May 12, 2014
Awash in accessible history, the former capital offers a trove of modern treasures tucked within its many quiet corners. Story and photos by Christopher Kucway
Published on May 12, 2014
Early morning silence in the Arashiyama bamboo forest is broken only by birdsong, a cool spring breeze rustling the tall grass and, nearby, the JR train zipping past. That’s Kyoto for you, a compact city with 1,200 years of history and a flair for all things modern. Clean and green, the former capital is home to more than 2,000 temples and shrines neatly tucked into every nook and cranny. A word of advice: do not attempt to turn your visit into a temple tour. Instead, choose three, maybe five, and visit them at a slow, appreciative pace. Kyoto is fascinating in pockets and asks to be absorbed rather than seen.
The bamboo grove in Arashiyama
After my stroll through the bamboo, I head to the nearby Tenryu-ji Temple complex, one of Kyoto’s 14 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, only to find visitors sprouting as quickly as the year’s first cherry blossoms. The 14th-century Zen monastery takes its cue from the calm forest next to it, almost in spite of the harried day trippers.
Come nightfall, back in the city’s historic Gion district, the Kiyomizu-dera Temple is awash with both crowds, who have come for the first pink bloom of Japan’s iconic spring trees, and vivid spotlights, part of an annual light festival.
The entry to Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Yet the ancient capital is much more than ageless temples and shrines. New kid in town is the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto (doubles from ¥68,000), but do not expect standard fare from the global chain here. The design-centric urban resort is loaded with local touches everything from the entrance along a man-made waterfall meant to mirror the look of a ryokan, to the in-room soaps, to the patterned, tactile motifs found along its hallways. And, yes, there’s a traditional Meiji house and courtyard reconstructed in its original spot, within what is now an otherwise modern Italian restaurant.
In a city where tofu dishes reign supreme, the fine-dining Mizuki stands out, mainly for its kaiseki options, the seven-course Tancho offering seasonal specialties that, on my visit, include a melt-in-your-mouth sea bream and sesame tofu soup. Chef Masahiko Miura is excitable (or maybe the word is passionate) and more than happy to explain in Japanese the subtleties of his artistic, flavorful dishes. Each of the servings look as good as it tastes. Speaking of her favorite course, one server told me, “I feel that when I have this dish that I am a destroyer.”
Fresh tuna at Mizuki
A meal at Mizuki is enough to power you along the small streets just west of the hotel, where you’ll find the Ippodo Tea Co. Polite staff will offer a simple tea tasting so you can differentiate among matcha, gyokuro, sencha and bancha teas and all their subcategories. The only test is deciding which tea you like best. Buying some is a given.
Tea time at Ippodo Tea Co.
Where to pour that tea? Avoid the too-cute-for-comfort stores and instead head for Creative Evolution on Traditional Values of Kyoto. The small pottery shop with the unwieldy name is on the north edge of Gion, its shelves laden with teacups, bowls and dishes turned by local hands, in both traditional and wacky designs, and of every color under the sun.
Another must visit: Kyoto Design House. Think of it as an emporium for all that is beautiful from the city’s modern crafts people. The cast-in-place concrete shop itself—a Tadao Ando design—is a perfect home for the 1,500 different gift-worthy products available. Vivid leather handbags, wooden business card holders, paper iPhone cases—it’s all here. If your stay is short, make this your one stop. Yet in Kyoto, time should never be a concern.
Kyoto Design House