Catch the Best of Kyoto in Bloom

A whirlwind trip to Kyoto ponders the ancient, the new and the impermanent. By Bek Van Vliet Owen. Photographed by Shinsuke Matsukawa.

Aug 17, 2020

It’s a grey and shivery late-February day at Kitano Tenmangu shrine. But instead of snow dusting the stone pathways and frosting the tips of the trees, the scene is awash in ume— plum blossoms of red, white and fairy- tale pink. Today at the Plum Blossom Festival every one of them is abloom, around 2,000 in total igniting the pale afternoon. It’s a major event at Kitano Tenmangu, which enshrines the exiled 9th-century poet-scholar-politician Sugawara no Michizane, who loved ume so much he wrote an ode to his favorite tree on the day he was banished from Kyoto:

When the east wind blows let it send your fragrance, oh plum blossoms; although your master is gone, do not forget the spring.

It’s an unexpectedly Zen start to my whirlwind Kyoto trip to see what’s new in the city. Less than 2½ hours from Tokyo by bullet train, the ancient capital is flowering with new hotels and restaurants, and on this ambitious four-day jaunt I plan to see pretty much all of them. While February tourism is down thanks to a pandemic that needs no introduction, here in the plum-tree grove, worldly strife seems far away, drowned in an ocean of ume.

My guide Shoko from Kyoto City Tourism Association suggests breaking for hanami—the ancient practice of flower-viewing, which began in the Nara period with ume (not sakura, that superstar springtime bloom.) Like sakura, ume has inspired its share of poetry and philosophy, often serving as a metaphor for the transience of beauty and life—the most popular topics of contemplation during those old-school Nara hanami sessions.

As we sit silently admiring the grove and sipping sweet-umami plum tea, three geisha—geiko in Kyoto dialect— enter frame, dialing the mise-en-scène up to 11, and kicking off a cinematic surrealness that follows us out of the grove and into the streets of neighboring Kamishichiken, the oldest geiko district in the city. This area is another big blockbuster set, with two-story machiya shophouses lining stone laneways in every direction. This machiya is an original geiko house. This one is a family sweets shop. This one is famous for udon. I could amble around this enchanted village for hours, but hanami turns out to be hungry work, and there’s a kappo-style onslaught of Wagyu waiting for us at the new Junei Hotel in Gion on the other side of town.

Kappo is a notch of formality beneath kaiseki, Kyoto’s haute cuisine, and entails a similar chef-led series of courses served in cute-and-tiny plates and bowls, one of which may or may not be in the shape of a cow. And while these dishes are small in size, the sheer number of them at the hotel’s Niku Kappo Futago restaurant— rare beef wrapped around asparagus, seared beef with salt, beef tartare with micro-flowers, and what feels like a dozen more—has me pushing the final two or three in the direction of our photographer Shin.

“You must have dessert!” chef Sakae Oishi says. “The fruit is in season,” adds Emi Tokunaga, The Junei’s CEO. We are as round as fatted calves, but we eat the orange, which tastes like the color, and the strawberry, which is sweet and lush. I’ll skip breakfast tomorrow, I lie, bowing thank you to chef Oishi and the crew.

Shunko-in Buddhist temple begins my second day on a Zen high with the globe-trotting, TEDx-talking, MIT lecture–giving Reverend Takafumi Kawakami. Some monks can be intimidating with their robes and beads and ancient wisdom, but the Reverend is warm and relatable and instantly on our level. Breathe in, breathe out. Let thoughts drift across your mind like clouds. In this purpose-built setting meditation is a breeze, and before too long the dinging of the Reverend’s little cymbals signals the end of our session. Our visit includes a temple tour, so we do a sock-footed lap of its old halls, shrines and gardens, soaking up as much of its all-permeating serenity as we can.

Flash-forward to evening and I discover that the new Park Hyatt Kyoto has a similar built-in chill. Since those peaceful morning hours in the temple I’ve had a full-on day of card-swapping and hotel-seeing, but now I can relax, this time at Kohaku bar with a White Negroni that will instill an inner peace of its own. The bar’s wall of windows frames dusk falling blue over the city, washing from Higashiyama ward’s clay-tile rooftops to Kyoto’s distant mountain peaks. Yasaka Pagoda hovers in the foreground, its five-hatted head illuminated—fun fact—by a local weddings company. At the aptly named Yasaka restaurant next door, this view comes with a serving of culinary voodoo in a sleight of hand by chef Kampei Hisaoka, who makes fine French cuisine appear from a teppan grill. Degustation dinner sees the seasons show up on my multiple plates, in flavorful heirloom veg paired with buttery proteins like Nanataki duck and a slab of Iga Wagyu.

Park Hyatt Kyoto opens directly onto an iconic Old Kyoto street: Ninenzaka Alley. On an early walk the next morning before all the machiya open,
I have the street to myself and it’s like I’ve portalled to the 15th century or into a Kurosawa film. While there’s not much chance of running into a gang of feudal lords or samurai, the area is pretty popular with groups of kimono-ed ladies, who rent full outfits from around ¥2,000 to ¥13,000 per day. A geisha ensemble is at the top end, hairstyling and makeup are extra, and I recommend throwing in a fur stole for any winter cosplay, as the winds off Higashiyama’s hills can be bone-rattlingly cold.

