Kyoto has long been known as the soul and heart of Japan’s traditional culture and arts. Its centuries-old temples and geisha districts have been the emblematic perfect of Japan imagery. But despite the more than 1,600 temples, 400 Shinto shrines and 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, the town offers a lot more than postcard-perfect images to more than 50 million yearly visitors.
The town’s historical attractions, prewar buildings (it was spared, unlike in Japan’s other major cities, from World War II bombings due to its ancient, spiritual significance to the Japanese folks) and the hottest contemporary trends and modern conveniences make it an perfect town for design. By Heian-period architecture and ancient bamboo woods to a revival of modern art museums and maiko (apprentice geisha) performances — Japan’s Old Capital is full of new life. Spend a week exploring Kyoto’s diverse charms during the springtime, when a heavenly backdrop of the nation’s renowned cherry blossoms eyeglasses the city’s venerable temples and timeworn streets.
Take advantage of American Airlines’ brand new direct flight from JFK to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, which formerly didn’t receive international flights. Haneda is only minutes from Tokyo Station, which offers multiple daily shinkansen (bullet train) rides to Kyoto Station, about two and a half hours away.
Kyoto is the most important vein of classic culture, so be prepared to slip your shoes on and off in the entryway of the majority of hotels, restaurants and also a few select boutiques. Slippers are often supplied by hosts, but hot socks can not hurt in the cold winter months.
Downtown Kyoto has the potential to underwhelm first-time visitors. Drab office buildings and nondescript strip malls are prevalent. But historic districts such as Higashiyama, Arashiyama and Gion still boast pristine architecture by way of ancient shrines and temples, such as the famed Imperial Palace and Golden Pavilion. And while the pavilion attracts thousands and thousands of sightseers every year, you will find other lesser-known destinations throughout the city worth exploring.
Miho Museum: An architecturally jaw-dropping tradition created by architect I.M. Pei
Cost: 1,000 yen (about $10)
Location: 300 Momodani, Shigaraki-cho, Koka, Shiga Prefecture 529-1814
Noteworthy: Modern design in a natural atmosphere
Over the course of construction, Pei dubbed the isolated arrangement Shangri-La. It is nestled amidst a densely populated all-natural park, and it is separated from the rest of the world even further by a futuristic, cylindrical entry tube that really sets the mood for visitors.
Besides the striking architecture, the personal collections of priceless antiques and ancient relics, and special visiting displays, there is also an onsite tearoom and restaurant, making day trips quite agreeable.
More info: Miho Museum
Sanjusangendo: A certified national treasure in the heart of mid Kyoto
Cost: 300 to 600 yen ($3 to $6)
Location: 657-cho, Higashiyama-ku
Noteworthy: It is Japan’s longest wooden structure (394 ft).
The protracted hall includes a stunning collection of 1,001 life-size statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, every hand carved out of wood and decorated with gold foliage during the 12th and 13th centuries. No photos are allowed inside the revered hall, but the incandescent glow of this multitudinous deities will sear itself in one’s memory. Lively archery competitions (the Toshiya festival) are held every year outside along the length of the building, as they have been since the Edo period (1603 to 1868).
Kyoto International Manga Museum: An extensive comic book library
Cost: 800 yen ($8)
Location: Karasuma-dori Oike-agaru
Noteworthy: Japan’s very first manga tradition celebrates the precious national comics which cover a range of themes, from sci-fi to over-the-top romance. It started in 2006 at a converted elementary school, and its diverse displays, drawing demos and extensive library of local and international comic books are enough to entertain picture design fans and comic fans of all types for an afternoon.
More info: Kyoto International Manga Museum
Giro Giro Hitoshina
What’s it : A stylish restaurant in a beautifully restored machiya home (a historical merchant’s home or townhouse dating back to the Heian period), with panoramic windows overlooking the Takase-gawa canal.
Cost: 4,000 yen (about $40)
Location: 420-7 Nanba-cho, Nishi Kiya-machi-dori, Higashigawa
Noteworthy: This is haute cuisine on a budget.
Kyoto is known for its kaiseki, an elaborate, multicourse meal concentrated on seasonal, seasonal specialties; it originated more than 500 years ago to accompany formal tea ceremonies. The custom isn’t for everyone — a dinner can be particularly costly and consist of up to 15 classes, such as rare, and sometimes difficult to swallow, victuals, such as blowfish and sea urchin. However, you can experience a less formal and more affordable version at Giro Giro Hitoshina. The set 10-course meal varies with the seasons.
OKU Gallery and Café is just another hot spot in the bustling Gion district — not only for the food, but for the setting. The Japanese word oku means “interior,” and design is understandably in the forefront of the chic café. In a remodeled machiya home, it’s a minimalist aesthetic, with a neutral canvas of white, clean walls and narrow windows overlooking a manicured garden and courtyard. Eye-catching components like white and black ceramics by Kyoto designer Shojiro Endo and Glove chairs by Italian designer Patricia Urquiola liven up the monochromatic palette, interrupted only by hot all-natural walnut flooring and reed ceilings.
