A visit to Japan is not complete if you have not made it to Kyoto prefecture, famous for its temples and gardens. And zeroing in on Arashiyama is a must, a district that’s protected because of its amazing landscape and touristic hotspots like the Bamboo Grove, the Tenryu-ji Temple, and the Hoshinoya Kyoto, a hotel with 25 guest rooms tucked away in the forest.
The secluded property, originally a retreat, was built centuries ago by Suminokura Ryoi , a 17th-century merchant known for his part in the construction of the Takasegawa canal that cuts through Kyoto.
The journey to reach this Michelin-starred ryokan starts with a boat ride at a private pier near the Togetsukyo Bridge. Masi Enrico, who is trained in the classical court dance of Izumo, has been with the resort for more than six years, and like most hotel staffers, he wears several hats, including as boatman ferrying guests to and from the resort. “I enjoy nature and the conversations with the guest,” he said.
Housekeeping and customer service staffer Yoko Matsumoto happily points out the stunning floral-scape that’s almost engulfing the river, like the Yama-sakura or mountain cherry blossoms that’s typical in the area. “Autumn and Spring are the most beautiful seasons in Kyoto; [in Autumn] you can enjoy the colour gradation on the leaves from orange to red,” she said.
Matsumoto, a local who has been working at Hoshinoya since it opened 10 years ago, loves the garden with its roof tiles and the white sand, a stark contrast to the vivid hues of the surrounding landscape.
But the scenery is only part of the attraction. Here at the hotel, an amazing culinary experience awaits guests. Head chef Ichiro Kubota marries Japanese food traditions with French cooking techniques that he acquired when he was working at Michelin-starred hotel, La Villa in Corsica.
His speciality is Gomijizai, a technique where gomi or the five tastes – bitter, sweet, salty, sour, umami – are used freely, while respectfully reflecting Kyoto’s rich food culture. Ichiro, who has been working in Hoshinoya for eight years, says that of all the places that he has worked in, it is the natural beauty in Arashiyama that inspires him the most.
“You can feel it,” he said. It is here that he wants to focus on classic Japanese cuisine, but at the same time, using what he has learned. And not just from France, but continental Europe as well, with its rich memory of techniques, “mixing them into one form”.
He says that while his dishes may look Japanese, their flavour profiles are “different from authentic Japanese” food. It is, he explained, Kaiseki, where he “composes the story; puts the prologue, then the customers enjoy. And after that they write the epilogue”.
Adapted from the series Remarkable Living. Watch full episodes on Channel NewsAsia, every Sunday at 7pm.