By Bek van Vliet Owen
Photographed by Shinsuke Matsukawa
Mar 30, 2020
NAVIGATING KYOTO’S UNESCO sites is a no-brainer, but things aren’t as clear when it comes to unearthing the city’s more contemporary spoils. On a recent trip to the erstwhile capital, we discovered a surge of cool new places for stylish eating and sleeping, plus new and improved spots where you can boost your cultural IQ. Tide yourself over to your next travels with a jaunt through modern Kyoto.
Contemporary ryokan inns, funky urban enclaves, super-stylish hybrids—Kyoto’s accommodation scene lets you stay every which way with plentiful noteworthy newcomers.
Guesthouse-style luxury near Ninenzaka slope.
Traditional ryokan vibes exude from the elegant new 70-room Park Hyatt Kyoto, draped up a hillside in Higashiyama-ku, steps from the ward’s atmospheric old-timey laneways. The hotel’s low-rise buildings blend fluidly with structures that have existed here for centuries, namely, an Edo-period kaiseki restaurant, Kyoyamato, and a cluster of historic tea rooms. The most coveted rooms and suites are those with views to Yasaka Pagoda and greater Kyoto, though the ground floor private-garden abodes are a close runner-up, whose guests can still enjoy panoramas from Yasaka restaurant and Kohaku bar. All around the hotel, you’ll find spaces with windows to Kyoto’s soul, whether you’re gazing upon a stone garden, a bamboo grove or the high-rises of the business district.
parkhyatt-kyoto.com; doubles from ¥94,000; 360 Kodaiji Masuyacho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
A forest retreat on the city fringe
Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is compulsory at this new Aman in Kyoto’s northwestern slopes, where coolly black-clad staff usher you through the gate into a realm of towering maples and whispering wild-cherry trees. The use of huge stones underfoot and in the garden walls creates a distorted sense of scale, where suddenly you feel quite tiny, and totally enveloped in nature. Inside its 26 minimalist rooms and suites, dimensions are also more castle-like than quaint with cathedral ceilings, soaking tubs for two and walls of windows that serve only to enhance the feeling of space. Rooms like these are hard to leave, but the hotel’s natural onsen provides a good reason to head out, as do Aman’s restaurants: the sleek, lodge-like Living Pavilion, and Taka-An for omakase dining. There’s also Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion, one of the city’s 17 UNESCO-listed Historic Monuments, just down the road.
amankyoto.com; doubles from ¥140,000
A stylish ryokan in the geisha district
Tucked away behind a bamboo facade in the geiko and maiko neighborhood of Gion, Sowaka does a luxurious ryokan stay. Rooms in its 100-plus-year-old sukiya-style building deliver the most authentic experience, with creaky floors (purposefully designed to thwart would-be assassins), low doorways, tatami flooring and shoji sliding room dividers. Each of the property’s 23 rooms is different—one features a loggia overlooking the central garden; one is split level, with a floor devoted to bathing; another has a private tea-ceremony room. Sowaka’s modern annex gives you the option to stay in a 21st-century room, if a more contemporary interpretation of tradition is your preference. No matter which you choose, you can enjoy a long soak in your bath, whether it’s a square cypress number or a deep, oval tub in its own little garden. Though restaurants abound in this area, Sowaka’s La Bombance, with an eponymous Michelin-star-having sister in Tokyo, should convince you to dine onsite at least once.
sowaka.com; doubles from ¥39,930
The Hiramatsu Kyoto
A central base for shopping and sightseeing
Positioned conveniently between Nijo Castle and Nishiki Market, the new Hiramatsu sits amid a row of preserved machiya, or shophouses, on the 14th-century street of Muromachi-Dori. The first urban property from Hiramatsu Hotels, this new conversion itself was once a kimono fabric shop, with its expansion into a 29-room hotel sensitively undertaken to preserve its traditional sukiya architectural style. If you like spacious digs even the smallest room category will suit, at 60 square meters, or go all out with the Hiramatsu Suite at 100 square meters. Bathrooms are also extravagantly sized, with big whirlpool tubs and power showers encased in glass-walled wet rooms. The city’s at your doorstep here, but there’s no shame in staying in, with Italian dining at la Luce and kappo-style Japanese at Izumi—plus a sultry cocktail lounge for signature tipples overlooking a traditional stone garden.
global.hiramatsuhotels.com; doubles from ¥64,200.