More info: OKU Gallery and Café
Nishijin Textile Center: A fabric center in the historical textile district of northwestern Kyoto. You can take a look at a daily kimono style show or get dressed up at a 12-layer kimono, like Japan’s imperial princesses did on their wedding day centuries ago.
Cost: trend shows: free; imperial kimono dressing: 10,000 yen (about $100)
Location: Imadegawa Minamiiru, Horikawa-dori, Kamigyo-ku
Noteworthy: Offers an in-depth look in the styles of today and yesteryear
It takes approximately an hour to don the multilayered, multicolored robes (and also the appropriate cosmetics and wigs of the imperial age), but the result is really a doll-like creation. In reality, Japanese girls dress up just like the imperial princesses every year on March 3 in honor of their yearly Girls Day bash. If you visit in spring, pick up a Kyo doll and attend a regional Girls Day parade even if you don’t intend to play dress-up.
More info: Nishijin Textile Center
Arashiyama Forest: A towering bamboo forest that visitors can experience on rickshaw rides
Cost: 3,500 yen (about $35) per individual
Location: Arashiyama (various pickup locations)
Noteworthy: Its wide, meandering paths framed by thick green shoots evoke a tranquil atmosphere, especially when the grove seems to rock back and forth in the wind, and have inspired local poets and artisans for centuries.
It is possible to stop at one of the several temples and shrines dotting the paths or browse small boutiques featuring handmade bamboo-inspired crafts, such as matcha tea whisks, intricately woven baskets or even the mandatory set of festive chopsticks to bring home as a souvenir.
Take in dinner and a show the old-fashioned way afterward at Takeshigero, featuring traditional banquet hall and kaiseki cuisine, with personal geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) performances. Celebrate the delicate outfits, presentation, dance and music of a bygone age, as people have done here in the Gion district because the early 1700s.
Location: 65 Torii-cho, Awataguchi, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, 606-8436
Additional info: Takeshigero
Teramachi Street and Shinmonzen-dori: Well-known shopping districts
Noteworthy: Kyoto is known for its diverse choice of antiques (high end and economical), and there are several ways to browse the city’s exceptional relics. The antiques stores along Teramachi Street and Shinmonzen-dori are famed for their wares and monthly flea markets in the Toji Temple and the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine through the last week of every month.
If you’re trying to find that one-of-a-kind true gift, handmade karakami wallpaper is a renowned Kyoto craft; there are just two artisans, Karacho and Kamisoe, who still exercise the time-consuming, traditional woodblock printing process used to create it. The exquisite wallpaper (notable for its rich color and textural qualities) can be seen throughout the city in chic restaurants and design hotels, such as Hoshinoya Kyoto. You can find out more about the ancient technique or place custom orders in Kamisoe, the age-old store of proprietor Ko Kado, who produces the delicate product for shoji screens, wallpaper and fusuma (sliding doors). There are also hand-printed stationery and cards produced by Kado’s wife on initial washi (traditional Japanese paper). If you visit Kamisoe, do not overlook the other stores inside the Nazuna artists’ collective, a historical machiya home turned creative power, comprising a glass blower’s studio as well as on the next floor, Ryuka, an artisanal ceramic store.
Location: 11-1 Higashi Fujinomori-cho Murasakino 1F, Kita-ku
More Info: Kamisoe
Hyatt Kyoto: Probably the most comfortable, conveniently located hotel in the town
Cost: 20,000 yen (about $200) per night
Location: 644-2 Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0941
Noteworthy: Located in the heart of the activity, this really is an exceptional option that will assist you maximize your time in the city.
The interior design is chic and modern, both onsite restaurants (French-Japanese fusion and conventional kaiseki) are exemplary, and the hospitality and concierge services are unrivaled.
Or, if you want to go the more traditional route, Hoshinoya Kyoto, only a brief boat ride up the river out of Arashiyama, is a modern incarnation of a classic Japanese inn (ryokan) that can transport guests into another time and place. Rooms are uberluxurious, with sweeping river views, heated flooring and private sitting areas, and also a Michelin-starred restaurant provides a rotating menu of some of Kyoto’s best kaiseki cuisine. The property also offers traditional cultural adventures, such as tea and incense ceremonies.
Location: 11-2 Arashiyama Genrokuzancho, Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 616-0007
For something entirely different, spend a night in Nine Hours, Kyoto’s first, and most striking, capsule hotel. It is a space-age experience that combines high-minded modern design with compact simplicity, with small personal capsules (guest rooms) measuring about 7 feet by 4 feet; they include cozy bedding and modern gadgetry, like calming, light-operated alarm clocks. It is no luxury hotel, but it is an intriguing solution for backpackers, single celebrations or interested design travelers.
Cost: 5,000 yen (about $50) per night
Location: 588, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 600-8031
More Info: Hyatt Kyoto; Nine Hours
Pack your luggage: More city guides for design junkies