At the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts and Design in adjoining Sakyo ward the experience of kimono and geta is strictly look but don’t touch. This new museum brings all 74 of the prefecture’s artisan crafts together under one roof— an ideal immersion for the time-strapped traveler like me. Here visitors can delve into the insane levels of skill behind those gold-threaded kimono silks and painted paper fans, with artisan workshops and interactive displays. There are also special exhibitions and, on the weekends, geiko-and-maiko shows. For more high culture, across the street is the refurbished Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art, which exhibits a wide range of fine art from Ike no Taiga to Andy Warhol.

My personal history lesson continues at Sowaka, a ryokan-style lodging in Gion. Inhabiting a century-old former restaurant, it casts me in a Meiji-period fantasy with its sliding shoji doors and creaky wooden floorboards. Doorways are low and ceilings groan, halls are narrow and labyrinthine, there is an ancient stone well in the middle of the lobby, and my room is a cozy den that makes me want to put on a yukata and recite Michizane by lamplight.

At dinner time there’s a geiko-and-maiko show, so I join Shin in the hotel’s restaurant, La Bombance Gion, whose Tokyo twin held a Michelin star for an impressive 10 years. Towards the end of our delicious multi-course French-infused kaiseki meal, the geiko-and-maiko team shuffles out, the teenage apprentice taking her place between the tables for a quick two-song performance. As the geiko strums a lute-like shamisen, the maiko sings and dances. There’s the sweep of an arm here, the swish of the kimono there, then she bows and the show’s over, geisha culture as mysterious to me now as it ever was.

There are no such nostalgic throwbacks at Good Nature Station. The vibe at this new lifestyle hub downtown is future-forward eco-chic, which seems like the best way for a new venture to be in a city so geared for greenness. Our main port of call is its Erutan Restaurant/Bar, which does comforting Itameshi (Japanese-style seasonal vegetables from local suppliers—the hint is in the name, which means “Earth” in Basque.

Lurra°’s 10-course menu—sea urchin, wild boar, amberjack, sake lees, almond curd and more—is thrilling in scope, and each course is light enough that none of mine find their way down the table to Shin. After dessert—a butterbur ice-cream donut my mind still can’t quit— we peek upstairs at the larder, a zero-waste Pinterester’s paradise stacked to the rafters with pickles and preserves.

After eating the forest at Lurra°, I check into it at Aman Kyoto, the final hotel of my trip. On the dark perimeter of the city, the directive is to “forest bathe,” and I have one last opportunity to grab some Kyoto Zen. Since it’s 9 p.m. and raining, I opt out of tackling the hotel’s moss-covered mountain trail and submerse in its open-air onsen. With steam writhing, trees whispering, frogs in a 360 refrain, this literal forest bath is so elementally grounding I’m disappointed life didn’t introduce it to me sooner.

When I checkout the next day it’s drizzling and I’m not ready to leave, making my ride to the airport a sad Sofia Coppola montage of street scenes through the car’s rain-streaked windows. Today is the first day of spring which means soon the ume will fall, making way for a new season in Kyoto, bringing sakura and more. It’s the ultimate Zen masterclass in transience if you’ve got a spare four days.

Getting There

Fly into Tokyo or Osaka and take a bullet train to Kyoto Station. Japan Airlines offers daily flights from most major cities.

Where to Stay

Park Hyatt Kyoto (doubles from ¥98,000) offers guesthouse-style luxury near Ninenzaka slope. For a resort retreat on the outskirts of the city, stay at Aman Kyoto (doubles from ¥140,000), or for a nostalgic guesthouse experience choose a suite at Sowaka (doubles from ¥39,930). Also in Gion, with a rooftop terrace is the new Junei Hotel Kyoto, Gion (doubles from ¥23,000)— sister property to The Junei Hotel Kyoto Imperial Park West (doubles from ¥20,800). New hotels include Hiramatsu Kyoto (doubles from ¥64,200); which incorporates a converted shophouse, and Ace Hotel Kyoto (¥27,000) located close to shopping in the downtown area. Coming soon: the centrally located Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto, opposite Nijo-jo Castle and with its own natural onsen.

Where to Eat

Lurra° (degustation with pairing ¥25,000)—inventive, contemporary forest-to-table dining. Michelin-starred Kodaiji Jugyuan (Four Seasons menu ¥30,000), which does authentic kaiseki meals in a 112-year-old building overlooking the city. Niku Kappo Futago (Niku Kappo Course menu ¥11,000) at the new Junei Hotel, an all-Wagyu kappo-style restaurant. For Yasaka Pagoda views, Yasaka (eight-course menu ¥30,000, wine pairing ¥15,000) at Park Hyatt has grill-side perches, as does Kohaku bar next door. Good Nature Station offers a range of restaurants featuring organic local produce, or go for French kaiseki at La Bombance Gion (dinner ¥12,000 per person).

What to Do

Zen Meditation English-language meditation programs, calligraphy, and tea ceremony sessions at Shunko-in Temple (drop-in group session with tour and tea ¥3,000). Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts and Design provides an overview of the 74 official Kyoto crafts. Tenjin-san Flea Market sells vintage kimonos, antiques, pickles and more at the gates of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine once a month on the 25th. Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art—a freshly refurbed museum home to the city’s fine art. Close to Aman Kyoto, visit Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, one of Kyoto’s 17 UNESCO sites, or wander through history along Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka Alleys in Higashiyama.

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