The capital of Japan for a thousand years, Kyoto is now a city-sized cache of World Heritage cultural treasures
It was 1868. The Meiji Restoration, the chain of events that restored imperial rule to Japan, was complete, and the decision was made. The capital, and the seat of that rule, was to be moved to the city of Edo. Kyoto’s 1074-year reign as the centre of Japanese cultural, intellectual, artistic, spiritual, political and, let us not forget, culinary, endeavour was finally over. Sayonara and farewell to the city of priests and geisha, and the nobles and the noblest of them all, the Emperor.
But here’s the curious thing. No-one seems to have mentioned that historical blip to the good citizens of Kyoto. OK, politics may now be fought out in that new upstart to Japan’s east – Tokyo, was it? – and the Emperor stops by the Gosho Imperial Palace only on rare official “visits” these days. Yet more than 1216 years after the Emperor first moved in, the city still remains a fixture at the very centre of Japanese cultural identity.
The “former capital” (locals hate that moniker by the way) boasts 17 World Heritage sites, many of which are vibrant, still-powerful centres of the Buddhist faith. Ningen kokuyou, the artists who are recognised as “living national treasures”, still walk the streets. So, too, do geisha. Kyoto’s Zen gardens retain the serenity and aesthetic magnificence they have had since they were created centuries ago.
Yet, marvellously, Kyoto is neither stuffy nor stilted. This is still a very creative and, indeed, youthful city. Its 80-plus institutions of higher education see to that, and art is never far from public view. Kyoto is also superbly manageable: it’s possible to cycle across its centre in around an hour, and the bus and subway networks mean that all surrounding areas are easily accessible. Should cultural overload set in, relief is at hand in the myriad cafes, tea shops, restaurants and bars that fill every street – the junction of Shijo and Kawaramachi streets has the highest concentration.
Sampling Kyo-ryori, the city’s uniquely refined cuisine, is a must. This grew up to serve the imperial court, and soon included kaiseki, the elegant cuisine associated with Buddhism and the tea ceremony. The top-end luxury restaurants are known as ryotei, and are internationally renowned as the ultimate expressions of Japanese culinary and wabi-sabi aesthetic brilliance. Beware: many still accept only cash. Fortunately, however, it is possible to eat well in Kyoto on any budget. Thanks to the genius of the city’s chefs in creating dashi stock, even the humblest noodle joints are excellent. And the city’s tofu, which has a central role in shojin-ryori Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, is the finest on the planet.
Ah, Kyoto. The Emperor may be gone, but the city still remains very much the heart and soul of Japan. As they say in the local dialect, “Okoshiyasu [welcome], sit down and stay a while…”
See & Do
KYOTO INTERNATIONAL MANGA MUSEUM
+81 75 254 7414.
A temple to all that is anime and manga, this lively museum in the centre of town has proved a massive success with tourists. Visiting exhibitions are at the very cutting edge of the genres, and the standing exhibition is the largest collection of its kind in
KYOTO GARDEN TOURS
+81 75 751 0664.
Mark Hovane left Perth some two decades ago for Kyoto, attracted by the city’s famed temple gardens. His customised private tours for up to four people cover not only better-known destinations, but also hidden gems such as Honen-in and Shisendo. The specially tailored itineraries are particularly sensitive to the seasonal changes in the landscape. From ¥25,000 ($AUD333).
Fondly known as Kyo-no-Daidokoro or “the kitchen of Kyoto”, the Nishiki-koji Ichiba (market) has been on this site since 1615. Running for some six blocks from Teramachi to Takakura Streets, the family-run shinise (shops) crowded into this arcade in central Kyoto offer a cornucopia of traditional culinary treats and ingredients – almost everything locally produced or procured. Highlights are the Kyoto pickles at Uchida Tsukemono, the knives and kitchenware at Aritsugu, and the inexpensive, freshly grilled scallops and oysters at Daiyasu. The latter is a perfect place to relax over a cold beer. Stalls open from 9am to 5pm.
