With a vibrant food and arts scene thriving alongside its bevy of venerable shrines and temples, Japan’s onetime imperial capital offers the perfect mix of old and new.
With its October debut, the Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto is the latest addition to the city’s upscale lodging scene, with 123 light-filled rooms and suites centered on an 800-year-old pond garden. Fusuma paper screens and urushi laquerware provide the requisite sense of wa, or peaceful harmony, while the 10-seat, Edo-style sushi bar Sushi Wakon is the creation of Michelin-starred chef Rei Masuda, who learned his craft under Tokyo sushi legend Jiro Ono.
For a more affordable stay, try Noku Kyoto. Guests are greeted with a gigantic painting of two Japanese macaques, yet there’s no monkey-ing around at this chic, well-run 81-room hotel located just a short stroll from Kyoto Imperial Palace.
Having spent 15 years working his culinary magic at Nobu Milan, kaiseki chef Taka Kimura has returned to his homeland to open Yanagikoji Taka, his own take on the traditional Japanese tachinomiya standing bar. Milan’s loss is Kyoto’s gain. With just three seats and standing room for half a dozen customers, Yanagikoji Taka is a relaxed, friendly gastropub serving quality food at very reasonable prices. Taka’s yakitori is some of the best in town, and his range of hams and cured meats will satisfy even the most discerning palette. The tasting course of seven different sakes is excellent, and a real bargain.
The entrance to Café Maru is via the Kyoei Chuo Building’s singularly grubby garage and an industrial-strength elevator, but that just adds to the delight when you emerge into the airy, loft-like eighth-floor space. A magnet for the city’s creative community, Maru serves casual Western fare such as hamburgers, roast beef, and good salads. Try to get here around sunset, when the view from the rooftop terrace is superb.
Heir to a long line of Kyoto master craftsmen famed for their copper and brass tea caddies, Takahiro Yagi opened the minimalist-chic Kaikado Café in May as a gathering place for those with an interest in traditional Kyoto craftsmanship and values. It was an instant hit. Occupying a lovingly restored Taisho-era tram shed, the café serves excellent coffee and a good range of craft beers alongside cakes from local bakery Hanakago. Better yet, all the beautifully crafted tea and coffee utensils you’ll see are also for sale.
In the Mototakeda-cho area, Mimiya is the new retail outlet for Kyoto-born but Tokyo-based design firm Groovisions. Only open on weekends, it stocks super-cool stationary and household tools created by artists, craftsmen, and graphic designers.
Take a wander through Okazaki Park—home to the beautiful Heian Jingu shrine—before visiting the ROHM Theatre Kyoto. Redeveloped from the 1960s-built Kyoto Kaikan, the performing arts center boasts funky modernist architecture, fabulous acoustics for its world-class musical events, and the excellent Kyoto Modern Terrace restaurant.
This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“City Guides: Kyoto”).