Kyoto can sometimes be mistaken as the sedate Zen garden wallflower to Tokyo, its more extroverted neon-illuminated sibling up north. Compared to the dizzying sensory overload of Tokyo, the former Imperial Capital of Japan is, indeed, a meditative destination- one less about “selfies” and more about “finding self”. After all, devout monks and the pageant of geishas can still be found against the backdrop of ancient wood and stone architecture. Yet for today’s traveler, Kyoto has emerged as an extraordinary destination that offers modern luxuries with its quintessentially Japanese experiences.
What To See:
Kyoto rewards those who forgo sticking to a typical tourist’s down-to-the-minute itinerary and choose to walk everywhere instead. Nishiki Market, a five block shopping street known as Kyoto’s Kitchen, will amaze. Vendors, hawkers, and craftsman work elbow to elbow, displaying a dizzying arrangement of foods within carefully arranged stalls, offering visitors the opportunity to taste specialties difficult, if not impossible, to find outside of Kyoto
Shopping opportunities also await on Shijo-Dori, Kyoto’s central retail destination. It’s worth a visit for those seeking a mixture of global luxury brands and regional boutiques catering to the moneyed set. Head down a narrow alley for a long night of food and drink along Ponto-chō. You may see apprentice geisha intermingling with singing, staggering locals under the photogenic glow of lanterns that illuminate narrow alleyways and steep stairs. Some of these mysterious paths lead to exclusive watering holes, where one can partake in the world’s best whiskeys. Those with a particular affinity for distilled spirits should take a day trip out to the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery; a free tour of the factory concludes with a tasting and an invitation to the whiskey museum where other rare whiskeys can be sampled.
Where To Stay:
The best places to stay in Kyoto range from intimate and traditional ryokan (think a Japanese-style luxury inn) to sparkling new luxury hotels. The new Ritz-Carlton, built on banks of the Kamagawa River, offers its guests panoramic views of the Higashiyama mountains, private balconies and fireplaces, oversized soaking tubs, and suites up to 2,279 square feet to call home.
For those seeking rooms with a funkier spirit, the Screen Hotel celebrates an oddly numbered selection of 13 rooms, each individually decorated by its own assigned artist. Rooms range from relaxing minimalism with an element of Japan’s past to a more sexy adornment covered with sleek modern veneer – all of the rooms are impressively spacious.
But arguably, the finest place to stay while in Kyoto is one of the city’s oldest and respected traditional inns, Hiiragiya Ryokan. With just 33 rooms and an intimate staff-to-guest ratio, staying inside the shoji screen maze of the 145-year old ryokan is an introduction to an impeccable level of detail and attentiveness which is increasingly fading away. Here six generations of the same family have elevated hospitality to an art form. Warm floors greet the sock-required feet of guests. Wooden tubs inside each room are filled in advance to soothe muscles. A 12-course seasonally driven Kyoto-style kaiseki meal is prepared each evening to seduce the palate. And plush futons and kakebuton comforters are unrolled for guests to crawl into with a satisfaction last experienced during infancy, all with the serenity of a private garden view from each room. You will erase life’s worries each passing minute spent within the ryokan’s walls.