WORLD HERITAGE SITES
City buses 206 and 204 deliver three of the most famous sites: Kiyomizu-dera temple; Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion; and Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion. A brisk 30-minute walk from Kinkaku-ji leads to the famed Zen garden of Ryoan-ji. Nearer the centre of town is the art-filled Nijo-jo castle. There are 12 more dotted around the city – all of them magnificent.
Take a stroll or rickshaw ride through the bamboo groves of Arashiyama, a 20-minute train journey west of the city centre on the Hankyu or Keifuku lines. You can also watch ukai cormorant fishing, eat the local Sagano tofu and visit the temple and garden at Tenryu-ji. The Hozu Kudari river rapids tour that culminates here is great fun.
4-297 Miyagawa-suji, Higashiyama-ku.
+81 75 551 1357.
Head here for beautiful but inexpensive traditional Japanese stationery. Uragu’s postcards and notebooks make perfect souvenirs – easily portable, visually superb and elegantly Kyoto. The shop is tucked away in an alley in Miyagawa-cho.
Higashiyama-dori Marutamachi Higashi-iru.
+81 75 754 0121.
Kyoto is well-known for its images of the Buddha, called Miroku. This gallery specialises in rearu butsuzou, contemporary reproductions of classical Buddhist sculpture. The smaller items will fit easily in luggage and prices are extremely reasonable for this quality. It is in Shogoin near the Heian-Jingu shrine and Kyoto Handicraft Centre.
SANJO BY PAGONG
32 Nakano-cho, Sanjo-dori, Tominokoji Higashi-iru, Nakagyo-ku.
+81 75 257 3723.
Traditional kyoyuzen silk designs and craftsmanship meet modern textile art in this downtown store. Kazuaki Kameda’s beautifully made silk aloha shirts with Japanese motifs currently sell like hotcakes in the upmarket boutiques of Singapore and Bangkok. For fun, and to promote traditional folkloric culture, his Gojo branch boasts its own Japanese obakeyashiki (haunted house).
Food & Drink
34 Minamigosho-cho, Okazaki, Sakyo-ku.
+81 75 771 4831.
Kyoto’s noodle restaurants come and go with the caprices of fad and fashion, but not so Okakita, which has been making excellent udon wheat and soba buckwheat noodles on this site for 70 years. Their tempura seiro soba, nabeyaki udon and chuka soba are standout items. It’s just a short stroll from the Heian-Jingu shrine and the city museums.
5 Izumidono-cho Yoshida, Sakyo-ku.
+81 75 771 4447.
A favourite of Kyoto University literary types and of legendary animator Osamu Tezuka, this Michelin two-starred restaurant in the Hyakumanben area is simply superb. The beautiful old Japanese residence where owner/chef Kenichi Hashimoto was born boasts its own izumi or pure-water spring, Izumidono. It’s the source, literally, of his culinary inspiration. The guji no shioyaki salted and grilled tilefish is excellent.
STEAK TEPPANYAKI MIKURA
3F Ponto-cho Building, 135 Ponto-cho Sanjo-sagaru, Nakagyo-ku.
+81 75 213 4129.
You won’t find the showy utensil-juggling that seems de rigueur at teppanyaki restaurants outside Japan here. Emphasis is on the quality of the fare at this refined eatery on Ponto-cho Street – and the Kyoto-gyu beef will not disappoint. Credit cards are not accepted.
Shijo Kudaru, Yamato-oji, Higashiyama-ku.
+81 75 531 1500.
Founded in 1930, Hana Kitcho is a Kyoto dining institution. Founder, Teiichi Yuki’s philosophy was to provide a superb, “once-in-a lifetime” culinary experience for every guest, a motto still adhered to at this sophisticated kaiseki restaurant in the Gion district.
In the evening, the “Fuku” course features 10 seasonal dishes for ¥18,000 ($AUD240).
459 Shimokawara-cho, Yasakatoriimae-sagaru, Higashiyama-ku.
+81 75 561 0015.
