After the amazing kaiseki dinner we had at Ryokan Kansako I was looking forward to dining at Ryokan Shiraume, our splurge choice in Kyoto for two nights (after which we switched to a hotel in Kyoto station for 3 nights).
Shiraume is a stunning ryokan situated right in the heart of Kyoto’s well-preserved Gion district. It is built right on the bank of the Shirakawa Stream, amongst the old cherry, willow and plum trees and many rooms enjoy the view and sound of gentle running water. Access is across a small entrance bridge from the street along the other side of the stream and the two beautiful white plum trees for which the inn has been named flank each side.
The Gion district developed to serve the needs of visitors to the nearby Yasaka Shrine, many of whom travelled some distance to see it. Eventually, Gion evolved to become an exclusive and well known geisha district. Incidentally, Gion geisha refer to themselves as geiko, meaning women of the arts, rather than geisha or person of the arts.
Like many of the surviving traditional machiya (townhouses) in the area, Shiraume was once an ochaya – although ochaya translates as ‘tea house’, don’t confuse it with a chashitsu (tea room), where a traditional Japanese tea ceremony may be enjoyed. Geisha entertain their clients by performing the many traditional arts in which they have been trained. Ochaya provide entertainment spaces for such gatherings and Dairyu (Big Willow), as this one was called, was particularly popular with local novelists and poets, including Yoshii Isamu, whose ode to Gion is commemorated on a carved stone monument outside.
Dairyu was opened in 1855, towards the end of the Edo period, and has been passed down from mother to daughter through seven generations. In 1949 the fifth generation owner decided to convert her property into an elegant ryokan (inn) which she named Shiraume. Today, her granddaughter Tomoko Okuda owns the inn. She is a wonderful host and looked after us so warmly during our stay that we can’t wait to return.
On arrival, we were greeted by Tomoko, checked in and shown to our room before a member of staff arrived with tea and sweets
We booked Umekoyomi, a beautiful ground floor room overlooking the stream. It’s a traditional Japanese style room with pretty antiques and artwork, an en suite bathroom with a beautiful hinoki (cypress wood) tub and has a small entrance hall leading into the main room and bathroom. Sound proofing must be good as we never heard other guests when in our room.
Before taking over Shiraume, Tomoko travelled all around the world and is no stranger to a traveller’s needs. She cleverly provides a traditional Japanese inn with modern facilities including underfloor heating, air conditioning, lovely large thick towels, a hair dryer, telephones in each room, a mini bar fridge (which you can put your own items into, if you prefer), tea and coffee facilities and even a TV and music system. Of course, yukata (traditional robes) and toiletries are also provided.
In the four other traditional inns in which we stayed, I found the futon mattresses quite thin, so asked for my bed to be made with 2 or even three stacked together. But at Shiraume, the futons are far thicker, and the most comfortable we slept on.
In the afternoon, a selection of drinks and snacks are laid out in one of the public areas for guests to enjoy.
And Tomoko or one of her team are always available to help with local advice or anything you need.
Once again, I wrote in advance to advise that I might struggle to sit comfortably on the floor for the traditional meal we booked for our first night. Tomoko invited us to dine in one the separate dining rooms, where we could lower our legs into the foot space provided. We sat facing out to the open window, listening to the running water of the stream and watching Gion walking past.
The first course was a stunning array of appetisers. As you can see, presentation is just as important as taste.
Inside it’s casing, a grilled mountain chestnut; pink mountain potato; in a citrus bowl, teeny tiny fish in a soya sauce; in an intricate basket woven from seaweed, a “persimmon” that is actually a quail egg and two gingko chestnuts; potato topped with ikura (salmon roe); burdock root; anago (salt-water conger eel) nigiri sushi and a long stem of pickled ginger to refresh the mouth after the sushi.
Course two was dobin mushi (a selection of seasonal ingredients cooked in a light broth).
