Tawaraya is widely considered to be Japan’s finest ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). It’s also one of Kyoto’s most expensive accommodations. We recently spent one glorious night there to try to answer the question: Is it worth it?
Shorai room at Tawaraya ryokan – image © Chris Rowthorn
Almost everyone agrees that Tawaraya is the finest ryokan in all of Japan. Some breathless writers have even called Tawaraya the “finest accommodation on earth.” I had been in the ryokan many times to meet my private tour guests but I had never spent the night there. So, I recently decided to spend a night there to cut through the hyperbole and discover what it’s really like. More importantly, I wanted to answer the crucial question: Is it worth around US$1,000 per night/per couple to stay there?
Inner hallway at Tawaraya – image © Damien Douxchamps
A Night at Tawaraya: The Full Experience
On the day of my stay at Tawaraya, I took a taxi from my Kyoto office to the ryokan. As we pulled up in front of the familiar rustic façade of Tawaraya, two staff members hustled out into the street to greet me. They bowed deeply and welcomed me in Japanese. They didn’t seem puzzled by my strange lack of luggage (all I had was my knapsack).
Tawaraya exterior – image © Chris Rowthorn
As mentioned above, I had been into Tawaraya several times, but I still savored the experience of entering the ryokan. Tawaraya is cleverly designed so that the genkan (formal entry hall) is hidden from the street. It’s very much like entering a secret inner sanctum. And this sets the tone for your entire stay: you are stepping into a world outside of time.
Tawaraya entryway – image © Chris Rowthorn
I took off my shoes and stepped up into the slippers waiting for me. I gave my name and I was officially welcomed by the manager (there was no check-in procedure to speak of – they were expecting me and there I was).
Tawaraya genkan – image © Chris Rowthorn
Before proceeding to my room, I took the opportunity to explore the lobby area. The first thing that caught my eye was the beautiful tsubo-niwa (pocket garden) in the center of the lobby area. They change the plants in this garden monthly to reflect the seasons, and since I was there in early fall, they had dry rice stalks on display. I’ve been there in other seasons when they had cherry branches or plum branches. Whatever the season, the display is always perfect – the work of one of Kyoto’s great ikebana masters.
Tsubo-niwa at Tawaraya – image © Chris Rowthorn
I walked past the inner garden to the hallway. I remembered that there is the most perfect byobu (painted screen) in that hallway and there it was, perfectly illuminated by an andon lamp.
Byobu screen – image © Chris Rowthorn
Just beside the screen is a waiting room where a guest might wait for a private guide to arrive. Another beautiful screen is on display here.
Waiting room screen – image © Chris Rowthorn
And, off this waiting room is a smaller antechamber where one might enjoy a cup of tea while perusing one of the carefully chosen books in the small bookcase.
Waiting room antechamber – image © Damien Douxchamps
I then retuned to the genkan and let them know that I was ready to go to my room. I was introduced to a young lady named Yu who would be my personal maid for the duration of my stay. Like all ladies who work at Tawaraya, she was dressed in a simple but attractive kimono. Yu led the way to my room, which was on the first floor. The name of the room was written on a small wooden plaque in Japanese: 松籟. I could read the first kanji, which was “matsu” (pine tree) but I was stumped by the second. Yu kindly explained that it is pronounced “fue” and meant a bamboo flute. When paired together, they are pronounced “shorai” and mean “the sound of the wind blowing through pine trees.” Each of the 18 rooms at Tawaraya has a poetic name like this.
Shorai room – image © Chris Rowthorn
Yu then opened the door to the room and invited me inside. I was delighted to see that the room was spacious (at least by Japanese standards) and looked out over a superb Japanese garden. The room, like the rest of the ryokan, is a perfect example of the junwafu, or pure Japanese, style. The only decoration was to be found in the tokonoma, a small nook built into the wall, where a subtle scroll, a small ceramic urn, and a simple work of ikebana were displayed. Needless to stay, these three were all carefully chosen to reflect the present season.
Tokonoma in Shorai room – image © Damien Douxchamps
The middle of the room was dominated by a superb zataku (low table) finished with a deep red natural lacquer that reflected the light from outside. On it, I found the customary green tea and sweet that one expects in a ryokan. There was a very brief form there for me to fill out, giving my name and address. Here’s a picture taken later in the evening of the zataku table:
Zataku table in Shorai room – image © Damien Douxchamps
Yu gave me a full tour of the features of the room. She opened a closet to reveal a yukata (robe) and hangers for my clothes. Below that, hidden behind a sliding door, was the TV. I suspect that the TVs in Tawaraya get very little, if any, use. Why would anyone bother watching TV at a place like this? On the far side of the room, overlooking the garden, was a dining area with another superb lacquerware table. Below the table was hori-gotatsu, which is a sunken area into which you lower your legs. This is a concession to Westerners who find it difficult to sit on the floor for long periods. This dining area was perfectly situated to enjoy the view of the garden.