The Junei Hotel Kyoto, Gion
Contemporary chic in the temple district
A short walk from Shichi-jo train station in feudal-era Higashiyama Ward, this 11-room boutique hotel is the poster child for iki—Japan’s take on understated chic. Its cozy minimalist rooms are fitted with maximal luxuries: fluffy custom robes and linens; custom two-square-meter beds; boutique toiletries; deep and fragrant hinoki cypress tubs; and shimmering silk wall hangings by master dyer Yusai Okuda. Create your desired ambience with adjustable lighting and sound (forest noises, soothing orchestrals etc.), or bathe in moonlit views on the rooftop terrace, a rare find in Kyoto. For a rockstar stay, the hotel’s singular Mutsuki Bamboo suite offers 70 square meters of bamboo-infused space in which to kick back between temple tours, inclusive of your own super-sized garden-view tub.
juneihotel.com/kyoto; doubles from ¥25,000; 4-139 Honmachi, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Good Nature Hotel Kyoto
Space and style with a sustainable twist
In a break from extravagant luxury, this eco-friendly hotel in the city center offers more than just a stylish place to rest your head. Part of Good Nature Station, which is in line for WELL Building Standard accreditation, it sits atop a fresh-food market, patisserie, homewares shop and several restaurants—all proponents of the local, the organic, and the sustainable. In guest rooms, Good Nature’s own plant-based toiletry brand Nemohamo replaces the multiple disposable bits and bobs usually found in hotels. Other Earth- and human-friendly features include: a central atrium draped with climbing greenery; in-room air purifiers; abundant natural light; artisan-made tea sets with organic teas; in-house rubbish disposal and recycling; and vegan-friendly Hyssop. Between bouts of temple-hopping, come back for some wholesome munchies, house-roasted coffee and/or a bottle of natural wine.
goodnaturestation.com; doubles from ¥28,600
Ace Hotel Kyoto
With a planned opening date of April 2020, this hip US brand will imminently unleash its particular brand of cool onto Kyoto. Converted from a historic building in the city’s central shopping and business district, with architecture by Kengo Kuma and interiors by Commune Design, expect warm and inviting spaces woven throughout with splashes of local culture and color. Ace Kyoto’s goal to serve as a social hub for locals and travelers portends many an interesting event to come. Watch this space!
Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto
Located directly opposite Nijo Castle, this first luxury property from hotel and real estate giant Mitsui aims to steal the limelight from Kyoto’s international five-stars with its proudly Japanese hospitality. Design pulls out all the stops with interiors by Andre Fu (of Upper House fame) and Strickland’s Yohei Akao; a courtyard garden by lauded landscape designer Shunsuke Miyagi; a ceramic lobby centerpiece by sculptor Izumita Yukiya; and a torii entrance gate dating to 1703. More reasons to check in here: illuminated castle views from the rooms and a natural spring onsen in the basement. Scheduled to open summer 2020.
Hot on the heels of Osaka and Tokyo, Kyoto is fast becoming a Japan foodie destination—it’s not just kaiseki, either, with everything from forest-foraged goodies to pedigreed French fusion.
