|Check in lounge at Shiraume|
But we had Shiraume to look forward to.
I'd read amazing things about ryokans, and wanted to stay in them all through my trip, then I saw the prices, and promptly decided one night with dinner and breakfast would be enough.
(If you're family, you probably already know the golden rule, but here's a reminder - don't la tell my parents anything you read here.)
My first choice was Seikoro Ryokan, but it was more expensive, so we decided to go for Shiraume.
The initial plan was to check in, explore Gion (where Shiraume was located) then return to the ryokan early to fully utilise all the facilities.
It was raining when we checked out from Capsule Ryokan, so I stood outside with an umbrella, flagging cabs while Eunice looked after our luggage in the lobby. This is why I prefer traveling with people!
|Souvenir from Capsule Ryokan|
And when we pulled up at Shiraume, I can understand why he wouldn't have heard of Shiraume - the entrance was so discreet I would've walked past it myself, and I read Chinese characters!
|At Shiraume's entrance (namesake plum tree in background)|
We were served the most delicious cups of salty tea with mountain herbs and rice during check-in.
After checking in, the lovely kimono-clad proprietress Tomoko had provided maps of Gion and Kyoto (most accommodations will talk you through the maps briefly) and recommended less crowded routes to walk in the Hanamachi (geisha district) in Gion.
We arranged for dinner to be served at 7pm, then set out to explore Gion.
We walked by the most prominent ochaya in Gion, the Ichiriki-tei - also quite understated and quiet. (We actually slipped into the garden to have a look, but it was empty.)
In Memoirs of a Geisha, the Ichiriki was known as the most prestigious teahouse in Gion.
|The most prominent ochaya in Gion - Ichiriki-tei|
After buying tickets to watch the Miyako Odori at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre, we had a snack of (what else?) warabi mochi at a nearby teahouse.
And then walked around Gion, which retains its old-fashioned charms.
|It was drizzling before, so Shiraume loaned us umbrellas|
Snow on a sunny day means a possum (if I remember correctly) wedding is being held.
I'd wanted to watch the Miyako Odori and Eunice (who wasn't the least bit interested) had attended because she preferred not to be separated.
I was expecting some flying fan actions aka Memoirs of a Geisha but there was not a single fan flung about. It was all very proper with warbling singing. The drama scenes looked quite interesting but made no sense - it's traditional Japanese, even normal Japanese can't fully comprehend it.
The angmo beside us fell asleep, the Miyako Odori isn't for everybody.
I probably wouldn't attend again, unless if I was going with a first-class ticket so I can experience a tea ceremony. But still glad I tried it.
After the Miyako Odori, we had lunch at the food court in a department store (probably Daimaru).
551 Horai is famous for fried pork dumplings, so we bought a box of dumplings and meatballs.
We bought bits and bobs from the stalls then ate in a small area by the escalators.
|Communicating via Google Translate|
I'd always been keen on Minnetonka shoes so we had a look.. and ended up buying a pair each.
In fact, Eunice loved her purchase so much she's looking to buy another pair in Singapore.
They're not super comfortable for my wide feet, but they're okay to wear and cute.
We also bought accessories - I tried wearing titanium studs for the first time.
It's as comfortable to wear as gold or silver, and the design is super cute.
After shopping, we went to Harbs for cakes.
|Mille crepe, 780 yen|
Japanese are quite detailed - OJ ice in OJ to retain the taste as the ice melts.
|Strawberry cake, 800 yen|
By then it was nearly 7pm, and we walked back to Shiraume for dinner. (So much for fully utilising the amenities!)
|Check in lounge|
The decoration is quite sparse and minimal, but tasteful.
The hallways are narrow and winding, with low ceilings, and apparently it's because Gion is women's quarters and the lack of space makes it harder for assassins to swing samurai swords.
|Stairs leading up to more suites.|
Our suite is at the end of the hallway, opposite a public bath (on the right).
Upon entry, there is a scroll on the left, and three sets of sliding doors.
The one on the left leads to our bedroom; the one in front leads to our dining room (below); and the one on the right leads to our private bathroom.
Eunice loved the scent of the suite, which came from the wood.
She was full of questions, and we found out that there are only 5 suites in this ryokan.
Shiraume used to be a geisha house (I think Tomoko meant teahouse instead of okiya), but the proprietress' grandmother had renovated 3 (or 2) adjoining properties to create a single ryokan.
Our attendant Teru asked if we would like our welcome snack first?
