An Oasis of History and Architecture in the Heart of Gion: Sowaka and La Bombance Gion
祇園の真ん中にある歴史と建築 心のオアシス: 「そわか」と「ラ・ボンバンス祇園」


The Gion (祇園) district of Kyoto is famous for its nostalgic appeal as a place offering visitors a historic atmosphere steeped in the world of traditional Japanese culture and arts. I spent a couple of nights in Kyoto recently and a friend invited me to stay at Sowaka, a charming hotel in the Gion-Yasuka district. The hotel is situated just a 3-minute walk down the street from one of the most popular tourist destinations in the entire region, the Yasaka Jinja shrine.

Besides its ideal location to begin exploring Kyoto, I discovered that Sowaka is elegantly designed as a place for people to relax and tap into their inner spirituality to explore the rich history of Japan’s ancient capital while enjoying modern metropolitan conveniences.

In this article, I share a review of my experience at Sowaka and its restaurant, La Bombance Gion.

If you are planning a trip to Kyoto and would like to stay at Sowaka, do not hesitate to contact me! I can introduce you to the hotel owners. 🙂



今回の記事は、「そわか」とそのレストラン「La Bombance祇園」での体験レビューを紹介したいと思います。


If you are planning a trip to Kyoto and would like to stay at Sowaka, do not hesitate to contact me! I can introduce you to the hotel owners. 🙂

Table of Contents

Small Luxury Hotel: Sowaka


When I first arrived to the hotel, I was a bit confused about where the entrance was. SOWAKA has been verified as one of the “Small Luxury Hotels of the World” (SLH). However, unlike many Western luxury hotels with grand entrances, the entrance to SOWAKA seemed to be just a small alleyway covered with a simple white curtain (暖簾 noren, meaning “warm curtain”) often used for the entrances of restaurants and stores in Japan.

This perhaps unusual entrance is your first step into Kyoto’s history. Gion is renowned for its high concentration of traditional wooden machiya houses, and SOWAKA is recognized as a kyo-machiya because its main building was restored from a ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurant) first constructed in the 1910s. Due to the fact that property taxes were formerly based upon the size of street frontage, many houses were built with narrow facades only a few meters wide, but extend up to twenty meters in from the street! Pretty clever, if you ask me.



Moving past the noren curtains, you will find yourself surrounded by lush greenery as you enter the hotel.

The Lounge


I was greeted by the hotel staff upon arrival and invited to the lounge for a welcome drink.
Guests can choose from several alcoholic and non-alcoholic options. When I visited, the options were champagne, homemade plum wine, lemonade, or green tea. Of course, the pictures clearly reveal what we chose. 😉

After enjoying our welcome drink, we were given a tour of the hotel and our rooms.
The lounge area is open to all guests to use freely during their stay. It was a nice place to relax and read some of the books curated by the hotel on Japanese culture and architecture, or to meet with friends and plan our sightseeing route for the day.
Interestingly, as SOWAKA preserves the historical architecture of the ryotei, the lounge area is built upon the original kitchen.




Learn about Kyoto, Japanese architecture, and the hotel’s history through the various books available in the lounge.

The Kyoto basin is well-known among the Japanese to contain an abundance of pure, clear groundwater. SOWAKA continues to use the natural water drawn from beneath the hotel.  In Japanese legends, the waters of Kyoto are said to possess spiritual power, especially the sacred Gion water of Yasaka Shrine, located near the hotel. Kyoto’s soft groundwater has extremely low levels of calcifying ions, and is often credited for the beautiful, clear skin of women in the region, including the geisha and maiko.  It is also said to have a delicate, smooth taste, which contributes to the high quality and slight tendency towards sweetness of local sake breweries.

