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Kyoto Beckons

Published: 01/04/2015 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2015 » April 2015 » Destinations » Home » Features »

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Bearing the confidence of a city that was the imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years before Tokyo took over the mantle in 1868, Kyoto remains proud of its distinct identity and unique history. Surviving largely unscathed from the devastation suffered by many of Japan’s cities in World War II, the city has retained an abundance of temples, shrines and cultural treasures that is simply unmatched anywhere else in the country. The biggest quandary for visitors is the sheer overwhelming number of potential destinations, around 2,000 temples and shrines alone to choose from.

The main part of the city is set out on a grid system, making it much easier to navigate than the jumble of streets in most Japanese cities. The subway system is also easy to utilize as it basically follows the straight lines of the main thoroughfares. However, its 19.5 miles of track means coverage is sparse in some areas of this city of 1.5 million, leaving the slightly more challenging combination of trains, street cars, buses and taxis for the rest. Walking is an option – many of the best sights are located in clusters near each other – but the famously hot and sticky Kyoto summer does take its toll.

Electronics and IT form the biggest sector of the economy, which is home to Kyoto’s biggest export – Nintendo. The video game giant is almost a metaphor for Kyoto: globally famous but secretive in many of its ways. The company cherishes its local roots and keeps its operations firmly planted in the city, never even considering moving its headquarters to Tokyo as most firms of its size have done. The city’s natural beauty and mystery, however, attract a large number of visitors, making tourism a major contributor to the city’s wealth. There are many ways to enjoy this historic place, from sophisticated food to exciting festivals.

Dining Traditions 

Kyoto natives think so highly of their city’s food that they regard it as a separate branch of Japanese cooking, and refer to it as kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine). Though the city has a long and rich culinary history, it is most closely associated with kaiseki-ryori, sometimes known as Japanese haute cuisine, which features a series of intricately prepared dishes for which aesthetics is equally as important as seasonality and taste.

The fiery spices and rich sauces that characterize much of Asia’s culinary delights are largely absent from Japanese food, where stripping ingredients down to their barest essence is the ultimate aim. Nowhere is this done more simply and yet somehow spectacularly, than in the best kaiseki-ryori restaurants.

Many of Kyoto’s finest restaurants have centuries-old traditions, passed on through generations of the same family. So proud of their ways are some of the chefs and owners of these restaurants that they turned up their refined noses at being awarded Michelin stars when the guide launched a Kyoto and Osaka 2010 edition. Despite the city being awarded a total of 118 stars in the guide, and seven restaurants receiving the coveted three-star rating, many restaurants refused to cooperate with Michelin, with one even threatening to change its telephone number if it was listed.

Kitcho, a three-star winner, is one of the young upstarts of Kyoto’s kaiseki establishments, the current master chef, Kunio Tokuoka, being only the third generation of his family to run the restaurant. Kitcho is also less publicity shy than some of its counterparts, releasing a book about the restaurant entitled Kitcho: Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience. 

Another of Kyoto’s culinary gifts to the world is shojin-ryori, the vegetarian dishes prepared at Buddhist temples. One of the most celebrated examples of this is to be found at the 14th century Tenryo-ji Temple in the Arashiyama district in the west of the city. Shigetsu, the restaurant in the temple’s grounds, provides spectacular views of a Zen garden while diners enjoy one of the set lunch courses based around tofu and seasonal vegetables.

“The multi-course meals are priced at ¥3,000 ($24.75), ¥5,000 ($41.25) and ¥7,000 ($57.75), with the simplicity of the dishes being their essence,” explains Shigetsu’s Takuo Kotani.

However, the ancient capital is not all about intricate formal meals: In the sticky summer months, a simple bowl of one of the many varieties of cold noodles available is just the thing to provide at least some temporary cooling relief.

Nor is Kyoto’s food all about traditional Japanese fare.

“From May to August, the restaurants along the Kamogawa River put out decks along the river bank for customers to enjoy their meals on,” says Rui Kotatani from the Kyoto City Visitor Information Center. “There are Japanese restaurants of course, but also Chinese, Italian, and even a Starbucks.”

