Lost in Translation: Hoshinoya Kyoto

Filed Under: Hotel Reviews, Hotels

Westin Atlanta Airport
American Airlines First Class New York JFK to Los Angeles
American Airlines First Class Los Angeles to Tokyo Narita
Japan Airlines Business Class Tokyo Narita to Nagoya
Hyatt Regency Kyoto
Hoshinoya Kyoto
Westin Nagoya Castle
Japan Airlines Business Class Nagoya to Tokyo Narita
American Airlines First Class Tokyo Narita to Los Angeles
American Airlines First Class Los Angeles to New York JFK

One of the friends I was traveling with is a travel agent, and he insisted on staying at Hoshinoya, since it’s somewhere he has sent clients to before and he wanted to check it out. It’s intended to be a contemporary twist on a traditional Japanese ryokan, so I didn’t mind either. The place is pricey (I don’t know what exactly we paid, but it wasn’t cheap), so I had high expectations.

One of the unique aspects of Hoshinoya is that there’s a boat landing area where guests arrive, and then it’s a 15 minute boat ride from there to the resort.

The boat landing area is pretty easy to miss, and the taxi driver actually drove about half a mile past it before turning around. You’ve gotta love Japan, though, because he proceeded to drive in reverse for half a mile (instead of turning the car around), and then was honest enough not only to stop the meter, but to deduct part of the amount since he missed the dock.

Boat landing

During our wait for the boat we were directed to an air conditioned room where we were offered cold towels and tea, which was a nice touch. After about 10 minutes “boarding” was announced, and we all headed down to the dock.

Boat to resort

The boat ride was enjoyable thanks to the abundant greenery along the sides of the lake. While the boat ride was nice once, I can’t say I enjoyed it as much the second, third, or fourth time, and I do feel it’s a bit style over substance given that the resort is (apparently) accessible by car as well.

Boat ride

Boat ride

Boat ride

Boat ride

As we arrived at the resort there was one representative waiting to greet each “party,” and they bowed as we approached.


Our representative introduced herself and led us up the walkway to our room, pointing out the facilities as we passed them. The resort only has a few dozen rooms so while our room was located at the far end of the resort, the walk took only about five minutes.

Walkway to resort

Pond by reception

Musician by pond

View of main buildings

Walkway to room

Walkway to room

At the entrance to our room we were asked to take off our shoes and instead wear slippers.



On the ground floor was the bathroom (separate toilet and shower rooms) and living room.

To the left of the entrance was the toilet, which was super-modern and had one of those seats that freaks me out, given that it goes up as soon as you enter the room. It caught me by surprise every time.


The shower was also modern, and housed a nice bathtub in the same enclosure.



To the right of the bathroom and by the stairs was the entryway to the living room.

Entryway to the living room

Living room

The stairs led up to the bedroom and sun room.


The sun room featured nice views of the river and surrounding forest, and featured hands down the most comfortable furniture in the room. 😉

Sun room

Sun room

Sun room

View from sun room

Just down the hall from the sun room was the bedroom, which featured mattresses that were placed on an elevated floor.




Service at the resort was uniformly friendly, but then again I’ve rarely come across someone in Japan that wasn’t genuinely helpful and friendly. It’s part of the culture.

That being said, here’s my beef with this place, and I hope it comes across right. I love, love, love good destination resorts. I actually never thought I’d be a huge fan of destination resorts, but then I stayed at a few Aman hotels in India, which completely blew me away. Aman-i-Khas and Amanbagh are two of the most stunning properties I’ve ever stayed at, and both were (more or less) located in the middle of nowhere.

But what made them so great was a few things, which I think are found at all Aman properties:

  • The service was proactive, friendly, polished, and laid back, all at the same time.
  • Everything revolves around the guest. They don’t present you with a schedule, but instead you set the schedule.
  • The resorts featured most of the amenities you’d find at major hotels, but at the same time had awesome cultural activities hosted by the hotel, be it a visit to the local village, camel ride, guided tour of ruins, etc.

And that’s kind of where I felt Hoshinoya fell short. Don’t get me wrong, I suspect it’s one of the most luxurious and modern ryokans you’ll find, so for high rollers looking for that “authentic” experience, you can’t beat this place. But what I kind of didn’t love about this place is that it was sufficiently removed from the city so that it was inconvenient for sightseeing compared to the Hyatt Regency Kyoto, but at the same time didn’t have sufficient amenities to make staying there all day exciting.

While a pool or gym would have been nice, that’s not what I was expecting, since I realize the intent is that it’s more of a “traditional” Japanese experience, and it doesn’t fit into it. But what was kind of frustrating is that there was very little to do at the resort. There was a tea ceremony that could be attended at a certain time one day, but that was about it. There wasn’t much hiking in the area or activities on the grounds, the restaurant hours were limited, and the place just kind of felt “dead” despite being rather full.

The only public area really was the library by reception, which served tea and coffee all day.



Again, that’s not to say the resort wasn’t beautiful, because it was. It’s just not an experience I’d be dying to repeat at my age, especially at the price point. I’d rather stay at a modern city hotel like the Hyatt Regency with a gym and lots of amenities, and conveniently tour the local sights from there.

Before leaving in the morning we had breakfast, which was served in-room (that’s the only way to have breakfast, they don’t serve it in the restaurant). That was an experience in and of itself since the set up took at least 20 minutes, given that they brought a toaster and probably close to 50 plates and dishes, all by foot.