京都の盆地には、清らかな地下水が豊富にあることは、日本人にはよく知られていると思います。「そわか」では、その地下から汲み上げた天然水を使い続けています。 日本の伝説では、京都の水には霊力があるとされており、特にホテルの近くにある八坂神社の祇園水は神聖な水とされています。京都の軟水は石灰化イオンが極めて少なく、芸者や舞妓など京都の女性の肌が美しくキメが整っているのは、この水のおかげだと言われていますよ。また、繊細でなめらかな味わいが特徴で、これが地酒の品質の高さや、やや甘口の傾向にもつながっていると言われていることもあります。

Main Building: A Museum of Historical Architecture


The ryotei restaurant that closed its doors in 2012, was built in the traditional sukiya Japanese residential architectural style (Sukiya-zukuri, 数寄屋造り) by tea ceremony masters. Suki means “refined, well cultivated taste and delight in elegant pursuits,” especially in reference to the enjoyment of the exquisitely performed tea ceremony. In the historical definition, a sukiya denoted a building with a tea ceremony room (known as a chashitsu), but later came to indicate a style of designing buildings based on tea house aesthetics more generally. The essence of sukiya is the intention of creating modest, rustic spaces that not only reflects one’s humility, but also emphasizes the importance of hospitality. The buildings are designed to let guests know that while the house may not hold much material value, the sincere hospitality offered is the true value.

Although the hotel has been renovated, Sowaka retains many of the architectural features of the historical ryotei restaurant. The corridors are maze-like to allow diners privacy when they entered or exited the restaurant. Hotel guest rooms have been refurbished from the original private dining rooms, and in the same aesthetic of privacy, all doors remain unnumbered.



The style of every room at SOWAKA is different, but perhaps one of the more unique rooms in the main building is the “Maisonette with Tea Ceremony Room,” offering guests the experience of having a private chashitsu next to the bedroom.


On the second floor of the maisonette, guests can take a Japanese-style bath and then cool off in the tatami room next to it (originally called the “Hyotan Gourd Room”). I am not sure why it was named as such, but it might have to do with how “hyotan” gourds have been considered symbols of good luck since ancient times in Japan.


Annex Building: Modern Japanese Design Inspired by Sukiya

新館: 数寄屋をモチーフにした和モダンのデザイン

The Annex building was newly built in March 2019, and features modern Japanese design inspired by the traditional sukiya architectural style. Both the main and annex buildings of Sowaka were designed by Shigenori Uoya, an award-winning Kyoto architect who has made a name for himself converting old machiya houses into hotels and townhouses with atrium gardens.

Similar to the main building, all guest rooms in the annex building are unique and spaciously laid out so that no two rooms are adjacent to each other, providing guests privacy in their rooms. I stayed in Room 211, the “Courtyard View Bath Higashiyama View” room. This room was extra spacious, seemingly augmented with a sloped ceiling that hits 3.7m at its highest point.



An inventive cantilevered bay window provides a picturesque view peeking over the signature alleyways of Gion. Enjoy with a glass of wine or the complimentary cold-pressed Shinshu grape juice from the mini bar.
There are a wide variety of complimentary drinks provided in the mini-fridge of each room. Above is cold-pressed grape juice from Shinshu! (Shinshu is the traditional name for Nagano Prefecture, which is famous for its high-end fruit, especially apples.)
Guests can also relax in the Japanese cypress bath while enjoying the graceful greenery and Higashiyama mountain views beyond the tiled roofs of Gion.
For those digital nomads and workcation enthusiasts, the spacious room and high-speed wifi also made it perfect for getting some work done!

The Restaurant: La Bombance Gion

レストラン: ラ・ボンバンス祇園

SOWAKA’s restaurant “La Bombance Gion” is the third installment of the award-winning “La Bombance” in Nishi-Azabu, Tokyo. For more than a decade, Michelin-starred La Bombance has enticed gourmet connoisseurs through its dishes. La Bombance Gion uses locally sourced ingredients to create seasonal menus that creatively reimagine traditional Kyoto-style kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine).


The dinner course menu changes every month. The Japanese menu is actually written in riddles, where guests have to guess the dish that will be presented! Unfortunately, my Japanese is not good enough to guess any of the riddles except the first one… If anyone can explain the others to me, please do!
The signature dish of La Bombance Gion is “9 Amuse” (middle) which features 9 playful dishes that align with the spirit of “suki” (refined tastes).
「ラ・ボンバンス祇園」の看板メニューは、「数寄 」の精神に沿った遊び心あふれる9皿の「9 Amuse」(中)です。
Rachel Leng at La Bombance Gion
Enjoying dinner at La Bombance Gion. My favorite dish was the steamed beef that came with an array of flavorful dips, including truffle salt and the chef’s own “secret sauce”!
Breakfast was a choice between Japanese or Western menus. Both were delicious, but I personally enjoyed the charcoal grill that came with the Western breakfast!
Generous Japanese breakfast spread.

