Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Kyoto

Beyond its celebrated temples, shrines and Zen gardens, Japan’s ancient capital is showing a new face to visitors – dynamic, design-savvy and brimming with surprises, says Daisy Finer.

May 23 2010
Daisy Finer

It is a starry night in the eastern district of Higashiyama. Just around the corner from the Kiyomizu Temple, in a beautiful old wooden merchant’s house, impossibly pretty girls in skintight jeans and towering heels lean across candlelit tables giggling as they feast on mozzarella and Parma ham. Cool boys with angular haircuts and open white shirts light up cigarettes. Out in the bamboo garden, flaming torches and huge paper lanterns light the way for a jolly group of salary men wobbling their way home on bicycles. The scene here at The Garden Oriental, one of Kyoto’s newest and chicest restaurants, is mesmerising: young and old, locals and foreigners, foie gras and Kyoto steak (less famous than its relatives kobe and wagyu, but just as tender and with less fat), local sake and Brunello di Montalcino. This is the new Kyoto: subtly sophisticated, quietly affluent, with a snapping energy suffused with influences from both past and present.

While the megalopolis of Tokyo hurtles into the future at full throttle, Kyoto, Japan’s cultural heartland, has developed at a calmer, wind-chime pace. For years it has been cast as the romantic Geisha – gliding through cobbled streets illuminated by dusky red lanterns – against Tokyo’s bubblegum-pop schoolgirl, partying madly in a Blade Runner landscape. Kyoto is where the Japanese themselves go to see iconic, ancient Japan.

But search beyond the guided-tour sights and you will find a city on the cusp of a new era. This is, after all, not just the birthplace of the fan, but also of Kyocera and Nintendo. Indeed, the Kyoto you’d be expecting if you saw Memoirs of a Geisha (although only three scenes in the movie were actually filmed here) is, in reality, limited to the small areas of Gion and Pontocho. Most visitors are disappointed to find a sprawling, hectic city – all skyscrapers, pylons and flashing lights – with few immediate camera-ready views. But it is in this very layering, this hybrid of the graceful and brash, the handcrafted and electronic, the hidden and exposed that you find fresh, unsung, modern Kyoto.

You will probably arrive by bullet train from Tokyo, a journey of two hours and 45 minutes. The train is properly comfortable, with adjustable seats and, despite the space-age speed, an old-fashioned politeness – hot drinks are brought to your seat, and the conductor walks out of your carriage backwards, bowing as he goes. Savvy insiders carry no bags (bar a bento picnic); instead they courier their luggage ahead, for about £13 a piece for overnight delivery. Your hotel in Tokyo can arrange this for you.

You can gauge Kyoto’s emerging now-ness from its hotel scene. Five years ago options were few, and largely boiled down to ryokan, the traditional inn distinguished by the clean-lined simplicity of its design, and what to many Westerners appears a formulaically precise approach to hospitality, even in its most luxurious incarnation. At 300-year-old Tawaraya, nine-course kaiseki dinners (served before 7.30pm) are eaten at a low table one kneels at in one’s bedroom; after supper, a maid whisks away the furniture and lays out a futon on the straw-matted floor. For some, this is borderline comfort at considerable expense; neophytes should come expecting a wonderful insight into the old way of doing things, rather than bells and whistles.

“Some guests call us to say their knees are hurting, asking if we have room for them,” says Ken Yokoyama, general manager of the recently opened Hyatt Regency. Don’t be put off by the chain name; this is one of the most sparkling new hotels in Japan, designed by Super Potato, the country’s premier design firm (behind the city’s much-photographed Park Hyatt and London’s Zuma restaurant). The lobby is stunning, with a unique latticework ceiling, while the spa is all clean Zen lines and warm wood. Rooms feature washi-paper lights, kimono fabrics, Western beds and, in some rooms, deep cedar bathtubs large enough for two. For supper, you can choose modern Japanese or opt for authentic Italian at Trattoria Sette, which uses produce from the hotel’s organic farm.

