Why is it that with each passing year, it seems to get more and more difficult to think of a cool gift idea for my wife’s birthday? Maybe it’s because in 2008, we spent her special day walking around Kyoto, Japan in traditional kimonos and stayed over at an authentic 19th-century ryokan. I’m sure she’d admit it was one of the more memorable experiences of her life, regardless of the fact that it coincided with her birthday.
There I was, having a drink at the Kitano Hotel in New York City, plum out of bright ideas, when I learned that the property had a special tatami suite that offered guests what it was calling authentic Japanese culture and hospitality. My interest piqued, I decided to surprise my wife by booking the room to celebrate her special day.
Normally, I wouldn’t even consider paying for a hotel that was less than 25 miles from our house. But this was no ordinary room. Just like the ryokan where we stayed in Kyoto, the suite featured all-natural wood flooring, tatami mats, sliding shoji paper screens, and a soaking tub with a separate wash room. Besides that, the only thing reminding us that we were actually in New York was the view of Park Avenue (through soundproof windows that lent themselves nicely to the tranquil atmosphere).
“Americans who have never experienced the setting of a traditional Japanese home come away with a new understanding from this mini-vacation through Japanese culture,” the Kitano’s general manager, Clement Carey told me. “We also receive many requests for our tatami suite from Japanese expatriates who wish to rekindle their sense of heritage.”
Although we weren’t donning kimonos this time around, the hotel did give us each a yukata robe, which in Japan is worn after taking an onsen hot spring, or communal bath. Most ryokans in Japan also included kaiseki, a traditional cuisine with roots in Zen Buddhism and the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
On this particular occasion, the Kitano’s Hakubi Restaurant served as the purveyor of what is perhaps the most memorable part of the whole ryokan experience. Our multi-course dinner featured miso soup, sliced sashimi, sizzling Kobe beef, grilled fish, assorted sushi, and an exquisite array of delicacies all served on beautifully decorated porcelain, earthenware, and lacquerware.
We saved just enough room for dessert — a medley of fruit, confections, ice cream, and cake — and a nightcap in the Jazz at Kitano (which has to be one of the most intimate and classy jazz venues in all of Manhattan) before heading back to our suite.
Breakfast was served in the very same lounge the next morning, but this time the room was filled with a mix of Japanese and American businessmen, most of whom seemed to be preparing for meetings or connecting with clients. For my wife and I it was a return to life in the big city – a place and pace we had managed to blissfully escape for a few precious hours.
Follow Rainer’s story on Twitter @JenssTravel.