Dining table – image © Chris Rowthorn
Beside the dining table was a low wooden chest, with a telephone on top to allow you to communicate with your maid and the front desk. The phone was covered with a beautiful piece of Kyoto fabric.
Room phone – image © Chris Rowthorn
Back near the entrance to the room there a small wooden chest, which opened to reveal a small refrigerator with a variety of drinks. As with the phone and the TV, heroic efforts have been made to hide these necessary but jarring intrusions of modern technology into traditional Japanese design. Given that I had no intention of using the phone, TV or fridge, I was perfectly happy to have these things “under wraps.”
Fridge closed – image © Chris Rowthorn
Fridge open – image © Chris Rowthorn
The bathroom was small but attractively designed. On the counter, I found a small package made of washi paper containing a variety of Tawaraya-branded cosmetics and toiletries.
Bathroom – image © Chris Rowthorn
Beyond this was a separate room containing the bathtub and shower, with a floor-to-ceiling window looking out onto the garden. The wooden tub, made of smooth hinoki cypress wood, was deep and inviting. And it was already filled with perfectly heated water.
Bathtub – image © Chris Rowthorn
Hidden in a corner between the bathroom and entrance was the toilet. As with most Japanese houses and good ryokan, the toilet was separate from the bathroom. Needless to say, the toilet had a heated seat and the usual array of functions like bidet etc. It was, perhaps, the most modern thing in the room.
After settling in and enjoying a quick cup of green tea, I set off to explore the ryokan. Tawaraya is a relatively small building, with 18 rooms spread over three floors. I was keen to find the study, which I had visited once before. Hidden away down a narrow passageway on the second floor, the study is my favorite part of Tawaraya. It is the study of your dreams: a cozy nook celebrating the life of the mind. There is a bookcase filled with an incredible selection of Japanese and English books, with a focus on art, design and photography. On shelves scattered about, there is also an intriguing collection of objets – including a mesmerizing high-end kaleidoscope by Henry Bergeson.
Tawaraya study – image © Chris Rowthorn
Off of the main room of the study, there’s a small alcove that invites long, languid perusal of books, or perhaps an afternoon nap. I suspect that I am not the first guest to want to recreate this space in my own home.
Study alcove – image © Chris Rowthorn
I had heard a lot of about the food at Tawaraya over the years and my expectations were high. I wanted to share the experience with a friend, so I invited the photographer Damien Douxchamps to join me for dinner. Damien’s photographs have graced the pages of InsideKyoto from its inception and I knew that Damien would appreciate the food. The meal was served in my room. Yu brought each course individually, materializing as if by magic when we had finished the previous course. The menu was handwritten on a beautiful piece of washi paper.
Dinner menu at Tawaraya – image © Damien Douxchamps
The meal was classic kaiseki, meaning that it followed a fixed course of elements (chosen to reflect the season). The only deviation from the standard format was the fact that some courses were served together. I’ll list each course individually here using the Japanese names for each course.
- plum wine (pictured above)
- ebi-imo hakata (steamed shrimp-shaped potato)
- shrimp and with green soybean paste
- sweet potato cracker, pine needle-shaped burdock leaves, carrot leaves
Saki-zuke – image © Chris Rowthorn
Ko-suimono (small soup course)
- pureed soup of lotus root
- fried tofu, roasted pine nuts
Ko-suimono – image © Chris Rowthorn
Muko-zuke (sashimi course)
- kue (longtooth grouper) sashimi
- fugu (puffer fish) sashimi
Muko-zuke – image © Chris Rowthorn
Mushi-mono (steamed food course)
- pike conger eel, clams, yuba, shimeji mushroom, mitsuba (Japanese parsley) steam-boiled in an earthenware teapot
- sudachi (Japanese citrus fruit)
Mushi-mono – image © Chris Rowthorn
Yaki-mono (grilled fish course)
- ayu (sweetfish) kenchin-yaki
- nameko mushroom with daikon dressing
- broiled conger eel sushi, citrus grilled shrimp
- roasted chestnuts, salt-roasted ginkgo nuts, gingerroot
Yaki-mono – image © Chris Rowthorn
Atsu-mono (hot dish)
- jibu-ni (simmered duck meat)
- small turnip, mochi-fu (raw wheat gluten), kikuna (chrysanthemum leaves)
Atsu-mono – image © Chris Rowthorn
Shii-zakana (side dish)
- shijimi clam and yuba with blended vinegar
- roasted sesame seeds, myoga (Japanese ginger), bofu (Saposhnikovia divaricata)
Shii-zakana – image © Chris Rowthorn
- steamed rice
- Kyoto tsukemono (Japanese pickles)
- aka-dashi (red miso soup)
Gohan – image © Chris Rowthorn
- pear compote with blueberry sauce
Mizu-mono – image © Chris Rowthorn
Damien and I both thoroughly enjoyed the meal. Each course was a feast for the eyes and palate. We mostly communicated with Yu in Japanese, but it was clear that she spoke enough English to explain the food to non-Japanese speakers.