Breakfast breads

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  1. Not sure how the breakfast tasted (I’m guessing it was good), but the presentation alone seems worth the 20 minutes prep time…

  2. About 10 years ago, we spent a couple of nights at a Ryokan in Kyoto. The property featured by Ben is in the top 1% (a guestimate) of ryokans. Back then, we paid $250. That was considered mid-range then, where $700 per night was high end. The cheap, dare I say authentic ryokans were closer to $100. Read this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ryokan_(Japanese_inn)

    You’ll sleep on a tatami http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatami

    Besides the thrill of sleeping on the floor, the best part is enjoying your meals. We treated ourselves to a kaiseki dinner (expensive) . Our host just keeps bringing out food as Ben showed in his breakfast pictures. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaiseki
    We didn’t know what some of the food items were, but if the Japanese have been eating it for thousands of years, it was good enough for us.

    When you do venture out of your room to partake in this activity, you’re expected to come down in your komono. They’re so much nicer than the robes you find in chain hotels.

    If and when there’s a next time, we’ll step it up a notch or two.

  3. thats pretty lame, you goto kyoto to have an american breakfast that you can get at dennys?

  4. Yeah, interesting. It doesn’t look like you got much of a royokan experience to me. Furniture? Beds?

    The most glaring omission I see is where the heck is the bathing portion of your visit? Getting a bath in Japan is a process and just about the best thing going there. A few hours soaking in the hot tub is equivalent to a good workout. Does that place not have some fantastic outdoor bathing area? Hard to believe.

    As for the food, I can’t blame you for taking the western breakfast. I lived in Japan for 3 years and never acquired the taste for what is served in the AM. Bleh.

    Royokan is more a state of mind and it definately does not translate into the modern, western world. The way more fun experience is to visit a larger but more downscale mountain royokan where companies are known to take retreats. Prepare to spend the whole night up drinking soju with crazy japanese businessmen/women!

  5. It looks like it falls into the gap between trying to be a ryokan but also enough like a hotel to not freak out the wealthy foreigners who are presumably it’s target market – and fails on both counts.

    I think if you’re going to try and experience the culture like that you need to jump in with both feet – sleep on the tatami, eat kaiseki and hell yes have a proper bath.

    Kyoto is overrun with expensive ryokans, but I’ve stayed at this one which was convenient for getting into town: http://www.yuzuyaryokan.com/eng/index.html

    A couple of other things I’d add – often the high price of fancy ryokans includes an elaborate dinner (kaiseki) that would be pretty expensive if you were to have it in a restaurant. And you also only really need to spend one night at a fancy ryokan – stay somewhere cheaper for the rest of your stay.

  6. As a Japanese person, I second what Ciaran says. The experience you had was for well off foreigners that want a “Japanese”, or what they think is Japanese, experience but not out of their comfort zone.

  7. @ David — I can’t get their website to work and my friend put the charge on his card, though I want to say it was somewhere around $700 per night.

  8. It’s a shame that you are too young to understand that a romantic couple does not want anything to do. That is the whole point.
    However, if you want cultural experiences, they have them galore, but you have to pay for them — zen temple experience, acupuncture, incense ceremony. They even have seaonal packages, such as private visits to the Fushimi sake brewery in winter or a soba-making class. Also, there IS a traditional Japanese tub in the room. It’s just that Kyoto does not have natural hotspring water, so there are no natural hotspring baths. Other HOSHINOYA properties, like Karuizawa, have the most amazing hot spring spa facilities, but that is the local specialty. In Kyoto, the local specialty is the culture.

  9. Well, if you would expect more accssible location to the centre of Kyoto, there should be other options…(I don’t really know my way around Kyoto. I’m one of the very RARE Japanese people who never been to there.)
    I like the modern ryokan concepts…and which is like a fusion of Japanese and Western food (such as NOBU) and still tastes good. Looking forward to your post on sightseeing in Kyoto. (I am thinking of having my wedding ceremony in Kyoto.)

  10. Oh by the way, you may have heard thoug, Hoshinoya has a resort in Nagano (a mountainous area close to Tokyo) and Okinawa..they look GORGEOUS and I’ve heard some good reviews about one in Nagano.

  11. Two beds?! =P

    Lucky, did the rate include any dinner service or discount to the Japanese cuisine? And did you try any at the hotel, in any case?

  12. That’s about the most awesome room service breakfast I’ve ever seen!

    Sounds like a great place to escape from everything, even better if there is no TV and Wifi. Of course, you have to appreciate books…

  13. The four hosts at the dock, makes me think of a more highfalutin version of “Battle Royale.” Still, tatami and futon symbolize a peaceful sleep in my book, as long as they haven’t forgotten a pillow filled with buckwheat.

  14. The western breakfast totally kill this hotel report. However, from what you ate on various trip reports on different asian airlines were still always steak or pasta instead of local entree, I totally expect that is going to happen here.

  15. Most here have missed the point. Hoshinoya is never meant to be a traditional ryokan and has never pretended to be one. It markets itself as a ryokan with a modern twist. And no, that’s not because it wants to cater to the foreigner. Kyoto has a huge domestic tourist market. Not every Japanese is running to get the traditional ryokan experience that the foreigner is wishing for. And not every foreign visitor is a first timer and craving for only the traditional ryokan experience. Rather, some would like a little modern touch, and style. And there’s a difference between an onsen and bath. Kyoto has no significant onsen that’s worthy to mention. So for those who think he should have chosen a ryokan with an onsen, well, that wouldn’t be in Kyoto.

  16. Lucky, I will be staying at this resort during a summer trip. How would you recommend getting from the resort to/from the city for sightseeing? How about getting to/from KIX?

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