We want everything! (Typical first-time luxury customers.)
So Tomoko brought in orange mochi and chilled green tea, and arranged for our dinner to be served at 7:30pm.
Tomoko served the food so gracefully, I wondered if she'd had geisha training.
She explained the auspicious design of the orange paste - longevity - then left us to enjoy our snacks.
The second she slid the door close, we started running around taking photos.
Our suite faces the Shirakawa Stream, and we opened the sliding doors to let the cool night air in.
The breeze was refreshing, and the sounds of the trickling stream soothing, but after awhile we noticed tourists stopping on the other side of the stream and taking photos of us! With flash! So when Teru came in, she helped us lower the bamboo blinds.
So many snacks, so little time.
|Standalone arm rest|
|Our luggage had been stowed away in a wardrobe|
You know you're staying in an expensive hotel when all the drinks in the fridge are complimentary.
|A bamboo clothes rack on the balcony|
Traditional abodes in Japan have a little shrine (tokonoma) in rooms, and the person seated closest to it is usually the most senior or most important.
Upon learning this, I'd offered to swap seats with Eunice (who was a year older) but she'd declined.
|Traditional standing mirror|
Everything was so intricate, I could die.
After our snacks had been cleared away, Teru set our table.
|The napkin can be brought home as a souvenir|
They're right, this place is perfect for honeymoons.
The umeshu is charged to our bill, and isn't included in dinner.
And so it begins.
Dishes are placed in front of us, covered, then Teru would place a food description on the table and describe the food. Sometimes Tomoko would serve and talk instead of Teru.
The food was superb.
Especially impressed with the pretty radish flower petals - it had just the right amount of crunch to complement the juicy chewiness of the shrimp ball.
Tomoko had a cute story about bamboo shoots - apparently bamboos grow around an inch (if not more) overnight, which is why they are popular in ninja jumping training.
'Thank you for helping us eat the bamboos,' Tomoko had her story ended charmingly as she finished serving us bamboo shoots from a charcoal grill.
She also told us that geisha is still considered a glamorous profession, and thousands of girls come to Kyoto annually to interview with the okiyas, but only a few get selected to undergo training.
The okiyas are highly selective because they pay for the apprentice's expenses, and a trainee who cannot take the strict training and give up will have wasted the okiya's resources.
The #1 criteria for a geisha is to be outgoing and happy to talk to strangers. (Personally, I would love to talk to a geisha and see what they're like.)
Maiko (apprentice geisha) go to geisha school in full hair and outfit, but no makeup. (Sounds like a private Chinese high school to me!)
And geisha are still not allowed to be married on paper.
Apparently there is a very charming and popular 80-year-old geisha in Gion who is still always being invited to parties. She has a lover, children and grandchildren, but because she isn't officially married, she can still work as a geisha.
Eunice had been hankering for Kobe beef, so I had gotten in touch with Tomoko a couple of nights before to order Kobe beef for dinner - the standard dinner is kaiseki (traditional Japanese) with seafood, but you can change it at no extra cost.
Kobe cows listen to music and receive massages to relax their muscles, so the meat will be tender.
It was good, but I'm not sure if it's because I have unrealistic expectations, but I wasn't moved to tears or blown away.
By the time we finished our beef, it was almost 9pm, so we hastened to the library to make what we can of Happy Hour, when alcohol is served foc.
Only vulgar people like us will leave a table (and our room!) during a multi-course meal to throw free alcohol down our throats.
|Souvenirs for sale in the library.|
|Blankets are supplied in case guests feel chilly.|
During the last 2 courses, Teru had arranged the food cards and held everything together with a little origami triangle. At the end of the meal, she'd arranged everything in a red envelope to be brought home.
|Much more delicious than Ganko's|
|Soy ice cream|
|Another souvenir - food cards|
After dinner, water was brought into the room, with a handwritten weather forecast. Very sweet.
Our futons were also set up as we ate.
|Yukata and tabi socks|
|Modern toilet with all the bells and whistles|
|Our private bathtub|
|Entrance to the public bath|
|Old-fashioned fan in the public dressing area|
|Shiraume staff had prepared the bathwater for us|
We were initially confused by the wooden boards we saw leaning against the walls, until we realised its use - for keeping bathwater warm and clean.
|A bird sleeping in the Shirakawa Stream|
It was the most expensive stay of Eunice's life and one of the priciest of mine, but I highly recommend staying in a real ryokan with dinner and breakfast at least for a night.