The doyen of Kyo-ryori Kyoto cuisine, this elegant Michelin three-starred restaurant on the south side of Maruyama-koen Park has legendary status among Japanese gourmet cognoscenti. Master chef Yoshihiro Murata weaves culinary magic as he adds innovative touches to classical kaiseki cuisine that he acquired while an apprentice in France. The autumn specialties nimono-wan harvest soup and yakimono kamasu planked barracuda
are particularly good.
1F Fukiage Building, 7 Yamato-cho, Shijyo-Yamato-oji-agaru, Higashiyama-ku.
+81 75 533 0031.
This counter-style restaurant in the Gion district is less formal than its neighbour, Hana Kitcho, but still oozes Kyoto elegance. The seasonal cuisine is top-notch and at ¥1500 ($18), the wagozen set lunch has to be the city’s best midday gourmet bargain. No à la carte menu; evening kaiseki set courses start from ¥3300 ($AUD44).
+81 75 213 1700.
Kappo refers to an upscale counter-style eatery, essentially “chef’s cuisine”, a one-man gourmet show. Although this isn’t a sushi specialist per se, Kappo Kouichi’s edomae zushi is some of the most talked about in town. The crab and conger eel “sushi cakes” are a visual overload. Bookings are essential. Chef’s selection from ¥13,000 ($AUD173).
B1F Ebisu Building, Kawabata-Marutamachi, Sakyo-ku.
+81 75 752 2787.
Underground literally (inside the Keihan Jingu-Marutamachi station) and metaphorically, Metro is where the movers and shakers of the Kyoto music scene cut their creative teeth. Musical genres change every day. The Diamond Night drag show on the last Friday of each month has cult status.
KABOKU TEAROOM AT IPPUDO
Teramachi-dori, Nijo, Nakagyo-ku.
+81 75 211 3421.
Tea-makers to the Imperial family for the past 300 years, Ippodo takes huge pride in its production of the finest green teas. Assistants at Kaboku help brew matcha, gyokuro, sencha, hojicha or genmaicha to taste.
546 Nakano-cho, Shijo-agaru, Shinkyogoku-dori, Nakagyko-ku.
+81 75 221 4156.
Unpretentious, super-friendly izakaya pub-style restaurant, in the Shinkyogoku arcade in the centre of the city. The decor echoes how Sutando must have been when it was founded in 1927. A great spot for a glass of sake after a long day’s sightseeing.
2-239-2 Miyagawa-suji, Higashiyama-ku.
+81 90 5169 1654.
Long-term Kyoto resident and geisha expert Peter MacIntosh offers the rare opportunity to meet and be entertained by geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) at this private bar on the edge of the Miyagawa-cho entertainment district, east of Donguribashi bridge. From ¥60,000 ($AUD800).
640-1 Shimogoryomae-cho, Teramachi Marutamachi-sagaru. Nakagyko-ku.
+81 75 252 1113.
Each of the 13 individually designed rooms at this “personalised boutique hotel” near the Gosho Imperial Palace has its own jacuzzi. From ¥46,600 ($AUD621).
11-2 Genrokuzancho, Arashiyama, Nishikyo-ku.
+81 75 871 0001.
This recently opened luxury resort by the river in leafy Arashiyama, is perfect for those who want privacy. Along with individually designed rooms, Hoshinoya Kyoto offers cultural experiences that include Zen meditation, excellent à la carte cuisine and Eastern medicine healing treatments. From ¥49,000 ($AUD653).
588 Teianmaeno-cho, Shijyo, Teramachi-dori, Shimogyo-ku.
+81 75 353 9005.
The futuristic, ergonomic sleeping pods at 9H (Nine Hours) are more reminiscent of sci-fi manga than a salaryman sleep capsule. Accommodation doesn’t come much more 21st-century Japan than this. From ¥5240 ($AUD70).
278 Nakahakusan-cho, Fuyacho-dori, Ayeyakoji-agaru, Nakagyo-ku.
+81 75 211 5566.
Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and Leonard Bernstein are just a few of the luminaries to stay at this 11th-generation, 18-room inn in downtown Kyoto. Its discreet charm and aesthetic purity make it one of the most looked-for lodgings in Japan. From ¥47,300 ($AUD631).
Source Qantas The Australian Way November 2011