Story and photographs by Chris Kucway
Nov 20, 2019
BATHED IN THE HALF-LIGHT of 6 a.m., my room takes on an otherworldly aura. A black bowl with two Japanese pears—you know, that fruit too beautiful to eat—that sit atop a carefully folded sheet of white paper is a still life manifest. Beyond it outside is my own Japanese moss garden, where maple trees drip with the last of the overnight autumn rain and a two-meter-high rock wall holds back a steep, forested mountainside. My bed is deeply comfortable but the outdoors beckon. Sliding open the floor-to-ceiling glass doors, I step barefoot onto the moss, sinking into this natural sponge, cool water squeezing around my toes as I inhale the crisp air. Nature. I’ll admit, the rebel in me stirs, thinking this is the last thing I should be doing. I know never to set foot on green sacred ground in Japan, whether at a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple. Traditionally, a Japanese garden is meant to connect people to the spiritual world by being observed rather than walked on. At the new Aman Kyoto though, guests are invited to enjoy the gardens—by admiring and using them.
Opened just last month, the Aman Kyoto is set in dense forest to the north of the historic city. On 34 secluded hectares, most of its structures are built on manicured parcels of land that had been set aside for what was to be a museum dedicated to obi, the ornamental sash of a kimono. The museum never came to fruition, giving way to this wellness retreat. Today, that translates as four main guest buildings, each housing six 68-square-meter rooms—opt for one on the ground floor—an arrival pavilion, a pair of two-bedroom villas up on the hillside, two restaurants and a spa with its own onsen. Linking them all are irregular stone pathways that evoke a different century, doubly so when you consider that the moss-covered surroundings here dampen sound and keep most man-made additions well hidden behind stands of cypress, yama momjii maples and more than a few towering kitayama- sugi, or Japanese cedars.
Everything emanates from the forest and garden. Anything man-made is built around and within nature, resulting in a sense of calm that plays off the greenery. The designers behind Aman Kyoto, Kerry Hill Architects, first came across the garden back in 1995. “The largest challenge was to design buildings which neither compete with, nor destroy, the existing garden,” Justin Hill, a director at the firm, tells me. “Pavilions were sited only on existing clearings within the garden to minimize the impact on the landscape.”
Each building features glass walls framed in dark wood that blend in with the surrounding, mature forest. Indoors, that transparency merges guestrooms into the natural setting, aided by interiors featuring bright, blond woodwork and tatami- mat floors. Combining this Japanese aesthetic—highlighted by a massive ofuro bathtub made of hinoki cypress in the spacious bathroom, and a tokonoma, a simple alcove in the living area set aside solely for appreciating the art it contains— with Western touches such as a lower-than-usual bed, each room embraces the ideals of minimalist geometry. The sliding wooden doors separating the entry, the bathroom and the living area disappear into walls and are easily shut with a single finger. As I discovered on that first morning, these intimate spaces are filled with the subtlest of light, fostering relaxation and contemplation. This gentle illumination radiates in part from knitted-bamboo lanterns made using the same techniques, and wrapped in the same Echizen washi paper, as traditional Japanese bamboo umbrellas.
West-facing rooms offer views of moss-covered stones and the mountainside; those looking east, of a creek and into forest. Ascending the hillside on foot uncovers the pair of two-bedroom villas set along an avenue of Japanese cedars that overlooks the entire garden—a soothing view with autumn’s colors starting to appear. Crows caw, deer return guests’ stares and there has even been a warning about a local bear. Nature is always close at hand here. “That sense of containment within the forested garden,” Hill says, “gives rise to a feeling of a contemporary ryokan, which is residential in nature and sits naturally in its setting.”
I had arrived in a nighttime downpour, and my first full day was an on-again, off-again series of rainstorms, but at this property, that simply did not matter. In fact, I came to the fast conclusion that you almost need to experience these lush, green grounds in the rain: that’s when their true nature comes out. The following day brought intermittent sunshine, the long shadows of autumn, which made me see Aman Kyoto in, yes, an entirely different light. Wells filled, setting the garden’s natural irrigation system—a series of small waterfalls and rivulets—into motion.
Of course, Kyoto is a magical destination in its own right. The Aman shares the same mountainside as the popular Kinkaku-ji Temple, the Golden Pavilion, a 20-minute walk away. Simply taking in everything on the property is a definite option. So too is exploring the neighborhood, one as rich in history as it is in greenery. Count nearby Imamiya Shrine and the sprawling but beautiful Ryogen- in Temple as two must-visits. The latter is home to five Zen gardens that dialed me down even more than the Aman. Each defines calm.
Yet Aman’s general manager, Akira Shiota, stresses that it’s his staff that make the real difference. He says they aim to help guests on their journey, and he doesn’t mean by booking a taxi, though of course they do that when needed. “Our property is the place to recall truly important moments in life, a place to find peace,” Shiota explains. “There is a sense of the seasons in everything in our hotel.”
That distinctly Japanese idea extends to the menus. Both Taka-an, a Japanese restaurant, and Living Pavilion by Aman, which serves Kyoto-style and Western cuisine— do not miss the bite-sized fish and chips—reflect this. “I want you to experience the seasonality of the cuisine; of the ingredients we get from around Kyoto,” explains the easy-to-laugh executive chef Kentaro Torii, who likes to call it “land to table.” Believe it: Torii was out in the forest early each morning collecting chestnuts that had fallen in a typhoon the week before I arrived. For its part, Taka-an offers set courses where the pieces in each serving are meticulously crafted by hand. The shape and consistency of a piece of fish and tofu in a dashi broth, for instance, is perfect, bringing together textures and tastes that shouldn’t hold together, but do. Sea bream from Hokkaido, local figs and the freshest mushrooms I’ve ever tasted are staples during my stay.
Local sake, green tea and cold-pressed tsubaki, or camellia oil, are on the menu of a different sort at Aman Spa, which is also home to an onsen. Soaking in the hot waters, learning how to breathe again and enjoying a shiatsu treatment is where the ideal of connecting with nature has its strongest pull.
Rising before the sun to catch a taxi to meet a train that would connect with my plane—from the garden to the street to the sky, in other words—I realized that, just as the moss garden had absorbed me, I had taken on qualities of this natural setting. I had eaten its mushrooms and chestnuts. I’d soaked in the scalding mineral waters of its onsen. Breathed its autumnal air and let the rain fall through the trees on to me, a sturdy 18-rib Japanese umbrella in hand, but at my side. That moss garden and everything connected to it was now a part of me in this quiet corner of Kyoto, one of my favorite spots on any map.
Aman Kyoto; aman.com; rooms from ¥130,000.