I’ve eaten a lot of excellent kaiseki, both in restaurants and in ryokans. I would rate the dinner at Tawaraya as very good. It was not mind-blowing, but I suspect that it would be a revelation to those who have never experienced a full kaiseki meal. While the ingredients and preparation were classically Japanese, the meal contained few items that would challenge the Western palate. There were plenty of things that would be new to foreign palates, but nothing that would take courage to eat. Best of all, the meal was healthy and light and left us feeling satisfied but not bloated. Overall, it would be a brilliant introduction to kaiseki and a fine meal for all but the pickiest diners.
After dinner, I bid Damien goodbye and took a final stroll around the ryokan. Inevitably, I found my way back to the study, where I sat and fantasized about the study I will someday build in my own house. I then walked back to my room. When I arrived, Yu was just leaving my room. We quickly discussed the time I’d like to eat breakfast in the morning. That taken care of, I entered my room to find that Yu had moved the dining table out of the way, laid out my futon, and put blackout curtains over the windows in case I wanted to sleep late.
Futon – image © Chris Rowthorn
Now was the perfect time to enjoy the bath. The water remained heated to the perfect temperature and the deep wooden bathtub felt luxurious. The blackout curtains did not cover the bathroom window, so I was able to gaze out over the garden while soaking. There were one or two subtle lights in the garden, and it looked truly magical by night.
After drying off and changing into my yukata, I lounged about with a book, but I found myself looking up frequently to savor the fact that I was indeed in Tawaraya – a place that had held a near-mythical presence in my imagination for so long.
Before long, it was time to sleep. I crawled into the futon and found that it was incredibly luxurious. Tawaraya is famous for their bedding and now I knew why. The fabric on the futon was some impossibly fine cotton and the shiki-buton (mattress) was much thicker than any futon I’d ever slept on. I made a mental note to ask where they get their futons made.
As I drifted off to sleep, I found myself marveling at how quiet the place was. I’m a light sleeper and I’m easily annoyed by the sounds of normal hotels and ryokan. But here, due to some impressive sound-proofing, I could not hear any of the usual sounds. There was no sound of footsteps from the room above me, no muffled conversation from the room next door, and no noise from tipsy guests stamping down the hallways. Indeed, the only time I heard other guests at Tawaraya was a distant and hushed conversation from a couple across the garden as they were settling into their room (I had my sliding window to the garden open at that time). Needless to say, I slept very well at Tawaraya.
In the morning, Yu came at the appointed time with a copy of the Japan Times (my old employer), and a tray with excellent coffee. She then set about putting my futon away. I sat at the table drinking coffee and perusing the paper for a while. Then, Yu stepped out and returned with a tray carrying my breakfast.
Breakfast at Tawaraya – image © Chris Rowthorn
While Tawaraya does offer a Western breakfast, I had requested the Japanese breakfast and I’m glad I did. While the dinner was good, this breakfast was probably the single best Japanese breakfast I’ve ever eaten. It included grilled fish, aka-dashi (red miso soup), age-dashi dofu (fried tofu), perfectly steamed rice, Kyoto tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and one or two tasty side dishes. Yes, that’s a lot of food, but none of it was heavy. It would be the perfect breakfast to power you through a day of Kyoto sightseeing.
Breakfast with garden view – image © Chris Rowthorn
After I finished my breakfast, Yu came to clear the dishes away. While doing that, she asked what time I planned to check out and if I’d like them to have a taxi waiting. Checking out was quick and painless: I paid with my credit card. They had my shoes waiting for me in the genkan. As I climbed into the waiting taxi, the entire front office staff came out to formally bow to me. I turned my head back one time as we rounded the corner onto Oiki-dori Street and, just as I expected, they were still there holding that bow.
Lobby at Tawaraya – image © Damien Douxchamps
Booking a Night at Tawaraya
Tawaraya is not the sort of place you can book online. In fact, it’s impossible to book Tawaraya online, so don’t bother searching. But, don’t despair: You can book a room at Tawaraya without connections and without Japanese ability. We give the full details here: How to Book Tawaraya Ryokan.
How Much Does It Cost to Stay at Tawaraya?
