Our Definitive Guide to Kyoto
A reader favorite, the former Japanese capital is in perfect parts traditional and modern. CHRISTOPHER KUCWAY uncovers a few of the city's gems, and is always surprised at what's around the next corner. Photographed by SHINSUKE MATSUKAWA.
Published on Nov 20, 2015
Lay of the Land
Down these twisting and rolling streets you'll find iconic Kyoto scenes from a different century, these days mixed in with some modern kitsch and tacky trinkets.
Small restaurants and local designers—some in renovated, century-old buildings—dot this pedestrian lane, but the street's popularity now has drawn larger chains, too.
An intriguing street next to the Imperial Palace and the address for paper sellers, bakeries, tea shops, organic stores, and more than a few shrines and temples.
Home to the bamboo forest, numerous shrines and Tenryu-ji Temple—visit first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Kyoto is easily navigable on foot, though its gems are spread out. Fortunately, public transport—buses, subways and trains—is easy to use. Haruka Express trains from Osaka Kansai take just over an hour, priced from ¥2,850 one way, depending on the time of day.
Both old and new, these hotels specialize in combining traditional and modern touches.
Enter the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto via a gradually descending stone walkway next to flowing water and you immediately sense why this is like a modern ryokan. Guests flow through the public areas with the same ease. Interior design relies on tactile backdrops of wood, bamboo and metal, while comfortable guest rooms use traditional Japanese motifs. Opt for a room with a river or garden view.
Ritz-Carlton's stylish check-in. Christopher Kucway.
A 39-room affair set between Tenryu-ji Temple and the Oi River. Exuding tranquility, Suiran's interiors are heavy with pinewood and use bright splashes of color to liven up the rooms. Request a garden room, with its open-air wooden bath—though the spa guest room is something to behold too.
HYATT REGENCY KYOTO
While older than the first two, the Hyatt Regency still holds its own when it comes to comfort. Walls in the guest rooms here are decorated in kimono fabrics, but be sure to ask for a room overlooking the hotel's small but peaceful garden. The Hyatt also has impressive dining options, particularly its Japanese and Italian outlets.
Just to the north of Gion, keep an eye peeled for the red door that opens into Hotel Mume. The intimate nature of this sevenroom property centers on décor that incorporates karakami paper produced in Kyoto, and a wildly random assortment of antiques.
Overlooking the Oi River, this ryokan in Arashiyama combines Western comforts and traditional touches. So expect beds in stylized guest rooms, each with tranquil views of the greenery for which this area is noted. But reserve considerably ahead; Hoshinoya is very popular.
Using centuries-old ideas, five shops well-versed in the design-centric present.
1 If you can only make one shopping stop, Kyoto Design House is it. Located in the smart Tadao Ando-designed Niwaka Building and specializing, as its name suggests, in fusing traditional and modern crafts, the clean lines of this store are outdone only by the latest homecraft designs in pottery, silks, paper, wood and leather.
Kyoto Design House.
2 Still stylish Ippodo is the place for tea in Kyoto. If you don't know your sencha from your matcha, there's a small kitchen off to one side of the shop where you can fill in the blanks or a tearoom on the opposite side for trial tastings. Teramachi-dori north of Nijo; +81 75 211 3421.
Tasting matcha at Ippodo.
3 On the edge of Gion sits a treasure of a small shop, Creative Evolution on Traditional Values of Kyoto, Kodaiji Nakatani. The local pottery here comes in any and all styles and price ranges. Often with one-off designs, the bowls, plates and teacups are great keepsakes from any visit to Kyoto. 362-13 Masuya-cho, Kodai-ji; +81 75 606 0826.
4 The tradition of using tenugui, or printed cotton cloths, has survived centuries and flourishes today both with one of its original purposes—wrapping gifts—and a number of creative new ones, from headgear to makeshift handbags. To find the ubiquitous fabrics with prints of everything from shogun warriors to Hello Kitty, look no further than Eirakuya, a well-hidden shop that dates back to 1615. 368 Muromachi-dori north of Sanjo; +81 75 256 7881.
5 The 150-year-old Ryokujuan Shimizu offers tiny fruitflavored sugar candies called konpeito that take two weeks to make. Go in the morning before the queues start; the shop opens at 10 a.m. and these sweets sell out quickly despite a five-bag limit per customer. 38-2 Yoshidaizumiden-cho; +81 75 771 0755.
Casual or contemporary, East or West, Kyoto's menus offer it all.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more stylish kaiseki lunch or dinner than at the Japanese restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton. Chef Masahiko Miura has a keen sense for seasonal ingredients and flavors, and isn't afraid to experiment—think Camembert tempura as well as more traditional local asparagus. 543 Hokoden-cho; +81 75 746 5555
Tempura at Mizuki. Christopher Kucway.