Some of Kyoto’s famous machiya – or townhouses – have been converted into restaurants, and these too offer cuisines from around the globe, as well as kyo-ryori.

A Festive Spirit

Kyoto is a city of entertainment all year round, though it really comes into its own during summer. The Gion Matsuri, in the ancient entertainment district, is one of the most famous festivals in Japan, and has been held for more than a millennium. It runs the entire month of July, though the parade of mikoshi – portable shrines – on the 17th of the month, and the days leading up to it, are its highlights.

Gion is also home to Japan’s most famous geisha, though spending time in their company is still very difficult without an introduction. To allow visitors to enjoy the artistic skills and spectacle of one the city’s best-known, but inaccessible treasures, the Okini Foundation now arranges reasonably priced sessions with geisha that require no more than a reservation.

On the night of August 16, on hills overlooking the city, huge bonfires burn, spelling out five kanji (Chinese) characters, for the Gozan no Okuribi festival. More usually called Daimonji, after the character for “large” (that is set ablaze first), the origins of the festival, which marks the end of the O-Bon period when ancestors are honored in Japan, are so ancient that nobody is quite sure when it started. The banks of the Kamogawa River provide some of the best viewing spots as the fires are lit in stages from 8:00 PM, and by 8:30 PM all five are ablaze.

The heat of the Kyoto summer seems to do little to deter visitors, and booking early for everything in the city is highly recommended.

Living the Past

Restored machiya are also available as accommodation in various forms, from self-catering units to traditional Japanese inns, or ryokan. The Hiiragiya Ryokan has a history that dates back almost two centuries and along with the authentic feel of its individually designed rooms, it maintains old customs of hospitality such as splashing the stone steps in the entranceway with water as a sign of welcome to arriving guests.

If splashed stones is not enough water on arrival, a stay at the Hoshinoya Kyoto, where access is only available by boat along the Hozugawa River, could be just the ticket. A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, there are only 25 rooms. The beautifully restored wooden buildings of the hotel are surrounded by a scenic Japanese garden, naturally enough in a tranquil riverside setting.

The city offers, in true Japanese fashion, accommodation options from the traditional to the ultra-modern, and if claustrophobia isn’t an issue, 9hours is as modern as it gets. It has been described as a “high-end capsule hotel,” but Keisuke Yui, president of the company that runs 9hours, calls it a “new category of accommodation, a sleeping hub.” The concept is to strip the hotel down to its very essence, and deliver that with high-quality values, according to Yui. 9hours is the result of three years’ collaboration with an award-winning designer, and has attracted interest from around the globe. Guests sleep in pods, larger than those found in capsule hotels but with just enough room to be functional. “Nine hours is the basic time needed for a stay, seven hours to sleep, an hour to wash and an hour to relax,” says Yui. “When people come to Kyoto, they come to enjoy the sights and food, not sit in a hotel room.” 

Getting There

Kansai International Airport (KIX) near Osaka is the nearest international airport to Kyoto, with the JR Limited Express Haruka trains taking about an hour and 15 minutes to reach the city’s main station. The train costs ¥2,850 ($23.50) for an unreserved seat and ¥3,500 ($29) for a reserved seat. There are also some slower local trains which are cheaper but these also require transfers. The Airport Limousine Bus leaves from right outside the airport terminal building and takes between an hour and a half and two hours to get to Kyoto Station, depending on traffic. The fare is ¥2,550 ($21) one way. The main possible benefit of the bus service is that at certain times it does stop at some other places in the city, making it easier to reach hotels if they happen to be located nearby.

The bullet train from Tokyo takes about two hours and 15 minutes and costs around ¥13,700 ($113) one-way, depending on the exact service used. All these routes take passengers to the cavernous Kyoto Station, which divides opinion as much as it has cut the north and south of the city in half: to some it’s a modern architectural masterpiece, to others an eyesore dropped inappropriately into the ancient capital.  

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