Last Reflections: A Deep Connection to Kyoto’s History, Architecture, Traditional Culture, and Local Products


Staying at SOWAKA was like visiting a sophisticated museum of the architectural culture and history of Japan. The name “Sowaka”” comes from a Sanskrit blessing meaning “may there be happiness,” often spoken at the end of Buddhist sutras that have been chanted in the numerous temples of Kyoto for centuries, and it is befitting that the hotel strives to bless visitors with happiness and tranquility in the heart of one of the busiest districts of Kyoto. 

What impressed me the most was SOWAKA’s dedication to preserving the cultural heritage of the original 100-year-old building and support Kyoto’s traditional artisans and products made by local craftsmen. When carpenters worked on the restoration, they selected the materials carefully to preserve the original materials and carpentry, even going to lengths such as mixing new clay with the original clay in order to maintain the historical integrity of the clay walls.  



Some other details that I appreciated:

Room Wear || 部屋着

The roomwear provided to guests is fashioned after “Samue” (作務衣), the work clothing traditionally worn by Japanese Buddhist monks when engaged in “samu” or labor duty. They were comfortable to lounge and sleep in!


Roomwear provided to guests at Sowaka are fashioned after “Samue” garments traditionally worn by monks in Zen Buddhist temples: “Samu” means everyday work and “e” means clothing.
King-Sized Bed || キングサイズのベッド

Those of you who are familiar with traveling in Japan and staying at Japanese ryokans or hotels will know that King size beds are a rarity, if not almost non-existent (two twin beds pushed together would most likely be the closest thing you will get). Hence, I really appreciated that SOWAKA’s Annex building offered proper, densely cushioned King-sized beds made with high-grade natural wool such as cashmere and camel hair! I was even more surprised to learn that the mattresses are made by Iwata, a futon shop that was established since 1830 in Kyoto’s Sanjo district. 


King-sized beds made with high-grade natural wool such as cashmere and camel hair from Iwata, a futon shop that was established since 1830 in Kyoto’s Sanjo district. 
Bath Amenities || バスアメニティ

SOWAKA’s bath amenities are all from Kazurasei Shinise, a family-led business which has been selling beauty products and hair accessories since 1861. Kazurasei Shinise’s hair care and skin care products are made with 100% organic camellia oil extracted using the shop’s unique manufacturing method. Camellia oil has been long used as a beauty treatment in Japan, and is one of my personal favorite skincare oils. It is very versatile and can be used for the hair, scalp, face, and body. As it contains as much as 85% oleic acid (a natural moisturizing substance extremely similar to the lipid composition of our human skin, making it easily absorbed), camellia oil can help replenish moisture, fight free radicals, and soothe irritated skin. Many even say that the secret of the Geisha’s porcelain white skin and ink-black hair was camellia oil!


Enjoy a full range of bath amenities, even a face mask and a small bottle of pure camellia oil!

SOWAKA provides an elegant balance between restoring the rustic charm of the old machiya building while preserving its architectural history, providing guests an authentic, immersive experience to connect with both traditional and modern Kyoto at the same time. The hotel showcases the beauty of antiquated things, intertwined with elements of imaginative (re)design inspired by the contemporary era.


Sowaka Hotel in Kyoto

Interested in staying at SOWAKA during your next visit to Kyoto? Contact me and I would be happy to connect you! 🙂



480 Kiyoi-cho, Higashiyama-ku, 605-0821 Kyoto





〒605-0821 京都市東山区下河原通八坂鳥居前下ル清井町480


About Rachel

Rachel Leng is COO and Co-Founder of SeiRogai, Inc., a Tokyo-based business consultancy & media production company. Previously, she was Leader of Business Development on the Investment Management team at a Japanese private equity fund, as well as Policy Analyst at a top think tank in Seoul, South Korea.

As an East Asia specialist and former Miss Singapore titleholder, Rachel is passionate about the potential of media to educate and raise awareness about history, culture, art, business, and societal issues to enhance mutual understanding.

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