Kyoto is known for its tofu dishes, and a lunch at Syouraian is a must for anyone who loves the subtleties of soy milk. Book well in advance for either the 11:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. seating. Sagakamenoo-cho; +81 75 861 0123.
Modest in every respect except for the flavorful chicken dishes, the 20-odd-seat institution requires reservations even when completely empty. Order the tsukune tare (chicken meatballs with mustard) and momo (chicken thigh seasoned with salt). 96 Okiku-cho; +81 75 771 7818.
The owner of this steak house with an interior that looks like a cruise ship takes deep pride in preparing his high-quality Omi beef. That means nigiri with a slice of seared beef, deep-fried beef, beef carpaccio and, of course, steaks—all served up by his friendly wife. 105 Nakajima-cho, Kawaramachi-dori; +81 75 241 4358.
Four ways to undercover what makes Kyoto unforgettable.
There's nothing like an early morning stroll through Arashiyama's bamboo forest. Close your eyes to the music of chirping birds and bamboo twisting and scraping in the wind high above you. At one end you'll find the garden-filled Tenryu-ji, built in the 14th century and now headquarters of the Rinzai school of Buddhism.
Arashiyama's bamboo forest, one of the official "soundscapes of Japan." Christopher Kucway.
The street and neighborhood exhude a local feel, lined as they are with shops like Unsodo (+81 75 231 3613), which specializes in woodblock prints; small tea shop, Ryuoen (+81 75 231 3693); and the Kyoto Antiques Center (+81 75 222 0793). A mix of old with trendy, it's perfect for a stroll southeast of the Imperial Palace to small bakeries and organic grocers as well as older shrines and temples.
For some man-made tranquility, visit this Ryoan-Ji Temple's rock garden, which is not much bigger than a tennis court. Sit still and absorb the scene. The garden consists of 15 rocks and white gravel and, in this age of information overload, comes with a pleasing lack of explanation.
Within walking distance of the Zen garden but a world away in terms of calmness, the Golden Pavilion is best visited early in the morning when the crowds are, hopefully, smaller and the light is at its most magical.
Three tastemakers share their go-to places in the city.
EVERETT KENNEDY BROWN
Artistic Advisor, International Center for Japanese Culture
For something different from the norm, I book a table at Il Ghiottone (388-1 Yasakakami-cho, Shimogawara-dori south of Tonomae; +81 75 532 2550), where chef Yasuhiro Sasashima infuses elements of Kyoto's culinary tradition with Italian cuisine. For antique kimono and old accessories, an eccentric place to shop is Modoribashi (237 Yakunin-cho, Nakadachiuri-dori east of Kuromon; +81 90 5977 6061), located in an area where Kyoto's famed history of magic and ghosts is still alive.
General Manager, Ritz-Carlton Kyoto
Gion Rohan (232 Nijuikken-cho, Yamatooji-dori north of Shijo; +81 75 533 7665) is a casual Japanese restaurant that seats 10. Don't miss the beef-cutlet sandwich at Hafuu (471-1 Sasaya-cho, Fuyachodori north of Ebisugawa; +81 75 257 1581). A great kappo-style stop is Kawakami (570-122 Gionmachi Minamigawa; +81 75 561 2420). Try the deep-fried butterfish and Shinshu kuroge Wagyu steak.
Deepest Kyoto Tour
Go on a ride on a Jukkokubune mini-cruise (+81 75 623 1030) during spring or autumn. It's a one-hour tour through canals in Fushimi Ward that is a great intro to Kyoto. Also, visit Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, a chanting temple north of Arashiyama. A café, gallery and shop called Efish (798-1 Nishihashizume-cho, Kiyamachidori south of Gojo; +81 75 361 3069), owned by designer Shin Nishibori, is a great place near the Kamo River.
Ten craft beers on tap, two pour sizes and a concrete-shell interior: Bungalow (15 Kashiwaya-cho; +81 75 256 8205) is the place for a taste of Kyoto in a bottle. Try Morning Coffee Stout, a great kick of a beer, if it's on the menu when you're there. An alternative, just behind Daimaru, is Wachi (571 Obiya-cho, Takakura-dori north of Shijo; +81 75 212 6342). Look for its small sign, then climb four floors to this space whose size belies its large stock of global microbrews. If your local palate veers more toward rice wine, head to Ozu Kyoto (25 Konoe-cho; +81 75 411 4102). Ozu offers a solid grounding on sake through seminars and tastings—and there’s no test at the end.
An hour outside of Kyoto transports you to another era at Miyamasou, a ryokan like no other. A former lodging for priests, any stay here is an all-encompassing journey: waking in the peaceful environs of a pine forest, indulging in sophisticated Kyoto cuisine—tsumikusa meals made from foraged ingredients and chopsticks created by kitchen staff each morning—these are experiences that cannot be replicated elsewhere. The stillness and serenity of the ryokan are difficult to leave.