to have an array of tiny bowls and exquisitely crafted courses laid in front of you, try Soujiki Nakahigashi; the menu is chef’s choice and changes with whatever nature has provided that day, but vegetables and herbs gathered in the mountains come to the fore. Reservations are tough to get – especially if you want to chat to the chef – so book well in advance. Ogata, a restaurant with a simple counter and very slim number of covers is also famously impenetrable for those not in-the-know, but if you strike lucky, you’re in for some truly spectacular edible theatre here. Close to the bamboo forest, Lurra shows the Venn crossover between Japanese and Nordic cuisines (excellent fish, delicate botanicals, seasonal sway), with its Noma alumnus chef who ferments and wood fires elegant plates that have earnt this joint Michelin acclaim. And, Italian and Japanese dining might seem at odds – for one, cheese is somewhat scant in Kyoto – but Cenci deftly brokers a treaty between them, with its crab fettuccine, Hokkaido oyster risotto, mackerel with yuzu and a creamy chestnut ice-cream, plus a full-bodied wine list.
For eats on-the-go (although not as you're walking – it’s considered very bad manners), Nishiki Market has been peddling street food and snacks for hundreds of years. Pick up skewers loaded with octopus, offal, wagyu and more; mochi of all flavours; dumplings and tamagoyaki (loaded omelette-pizza hybrids). And, a visit to an ochaya (tea house) is about so much more than a brew, rather partaking in a ceremony that’s been refined since the 12th century. Gion is home to many, including the ultra-exclusive, invite-only Ichiriki Chaya; but you can have an equally authentic and captivating experience at spots such as Camellia or En.
In Gion, El Tesoro has a fittingly vintage feel and hundreds of bottles of whisky glowing amber behind the bar. There’s plenty shipped in from Scottish distilleries, both indie and established, but with the knowledgeable barkeep at your service, it’s an excellent spot for an intro to Japan’s popular, clean and strong native whiskies. Bar Rocking Chair does indeed have a few swaying seats for punters to lull themselves in, and a cosy atmosphere with room for 30 at most, but it’s not quite as sedate a night as the name suggests. There’s no cocktail menu, just bartenders with vivid imaginations and a strong sense of omotenashi who’ll craft bespoke drinks from you after a chat about your likes and dislikes.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this ryokan-revisited hotel by Shirakawa River and unpacked their vintage kimonos and taken extra care with their intricate Imari plates, a full account of their just-our-cup-of-matcha break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside the Shinmonzen in Kyoto’s as-it-was Gion district…
Japanese design, in its meticulous chicness, highlights the delight in small things: the rugged texture of an accent wall, how sunlight softens through a shoji screen, a vitalising spray of greenery, the scent of cedar wood emitted from a steaming hinoki bath. The Shinmonzen, in Japan’s spiritual home Kyoto, pays due reverence to a design philosophy that’s gently evolved through Shinto Bhuddist principles over centuries, with its luxe organic feel, beautiful symmetry and the cheery trickle of the Shirakawa River running by it – a sound as settling as a resounding ‘om’. But, behind its traditional dark-wood and kawara-tile façade, which feels at home next to the Gion district’s Meiji-era machiya, it makes room for big ideas and a modern mindset, plus joy-sparking details – all given life by omotenashi, the art of fully-present, one-step-ahead service. A 10-years-in-the-making collaboration between Pritzker-winning Japanese starchitect Tadao Ando and hotelier Patrick ‘Paddy’ McKillen, as a sister property to the latter’s dreamy immersive art retreat Villa La Coste (a former recipient of the Best Smith Hotel award) in Provence, this is a ryokan at heart but one where sleek concrete corridors emulate narrow roji alleyways, a serious art collection includes Louise Bourgeois and Damien Hirst alongside homegrown talent, and there are subtle European influences in its silver French-made handles, Italian linens and – on a more personal note – room keys engraved with Paddy’s beloved late pup Erin (sniff). Kyoto’s culture swirls around you here, with kimono-d geikos and maikos tottering by, herons resting in willow trees, drifts of sakura or momiji, tea room chatter, and heritage artisans pottering away in their studios. But, uncluttered peace awaits within: simply close the door and swoosh your shoji screen shut, sink into a lemony-scented bath and succumb to small yet significant pleasures.