Within the little tea pot was a light but flavoursome liquid containing prawns, matsutake mushrooms and a fish called hamo. Tomoko explained that hamo is also known as the emperor fish and related a story – the emperor loved ocean fish but, during the heat of summer, only one type could survive the one week journey from the coast . But this fish had so very many bones that he just couldn’t enjoy it. One day a clever chef found a way to sliced the bones out whilst leaving the skin in tact, to hold the fish pieces together. The emperor could enjoy ocean fish again!
It’s said to take 16 years of training to learn the technique…
The English language name for hamo is daggertooth pike conger eel.
On the next plate was a grilled scallop with sea urchin sauce, a boiled egg with black sesame seeds and a seaweed and wasabi condiment. Decorating the plate, but also edible, was a sprig of new harvest rice from Siga prefecture which had been popped (like corn) on the stem.
When we booked, we were given a choice between the Kobe beef or the standard kaiseki menu and opted for one of each. Tomoko kindly brought the different courses from each menu separately so both of us could share each one.
First up was the Kobe beef, simply served with Japanese black vinegar. Delicious and tender, though it suffered a little in comparison with that unbelievably silky Hida beef we’d had a few days earlier!
From the kaiseki menu, we were served a selection of sashimi – fatty tuna, snapper and squid.
After that came sushi with grilled preserved mackerel, a speciality of Kyoto where fish often had to be preserved during the hotter months.
For our seventh course, we were back to the shared items from both menus again. The star of this dish for me was the yuba (bean curd skin) served with soya and bonitobut the grilled guji (Japanese tilefish), shitake mushroom and spinach were also fresh and delicious.
Guji is also known as amadai in some parts of Japan.
Diamond crab came topped with tobiko (flying fish roe) and was served with grilled aubergine, soya beans and 2 different vinegars. It was so fresh it was almost sweet!
Next came rice, pickles and miso soup.
And we finished with hojicha (roasted green tea) and black sesame ice cream with fresh fruit.
The next morning, we were offered a choice of a Western or Japanese breakfast, and this time we opted for Western.
First came tea and fruit juice followed by a basket of top quality croissants, walnut and raisin bread (some of the best I’ve had), chocolate brioche (which was amazingly light), bacon pastries and toast plus omelette, fresh fruit and jams. Enjoyed from the private dining room again, with the window open to the light and sounds coming from outside, it was a wonderful start to the day.
Well fortified, we set off to explore Gion and Higashiyama – areas of Kyoto known for traditional architecture, shops and restaurants as well as many temples and shrines. I’ve shared several posts about these temples and shrines in recent weeks.
Unfortunately, the second half of this day turned into quite an unpleasant one. I was hit with one of the worst headaches I’ve ever experienced – it seemed to be both a neck and shoulder tension headache and a migraine combined, more severe than either, and it wouldn’t respond to my normal prescription drugs or to sleep. Eventually, I asked Pete to see if a doctor might be available. Instead, to ensure we were seen as quickly as possible, Tomoko quickly called a taxi and personally escorted us to the local hospital where she helped translate my symptoms, medical history and drugs to the medical staff and waited with us for quite some time. My assigned doctor decided to give me a CAT scan, just to be safe, and pronounced it clear a little later. Indeed, the symptoms finally started clearing of their own accord an hour or two after that. Typical! Before she left to return to the ryokan, Tomoko left instructions with the hospital reception to organise our taxi back and when we returned home, we discovered a simple but very delicious midnight meal left in our room, as she realised we had missed dinner. Being in so much pain is never pleasant, but it’s much more distressing when you’re away from home and I can’t begin to tell you how much easier it was for both Pete and I to have the practical and emotional support of Tomoko. The next day, we had breakfast in our room and Tomoko kindly allowed us to stay late in the room for me to rest, before we transferred to our next hotel.
Of course, just to make it clear, we loved Shiraume even before my illness and had already been impressed by the warmth and welcome of Tomoko and her team, not to mention the clever way that modern comfort has been brought to a very traditional ryokan experience. And the marvellous cuisine! For anyone nervous about staying in a ryokan (although there’s no reason to be), Shiraume is a perfect choice. And of course, it’s just as appealing for ryokan old hands looking for somewhere special.
With huge thanks and friendship to Tomoko-san for her kindness during our visit.