Inventive, contemporary, local
Eighteen months ago chef Jacob Kear left Auckland’s celebrated Clooney restaurant for Kyoto, intent on opening his own restaurant in a traditional machiya. Two of his Clooney colleagues, Yusuke Sakabe (mixologist) and Takumi Miyashita (sommelier-cum-general manager), joined and today the three form the core of 12-seat Lurra°—Basque for ‘Earth,’ circle for ‘moon.’) The restaurant does two sittings each night, with diners cozied up around an open kitchen, watching a tight-knit team serve up surprise after delicious surprise. The camaraderie is palpable and the mood intimate, making this 10-course degustation and even its preparation, a shared experience. The menu changes seasonally, depending on the markets, suppliers and what’s growing in the forest (the guys forage together, too), but year-round you can expect an emphasis on local seafood and vegetables, with unused produce pickled and preserved onsite. Natural sakes, rare wines from around the globe and house-infused liquors are some of the pairings in the restaurant’s totally off-script beverage lineup.
To visit Kyoto is to teleport into Japanese history, the culinary version of which is an authentic kaiseki meal with all the formalities. For that, and epic views to match, Michelin-starred Kodaiji Jugyuan delivers the goods, the goods in this case entailing a procession of delicate morsels served up on a series of increasingly rare and expensive earthenwares. There’s a lunch menu and two dinner menus, the best of which takes you on a meandering trip through all four seasons in Kyoto. You can also choose your preferred private dining room—one with a low chabudai table on the ground floor or a ‘Western’ table upstairs with panoramic views over Yasaka Pagoda and Kyoto old and new. Before you leave, ask for a quick tour of this traditional sukiya-style tea house and the restaurant’s 6,600-square garden, designed by Meiji-era master landscaper Ueji Ogawa.
jugyuan.jp;Four Seasons menu ¥30,000
Niku Kappo Futago
An all-Wagyu kappo-style dining
This multi-course Wagyu restaurant pulls zero punches. Every non-dessert course, and there are eight of them, features a cut of premium Wagyu beef—topped with foie gras, served tartare, cooked in a personal hot pot at the table and so on. Seasonal vegetables factor into every course, naturally with a focus on the local, with your choice of alcohol pairing: sake, wine, whiskey, beer, shochu and even Dom Perignon. The restaurant is set on the ground floor of The Junei Hotel Kyoto, a space into which the hotel’s understated iki aesthetic abundantly flows, with private booths that keep the mood relaxed and convivial, i.e. no one will judge you for loosening your belt.
nikutei25.com; Niku Kappo Course ¥11,000 per person
Named after the famous temple whose eaves you can spy from your grill-side perch, Yasaka’s five-, seven- and eight-course French-fusion degustation keeps you guessing from amuse bouche to petits fours. Classically trained chef de cuisine Kampei Hisaoka leads a journey through meltingly moreish French flavors cooked before your eyes on the teppan grill. French techniques marry local ingredients in dishes like uni, shrimp and caviar blinis, seared Iga Wagyu and Aoki veggies en papillote, the exact menu changing with the seasons. For the full experience, bookend your meal with craft cocktails, like the White Negroni, at Kohaku next door.
hyatt.com; eight-course degustation ¥30,000, wine pairing ¥15,000
Sustainable Italian-inspired fare
Of all the foreign cuisines to find favor in Japan, Italian—itameshi—far and away tops the list. Erutan, which sits on the first floor of Good Nature Station behind the organic food market, does a version of itameshi by chef Yoji Tokuyoshi (former sous chef of Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana). Erutan is open all day, with every meal packed full of nutritive, local ingredients, and even its own house blend from the hip Little Darling Coffee Roasters in Tokyo. Set in the middle of the shopping district as it is, Erutan has already proven popular with ladies who lunch, and tourists refuelling with tea and a slab of Lydia Grandma’s Tiramisu. Select from Erutan’s list of Italian wines, or hop over to the adjacent bar for whiskey or sparkling sake.
goodnaturestation.com; a la carte dinner from ¥1,200
La Bombance Gion
This restaurant’s Tokyo twin was awarded a Michelin star every year for 10 years up to 2018—reason enough to warrant a visit to this new Gion outpost. Offering an updated twist on Kyoto kaiseki cuisine overseen by owner-chef Makoto Okamoto, the 10-course dinner menu by head chef Tadahiko Urimori includes classic dishes like sashimi and Wagyu hot pot amid surprises like onion gratin, chicken soup and an eye-pleasing plate of bite-sized, (almost) too-cute-to-eat appetizers. Located in the center of one of the city’s geisha districts, La Bombance is in a handy spot for lunch, but for maximum culture, visit for dinner and catch a maiko performance, complete with question-and-answer time.
sowaka.com/eng/restaurant; dinner ¥8,000 per person
SEE & DO
Should you find yourself on the verge of UNESCO fatigue, mix up the itinerary with art, meditation, and some good, old-fashioned shopping.