Smaller boutique hotels are still a rarity in Japan, but here again Kyoto breaks new ground. In December 2008, amid a flurry of local buzz, The Screen opened its funky doors. Even the setting is young at heart; the Cubist building sits in a lovely, village-like part of town, with a French bakery and cafés, bookshops, and stores such as the Ippodo Tea Company, a sort of old-fashioned tea apothecary specialising in gorgeously packaged matcha. Each of The Screen’s 13 bedrooms was created by a different designer; the look is bold and colourful, and there are fine views of the city and hills from the roof terrace.

For a more serene setting there’s rising star Hoshinoya Kyoto, located in the western, mountainous region of Arashiyama, close to the bamboo forest – ideal for those who want to be within half an hour of city attractions but wake to birdsong and not much else. One arrives by boat, and all 25 rooms offer views of the Ooigawa River. The hotel deftly combines authentic ryokan touches (sliding paper screen doors, hand-blocked wallpaper) with boutique comforts (yuzu and mint to put in your bath, a library area with glossy art books and chocolate nibbles, and a relaxed approach). The sleek-looking restaurant has a special soba noodle chef. Japan should watch and learn; this is the future.

You would need weeks to take in all the cultural experiences on offer here. Kyoto is home to an astonishing collection of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples – more than 2,000 in all – as well as beautiful Zen gardens once admired by Frank Lloyd Wright. To avoid temple fatigue, make a careful shortlist. Crucially, start early to beat the camera-carrying hordes, and wear shoes that can be easily taken off. The temples of Kiyomizudera and Heian Jingu, and the famous Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) are all worth seeing, but at a fast pace. These are legendary, but super-busy stopoffs. (It’s worth noting that the Golden Pavilion actually burned down in 1950; it was rebuilt, then re-covered in gold leaf five times thicker than the original coating in 1987. It does appear preternaturally shiny-new.)

Conversely, take your time at the majestic Nijo Castle – built in the early 17th century as the Kyoto base for the Tokugawa Shogunate – with its spectacular wooden carvings and a “nightingale floor” that emits bird-like squeaks as you walk over it (warning former inhabitants of intruders). The Sanjusangen-do is also a must, filled with 1,000 hauntingly beautiful, life-sized statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy.

Once you’ve had your fill of the old, you can dip into the fizz of Kyoto today. Begin with some of the city’s eye-catching contemporary architecture. The striking Futurist-inspired train station by Hiroshi Hara prompted huge controversy when it went up in 1997, and the International Conference Centre is equally space-age.

A stroll down Sanjo-Dori will showcase the 20th-century architectural works of Japanese masters Kingo Tatsuno, Yasushi Kataoka and Shigenori Yoshii. Equally worthwhile is the impressive MoMAK (Museum of Modern Art Kyoto) where, alongside Japanese artists of the late 19th and 20th centuries, you’ll find works by Chagall, Hockney and Braque. Then there is one of the city’s best-kept secrets: the Kyoto International Manga Museum, devoted to modern Japanese culture’s inimitable version of the comic – with a phenomenal collection of publications to browse.

Whilst Starbucks has sadly staked its claim here (selling pink “sakura” iced frappuccinos and fat cinnamon buns), many of the other international super-brands are happily absent, making shopping excursions an exploratory delight. You’ll find family-run stores selling tea ceremony sets and lacquerware, and innumerable variations on the kimono, the doll and the fan. But beyond these shops, which are the essence of old-school Kyoto, there’s an edgier, innovative retail spin on the city’s heritage. Some of the best include Kyoto Design House, for stylish home wares and gifts; Omo, for multiple modern takes on the kimono; Karacho, which applies its expertise in woodblock printing to dozens of lampshades and scores of papers; and Ichizawa Hanpu Kogyo, renowned for its utilitarian-chic canvas bags. Stop for lunch at Iyemon Salon; order a punchy green-tea cocktail and some straightforward but delicious sashimi and nigiri before sneaking upstairs to enjoy an exhibition of 450-year-old kimonos.

Design and innovation are increasingly Kyoto’s hallmarks. It’s a city that is much more than the fading time capsule of guidebook cliché. Consider dispensing with your checklist of historic must-sees, and instead experience it as an of-the-moment urban apex – where smart new restaurants such as Scorpione Gion (particularly buzzy on a Saturday night) perfectly reflect a vibrant, progressive spirit: eating spaghetti alla vodka with chopsticks never felt so de rigueur.