Growing up in the seventies for me meant switching on the TV after homework was finished to see Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, pull up in his red Karmann Ghia. That was during the week. On Saturday nights, I’d swap the Chief for M and be thrilled at the escapades of Roger Moore or Sean Connery. Thus, I’m rather partial to the trappings of the spy – the representation of one at least not the drab life of an ASIO employee. So, when I arrived at a tiny entrance in Gion, with a split green cloth fluttering in the breeze I felt a shiver of anticipation about what might actually lurk behind this understated façade.
After looking both ways I stepped through the cloth and on to a winding path which meandered through a garden of dainty bamboo leaning on moss covered stones. Half way down the stony path I came upon a lamp and was tempted to lift it up in the hope I might find Agent 13 contorted underneath.
At the end of the garden was a low-ceilinged entry room; a large number of expensive shoes lined up neatly inside it. A glass door slid open and a man appeared, a rather large man who could pass as a character in a Bond movie. He wore a Japanese yakata and a smile. He beckoned me to unarm by taking off my shoes (no shoe phone) and I did so sashaying barefoot into a hidden world beyond the veneer.
While Doctor Who is no spy, he does have something in common with Maxwell Smart, the phone box and on entering Sowaka I felt like I had trodden into the tardis. Inside the ceilings opened out and there were entrance halls heading in all directions.
Tai in the Yakata jacket beckoned us into the bar and two glasses of Jean Vesselle were served with dark chocolate dipped orange rind. Then we were led to room 108. The number 108 is the equivalent of 000 in India. In Japan 108 is the number of time a bell is chimed in Buddhist temples to finish the old year and welcome the new one. Each ring represents one of 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome to achieve Nirvana. Significant or what?
My room fitted into an earthly temptation with its dark wooden staircase leading into a huge corridor which led into two more corridors. It looked like there were just walls in front of me but Tai pulled the walls apart to reveal a sitting room complete with tea set and martini glasses or perhaps they were tea cups. He then pulled the wall apart again – would you believe they were actually doors – to showcase a large bedroom. There was more wall pulling and then a divine verandah overlooking a Japanese garden appeared.
I couldn’t decide if it was more Thunderbirds than James Bond but I went with the Bond theme at dinner. Martinis, shaken of course.
Downstairs at the restaurant, I was served the most exquisite ten course vegan degustation. The first course consisted of nine tiny bowls each with a Japanese vegan delicacy from edamame to eggplant to lotus root. Each course exploded with taste. I was particularly enamoured by the white miso soup. Who knew miso could taste so good? Yuki whose English was excellent and whose service impeccable waited upon me with flair.
The restaurant, La Bombance, was sleek with black walls and a long wooden bench. It’s part of the La Bombance Michelin starred Tokyo brand. The food here was impeccable and I dined here for both dinner and breakfast. The vegan Japanese breakfast served bento box style was another taste sensation and delivered just as exquisitely as the degustation dinner.
La Bombance is in the new wing of the hotel. The old wing is a traditional Sukiya-zukuri building built during the Taisho (1912-1926) and Showa (1926-1988) period. It was renovated talented Japanese architect, Shigenori Uoya. Traditional Japanese art and craft techniques feature on the walls, fusuma paper sliding doors use Noda Print Motif Workshop’s traditional Karakami handmade paper while adding a modern touch. The lacquered furniture finishes are done by Yui Higashibata. Each room has a different concept and design including a room with all the accoutrements of a traditional tea ceremony.
The new annex, has been designed to evoke the historic architecture of Kyoto, and incorporates individual private passageways and inner gardens reminiscent of the city’s renowned alleyways and traditional residences. The guest rooms combine the Japanese aesthetics of wabi-sabi with the finest modern amenities such as Dyson hairdryers. The mini bars are stocked with chocolate and beers and are all inclusive.
The location of Sowaka like any luxury establishment is key and this is the pick of Gion locations with Ishibe Alley practically next door. Walking here is perfect for those who aspire to the heights of the movie world with its traditional tea houses, salons, restaurants and houses. Kodai-ji Temple is a mere five-minute stroll and the major shopping street is a stones throw from the Temple. Then you can come home for a night cap in my favourite room of the hotel – the hidden whisky bar which lies behind another sliding wall on the ground floor. It’s very Bond although I could see Agent 99 in here looking glam whilst Maxwell Smart was bashing his nose into a wall that wasn’t a door.
Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan works with Inspired Luxury who represent The Ryokan Collection, and was a guest of Jetstar Business Class, Sowaka at The Ryokan Collection and Kyoto City Tourism.
480 Kiyoi-cho, Yasaka Toriimae-sagaru, Shimogawara-dori, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, 605-0821
From JR Kyoto Station, 15 minutes by taxi
From Keihan Gion Shijo Station, about a 10-minute walk
From Hankyu Kawaramachi Station, about an 14-minute walk
For more personalised information tips and advice, or to book this incredible holiday contact your local TravelManagers’ personal travel manager here.