If meditating with a Tedx-talk-giving Zen Buddhist monk sounds like your kind of cultural immersion, dive on in at Shunkoin Temple. The temple’s English-only meditation programs give you a choice of regular, advanced and private sessions, but best for beginners is the daily group ‘tour’ from 9.30 a.m. to 11 a.m., inclusive of two 15-minute meditations, a temple walkaround and a hot cup of matcha tea with sweets. The temple itself is reason enough to visit, with its ancient stone garden and traditional silk murals creating an appropriately idyllic and perfectly Zen environment. Deputy head priest Reverend Takafumi Kawakami is more than happy to jump down a Zen philosophy rabbit hole with you on your tour around the property. Calligraphy and tea ceremony sessions are also offered here if you’re keen to expand your cultural repertoire.
shunkoin.com; drop-in group session with tour and tea ¥3,000, reservations recommended
Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (KMTC)
Did you know that Kyoto has 74 official crafts? A tour of this newly renovated museum a block from Heian Shrine gives you a one-stop overview of the city’s most treasured artisanal industries. The main part of the museum is free, and features displays on all the individual crafts, from kimono-silk weaving and dyeing to tabi-sock making to fan painting, with guides and descriptions in English. Alongside physical displays are interactive challenges aimed at helping younger visitors appreciate the value of these traditional crafts, and workshops where local artisans share the tricks of their trades. The paid section of the museum hosts special exhibitions throughout the year, and if you visit on the weekend, you may even catch a geiko and maiko performance. The museum shop lets you browse a wide range of handcrafted goods from the best local ateliers without having to traipse all over the city.
Tenjin-san Flea Market
If you want a peek at the everyday character of a city, forget shrines and temples and head to the nearest flea market. The Tenjin-san markets at the gates of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine are held once a month on the 25th, at which time vendors set up shop with everything from takoyaki to antique toilet seats (bric-a-brac stalls might surprise you with their breadth of inventory). One of the most interesting draws for foreign visitors is the kimono stalls with their hundreds of pre-loved garments, selling for ¥1,000 and up. Handmade jewelry, ceramics and pickled veg by the kilo are also common wares. Afterwards, stroll through the shrine and the adjacent Plum Grove garden, and sip plum tea while admiring its 2,000 trees.
kitanotenmangu.or.jp; the shrine and markets are free, Plum Glove 800 JPY ¥800
Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art
Across the road from the KMTC, this freshly refurbed museum is home to Kyoto’s fine art. The 100-year-old neo-classical building was just given a super-sized overhaul by Jun Aoki and Tezzo Nishizawa, whose collaborations include the futuristic Aomori Museum of Art. The two architects sought to preserve the original structure’s Art Deco features, while better connecting its disparate spaces and improving accessibility. To launch the updated museum, a special exhibition, 250 Years of Kyoto Art Masterpieces will feature more than 400 works of art over three phases, each dedicated to a different time period. Putting a contemporary face on Kyoto art, Post Vitam by Hiroshi Sugimoto will also feature in the reopening period, including performances by the artist’s Glass Tea House “Mondrian” installation in the garden. Permanent exhibitions will be displayed in the Collection room, changing seasonally. After filling your head with high art, clear it with fresh air and mountain views from the museum’s new rooftop area. The museum is scheduled to reopen April 4, but check the website for updates just to be sure.
kyotocity-kyocera.museum/en; Collection room ¥540 per person, special exhibitions from ¥1,000 per person