Like most ryokan, Tawaraya charges per person, NOT per room. Rates include dinner and breakfast (although you can drop one or both meals for stays longer than one night). If you’re alone, you must pay a surcharge for single occupancy. The rates at Tawaraya with two meals staying double occupancy start at around Y50,000 per person (about US$450) and go up to around Y100,000 (about US$900). This might seem like a lot, but keep in mind that a room at the Four Seasons Kyoto at the same time of year would also cost around US$1800 and would not include breakfast or dinner. Meanwhile, a room at the nearby Ritz-Carlton Kyoto would cost around US$1200, and would not include any meals. Considering that a full kaiseki meal at a good restaurant in Kyoto would cost around Y20,000 per person (about US$180), it starts to become clear that Tawaraya is not as expensive as many people believe. It’s also worth noting that some of Kyoto other first-class ryokan like Hiiragiya cost at least as much as Tawaraya.
Another garden shot – image © Damien Douxchamps
What Do the Critics Say?
If you look on review sites like TripAdvisor, you will see that Tawaraya gets a lot of five-star reviews. However, a small minority of reviewers seem unhappy with the ryokan. If you read their reviews carefully, you will see that the complainers mostly fall into two groups: those who wouldn’t be comfortable staying in any ryokan, and those who find the place “old.” Regarding the first, if you’re not comfortable eating and sleeping on the floor, then a ryokan isn’t for you. Regarding the second, yes, Tawaraya is “old” (about 300 years old, to be precise, although almost everything, including the building itself, is much newer than that). However, nothing is tatty, worn out, or run down. Tawaraya is the epitome of the “wabi-sabi” aesthetic, in which the gentle patina of age is the highest mark of beauty. Thus, it’s fair to say this: for someone who appreciates the traditional Japanese aesthetic and is comfortable with the Japanese way of living, Tawaraya will be a sublime experience. For others, we would recommend a hotel.
Enjoying a night at Tawaraya is very similar to having private geisha entertainment: It will cost between US$1,000 to $1,500 for a couple. And, just like geisha entertainment, it can only be enjoyed if you are comfortable spending this amount without worrying about it. The magic of the experience should not be sullied by worldly concerns like what it costs by the hour. And, just like the geisha, Tawaraya represents the coming together of almost all the major traditional arts. Throughout the experience, one finds oneself asking: “Who chose all these things? Who designed this place?” At every moment, one feels the presence of someone behind it all with impeccable aesthetic taste. More likely, of course, we are not talking about one individual, but rather several generations of aesthetic masters making just the right decision. There is, quite simply, not a hair out of place. It is traditional Japanese perfection.
Is Tawaraya Worth It?
So, to answer the question: Is it worth it? My answer is a qualified yes. And those qualifications are: 1) if you can easily afford it, 2) if you are comfortable with ryokan-style accommodation (sleeping in a futon on the floor etc), and 3) if you appreciate the traditional Japanese aesthetic. If you can answer yes to all three, then I HIGHLY recommend a night at Tawaraya, perhaps even two, so you can really savor the experience. Just like private geisha entertainment, it is likely to one of the true highlights of your trip and the memory of a lifetime.
Disclosure: In order to be free to make my own judgements without any editorial pressure, I paid for my stay at Tawaraya entirely out of my own funds. This is our policy with all articles on InsideKyoto.com, TrulyTokyo.com and InsideOsaka.com. It allows us to be entirely honest in our reviews.
What If Tawaraya Is Fully Booked or Too Difficult To Book?
Tawaraya often books out completely during March/April and October/November (cherry blossom and fall foliage seasons). And, as mentioned above, they don’t have online booking capabilities, so it’s rather inconvenient to book. If you would like an experience similar to Tawaraya, but with online booking capabilities, why not try any of the following places that can easily be booked online?
- Seikoro Ryokan
(Check availability on Booking.com and Agoda.com)
This is a superb ryokan with elegant décor and reasonable rates.
- (Ryokan Inn) Yoshida Sanso
(Check availability on Booking.com and Agoda.com)
Located up on lovely Yoshida-yama Hill, near Ginkaku-ji, this cozy retreat is one of our favorites.
- Gion Hatanaka
(Check availability on Booking.com or Agoda.com)
Right in the heart of Gion, this ryokan is the perfect base for easy sightseeing.
(Check availability on Booking.com or Agoda.com)
Another classic ryokan in the heart of Gion, this elegant place is a wonderful choice.
- Nanzenji Sando Kikusui
(Check availability on Booking.com or Agoda.com)
For sightseeing in Northern and Southern Higashiyama, this comfortable ryokan is a brilliant choice.
More Information on Kyoto Accommodations
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass – here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- Get travel insurance for Japan - World Nomads is well-regarded (and here's why)