“Domo arigato,” I say to the taxi driver who smiles, bows twice and says “Hai. Hai.” I wheel my bag along a pathway by the Ooi river just over the Togetsukyo bridge heaving with crowds of tourists who clot in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district. Some are in rent-a-kimino taking selfies, others are in school uniform giggling and smiling and then there’s the occasional western tourist biting into a Miffy shaped donut.
This side of the bridge is much quieter. My quest is to find the private boat ramp for the Hoshinoya Kyoto. I see the sign just ahead written in English and Japanese and stop and breathe a sigh of relief. ‘No. No. This way,’ says a Japanese man with a camera hung around his neck gesturing downstream. I smile. Perhaps I should have donned a pair of Blahniks and a flowy Camilla for this journey. “You have to be a very special Japanese person to stay at the Hoshinoya,” my taxi driver confided before he dropped me off.
I look down at my running shoes and eye my suitcase with the tape holding together the zipper. Do I change my shoes? Perhaps I should. Down I stoop to give the tape a tug but before I rip off the shoddy luggage band-aid, a man appears in black with gold etched sleeves and collar. “May I take your luggage?” He ushers me to a lift in a two story building opposite the boat ramp. One floor up I am met by another gold collared staff member. The boathouse waiting room has a mini shop and a number of tables and chairs which look out to a garden. I’m brought a cold towel and a glass of water whilst the boat is readied.
A private boat ride
Minutes later I step onto the private wharf and into the hinoki (cedar boat). The spirit of the Edo period glides down the river with me as I’m transported away from the slurping raman and matcha ice-cream crowds and into an ancient world of luxury. I gaze out across the river at maple leaves discarding their summer greens for the autumn fashions of yellow and red.
Fifteen minutes later I arrive at a pontoon. I’m again greeted and led up a stone path winding between Japanese momiji maples to the zen rock garden where a girl is sitting on a rock in the middle of a pond and playing a musical instrument. The striking sounds stir images of a time when the nobility of Japan retreated to this secluded enclave. The property was originally owned by Suminokura Ryoi, a seventeenth century merchant who played a part in constructing the Takasegawa canal that cuts through Kyoto. Today the resort is housed in a cluster of building which date back a century.
The accommodation at the Hoshinoya
My room looks out onto the Ooi River with its backdrop of dense forest. I spot a deer prancing amongst the foliage. Inside my room offers walls of hand printed Kyoto wall paper and sliding rice paper screens. The sitting room is comparable to a traditional ryokan with its tatami matting. In the bathroom, there’s a full size bath, square and made of cypress, and two pouches of personally tailored herbs to add to the water as well as a Japanese toilet to contend with. The heated seat is nice but I’m not courageous enough to find out what all the buttons are for.
In the mud room there are two pairs of Japanese style silk pyjamas laid out for me. One is peach and for bed. The other is grey and I’m told we can wear these around the resort. Life is good because I love nothing more than lounging around in pyjamas.
I change into my greys and saunter up to the Salon and Bar Kura where I’m served complimentary Japanese sweets and a drink. Four other guests sit at the table heads down engrossed in colouring in. I find myself back here after dinner sampling some Japanese whiskey poured over a Rubix cube sized ice block. The Hoshinoya is a cultural mecca with an array of activities from early morning stretch classes between moss covered stones under the drooping leaves of the maple to making traditional incense in a tatami matted room. Whilst there’s no dedicated spa, I’m treated to a shiatsu therapist in my room. She’s also a herabalist and prepares for me ten little bath packs of liquid herbs to bring home. Alas they never make it through customs but my dry herbs do so I’m not so disappointed.
A private audience with a Buddhist Monk
The staff here are polite and will go the extra mile to ensure the stay is a memorable one. Whilst there are just so many reasons to want to stay here, the highlight for me was surprisingly getting up at 445 am. I had three alarms set to ensure I wouldn’t miss my private audience with a zen monk at the Zuiho-in, a sub temple of Daitokuji Monastery. A five am boat ride with Mai, from the front office. She tells me how she loves her job and how her favourite part is when she does housekeeping as she loves to clean. I want to smuggle her into my suitcase immediately. Mai is pleasant company.
We transfer together to a taxi and then on to the temple. It’s dark when we arrive. We stand at a large door awaiting the monk to let us in. He’s eighty one, Mai tells me. As I’m wondering if he may have slept in, I hear a shuffle sound behind the door and then it opens to reveal a monk with glasses smiling. He’s wearing long black robes and his head is shaved.
We follow him to a room in a temple where we sit cross legged and watch him set up the alter. I am given a Buddhist book in English much like a hymn or order of service book at church. Mai tells me which page and we sit there together belting out words in pinyin with the monk which is strangely therapeutic although I have no idea what I am saying. After forty five minutes of chanting, Mai tells me it is time to meditate so I close my eyes and listen to the sounds whilst kneeling on a mat.
The sun has come up now and I can see through to the stone garden. When the meditation is over Mai shows me the other stone garden and then we make our way to the tatami matted tea room for some matcha tea. The Buddhists have the highest quality matcha tea and this cup is good. After a few questions, it’s time to journey back to the Hoshinoya with the Buddhist chant pounding pleasantly in my head. I return to the boat ramp in my Hoshinoya greys. No local tries to sway me from my path so perhaps I’m starting to look like I belong in the ranks of Japanese nobility.
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