Entrance of SOWAKA, with the noren (curtain) and two bicycles outside.
In the heart of Kyoto, SOWAKA’s facade sits unassumingly within the city’s fabled Gion district - a historical and cultural part of Kyoto that captures the city’s elegance and serves as one of the most famous entertainment districts.

SOWAKA, translating as ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’ in Sanskrit is a blessing often spoken at the end of Buddhist sutras, oftentimes heard throughout Kyoto’s historical temples and shrines. Designed and overseen by award-winning architect Shigenori Uoya, whose reputation and work lies in preserving and restoring traditional architecture in Kyoto, SOWAKA was opened to the public in 2019 as a luxury ryokan (traditional inn) and was included in the Ryokan Collection.

Prior to the renovation, SOWAKA’s foundation was once a 100 year old sukiyazukuri (traditional Japanese residential architecture) style ryotei (an exclusive traditional Japanese restaurant) built in the Taisho period - a place that once served Kyoto’s elite. Although the ryotei is no longer, many aspects have been retained in remembrance of its historical significance. From original tearooms; lush inner gardens; wooden beams and structures that date back 100 years; to wells that are currently used to source water brought in from Lake Biwa, SOWAKA brings these traditional aspects to the fore, whilst revolutionising the ryokan.

Entering the main building was an experience in itself. Ducking through the noren (curtains hung at the door of a business), I realised that I had entered something superb. A cobblestone pathway glowed with a recent dew, freshly watered before my arrival to fight the blazing summer heat. It led me to the entrance of the ryokan. After removing my shoes and stepping through the threshold, I was awash with beauty and serenity.

While the main building, which includes 11 rooms, sits on the 100-year old property, the annex (containing 12 rooms) adjoins this and serves to complement the historic property. All 23 bedrooms and suites at SOWAKA are uniquely designed and carefully arranged to provide the utmost privacy. The incorporation of individual private passageways and intimate gardens are evocative of Kyoto’s typical architecture, truly enveloping guests in an authentic experience. What draws guests in, no doubt, are the local Kyoto customs proffered by the staff and the examples of the city’s craftsmanship that adorn every room. Along with considered details such as luxurious cushioned cashmere mattresses, cedar wood speakers, and organic Japanese amenities, many local antique pieces and artworks have also been handpicked and curated from Masa. Guests can select from accommodations with a wide variety of styles, from rooms with private gardens and outdoor bathtubs, to original tearooms.

SOWAKA’s property includes a chic contemporary lounge where guests can view the old wells that are still used today. Welcome drinks are to be enjoyed here while perusing the daily newspapers (available in both Japanese and English), local cultural books, and novels. A cosy bar sits adjacent, filled with a variety of sake, whiskey, and various other delicious drinks, as well as the in-house award winning restaurant, La Bombance (sister restaurant to their Tokyo branch which has been Michelin-starred for ten consecutive years since 2008), overseen by chef Tadahiko Urimori. Breakfast is an array of local vegetables, finished with rice and condiments from Kyotango and neighbouring prefectures by the sea, such as mentaiko (cod roe), and aosa (seaweed).

Amy Tang
Amy Tang