Hoshinoya Resort Kyoto takes 'ryokan' experience to a new level with food

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Story highlights

  • Kyoto's Hoshinoya ryokan has long been a traditional Japanese inn, but the company currently managing only came on six years ago
  • One of the highlights is a 'kaiseki' traditional Japanese meal, often served in guests' rooms
  • Chef Ichiro Kubota marries techniques he learned in Europe with centuries-old methods learned from his father, a master of Kyoto cuisine

Arashiyama, Japan (CNN)Breaking into the ancient, tight-knit world of Kyoto's "ryokan" -- traditional Japanese inns -- is hard enough.

But when you're a company with a maverick chef that only entered the market six years ago, the odds increasingly become stacked against you.
It's these odds that the Hoshinoya Resort Kyoto is challenging.
In 2009, in the beautiful, bucolic district of Arashiyama -- about 30 minutes west of the bustling center of Kyoto proper -- the company took over a century-old ryokan and set about making it an once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Once the preserve of Imperial aristocracy, the peaceful surrounds are now open to an ever-widening demographic of tourists, eager to have the quintessential Japanese travel experience in this stunning location, accessible only by boat or footpath.
"Even though it's been six years since we opened, this building has been here for more than 100 years and has long been a ryokan," says Toshiyuki Sakai, the resort's youthful general manager.

From private getaway to exclusive retreat

Originally built as a riverside villa, the ryokan remains as secluded and removed as it was when the building was first constructed as business tycoon Suminokura Ryoi's private residence.
"This place has always been unique and a place for hospitality," says Sakai.
"What we are trying to do here is try to carry on this hospitality, take something from tradition but add modern comforts to it."
Sakai describes Hoshinoya as "a resort-slash-ryokan-slash-hotel" that strives to offer "a one-night experience," rather than merely a place to stay.
Yoga in the garden, tea ceremony classes and riverboat excursions add to the property's timelessness.
"What differentiates us from other ryokan and hotels is what this experience is, including feeling, and what sort of message we want to give them," says Sakai.
One thing's for sure: the experience is an exclusive one.
Staying at Hoshinoya doesn't come cheap and, during the autumnal leaf-viewing season, when the hills surrounding the Katsura river burst forth in a dazzling display of red hues, booking a room can be near impossible.

Tradition, but with a modern twist

Disrupting the status quo in Kyoto hasn't been easy but has reaped rewards for Hosinoya.
The youthful staff at the modern ryokan aren't afraid to challenge the expectations of their well-heeled, expectant guests -- particularly where cuisine is concerned.
"We are trying to modernize Japanese 'washoku,' " Sakai says, referring to the Japanese term for the country's cooking.
"It has a long history but it is actually a very logical way of cooking food, so we take this philosophy of washoku but use the modern ingredients and techniques. From that we try to create new, modern Japanese food."
Hoshinoya head Chef Ichiro Kubota's unique brand of Kyoto banquet cuisine pays homage to Kyoto's traditions, while quietly and unhurriedly subverting them.
He focuses on kaiseki -- an intricate, multicourse meal which is a specialty of Kyoto dining, often referred to as "food for the eyes."
His dishes, requiring dozens of seasonal ingredients and an intense concentration on his part, are described as "playful, yet precise and artistic."

From Kyoto to Europe and back

The scion of one of Kyoto's most revered kaiseki chefs, Kubota has remained within the tradition of his family and his city, but strives to incorporate over a decade of cosmopolitan experience into his craft.
Upon graduating as a trained kaiseki chef, he began his career in the kitchens of Kyoto's best traditional restaurants before heading abroad.
He began working -- and learning -- in Corsica, where he discovered a love of Mediterranean cooking before moving to the French mainland.
It was there he was discovered and hired by restaurateur Marlon Abela to lead the kitchen at his new London venture, Umu, which opened in 2004 and was awarded a Michelin star after only five months.
Seven years later Kubota found himself back in Kyoto and tasked with creating a unique -- yet deeply traditional -- kaiseki experience at Hoshinoya.

Traditionalists, look away now

"Our menu is not 100% authentic, it is something mixed with what I learned in France and in London," Kubota says.

"Of course I studied as a Japanese chef since I graduated from my university and of course I'm still a Japanese chef but I am using a bit of techniques of French cuisine also...you can see something French but in your mouth you can feel something Japanese.
"By learning this kind of cuisine, giving me more diversity, utilizing the ingredients themselves and also expressing my dishes in different ways is (diverging) a bit from what's authentic. "
He acknowledges his roots and the importance of what his father -- who he describes as his mentor -- is striving to do with "100% authentic" kaiseki.
"Authenticity is good, it is the base, but beyond the base I want to twist it a little bit," he says. "Twisting, we need the knowledge, that's why I went to France and London."
Sakai says Kubota's style of cooking stems from his belief that people's needs are changing.
"The dishes have to evolve -- just doing something completely new is not the way," he says.
"To have this core of tradition and then try to adjust to the needs of the contemporary world is how he sees it."