I’m frying scrambled egg in an oblong pan. The angular omelette it produces is so perfectly sharp-edged I experience a moment of pure, powerful contentment. It’s one of the countless little perfections that make life in Kyoto so utterly beguiling.
I’m at a cooking class hosted by the kimono-clad Tomo San, one of several local ladies who, under the auspices of the Women’s Association of Kyoto, volunteer their time to teach foreigners the finer Japanese arts. We began with a quick shop around Nishiki food market before retiring to make lunch under wood-beamed ceilings within a rock and bamboo garden glimpsed through sliding paper doors.
There’s no better city to indulge fantasies of bygone-era Japan than Kyoto. Layered with UNESCO heritage sites, still home to the country’s largest population of geisha along with 2,000 religious sites, 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, this is a city whose rich past seems to inform every present moment. At the Manga Museum, I flick through graphic novels and comics whose wide-eyed style screams of the future but is thought to be not so far from their 12th-century ancestors that were drawn on scrolls.
It’s surprisingly easy to feel at home in Kyoto. Even at a silent, box-like restaurant where customers sit cheek-by-jowl with a fierce sushi master wearing a samurai headband and wielding a knife that could cut glass, I’m nothing if not at ease. The artful theatrics he makes of serving raw fish are so focused, so ritualistic, it’s like being in church.
And yet, for all its olde worlde wonder, Kyoto is a living breathing innovative place. Traditional ryokan (inns) are being revamped as high-tech capsule hotels, and old houses conceal wine bars, such as Sayura Fins Vins, whose cement and glass setting is slick, contemporary Japan — with menus that are venerably French.
After a glass of wine that costs as much as a Shinkansen ticket, I wander the Gion district’s perfectly cobbled streets. Timbered merchants’ houses are silhouetted in the moonlight like a Japanese woodblock print, the sweet scent of the kinmokusei tree (orange osmanthus) ever present in the air. It might well be the ‘fin vin’ I’ve just drunk, but once again, I experience a sudden and profound sense of contentment.
What to see & do
Golden Pavilion: Another accessory of the Shoguns’ empire, Kinkaku-ji is a shimmering gold apparition of a Zen temple, and the stuff that Orientalist architectural fantasies are made of. Its reflection is a magical mirror image in the water it seemingly floats on. The leafy grounds are also from the 14th century — the classical age of Japanese gardens — with undulating acres of moss, a tree-fringed lake and a 600-year-old bonsai tree. shokoku-ji.jp
Ryoanjo temple: At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, Ryoanjo temple has a minimalist garden and a meditation space for a mysterious Kyoto Zen sect. One of the most iconic gardens in Japan, this simple arrangement of rocks and sand is, somehow, completely soul stilling, even with the crowds of nirvana seekers. ryoanji.jp
Gion: Many of Kyoto’s temples spawned ‘entertainment districts’ (as people needed somewhere for R&R after praying), the most atmospheric of which is Gion. Here, along narrow cobbled streets, you’ll find wooden merchant houses whose shrouded doors conceal some of the city’s best restaurants, bars and private clubs — and where geishas (called geiko or mieko in Kyoto) still entertain clients. Wander around for long enough and you’re sure to glimpse a painted faced, kimono-clad beauty darting around.
Nishiki Market: This great snack pit-stop has orderly alleys of specialist stalls — banks of silken tofu, walls of exotically seasoned rice crackers, plus acres of pickles, and an entire ‘block’ dedicated to kelp. Don’t miss Aritsugu, the 500-year-old purveyor of esteemed Kyoto kitchenware. Didn’t know you needed an engraved ginger grater? You do. kyoto-nishiki.or.jp
Fushimi Inari Shrine: Nothing says welcome to mystical Kyoto than stepping through the gates of the Shinto Fushimi Inari Shrine — 10,000 orange-red torii arches snaking into the mountainside, to be precise. You can’t fail to be charmed by the tiny offerings of origami birds left by students wishing for good exam results. inari.jp
Fushimi: This is the heartland of sake production and a brewery tour comes highly recommended for those who want to learn about this intricate, ancient process that relies on Kyoto’s pure spring water — and you get to taste the stuff, too. gekkeikan.co.jp
B-Side Label: Thought you’d grown out of collecting stickers? Think again. This store makes pop culture and satire shine on stickers, badges and transfers. Cool, weird and often amusingly lost in translation. Top souvenir shopping. facebook.com/bsidelabel
Ippodo: A great tea store to sample, shop or just soak up the old mercantile atmosphere. High-grade green tea is the thing to buy here, kept in wooden barrels and measured out on ancient scales, then served in the adjoining tearoom. ippodo-tea.co.jp
Kiyomizu temple: The cobbled streets around the temple are best for buying the eponymous pottery whose tradition dates back to the 5th century. Visit landmark ceramics shop, Roku Roku Dou. rokuroku.net
Like a Local
Navigation: Calmer than Tokyo and with a basic grid plan, Kyoto is a relatively easy city to navigate, with good English signage on public transport and at big road junctions. But the backstreets are an entirely different story. Tip: plot the key destinations on your map and entreat (invariably helpful) hotel staff to write the place names for you in Japanese. This will prove invaluable when it comes to exploring on foot or by taxi.
Curfews: Some ryokan (travellers’ inns), notably the more traditional, lower-priced ones, have evening curfews. So if you’re planning to hit the town after hours, do check you’re not going to be locked out before you leave.
Where to eat
£ Nishi Warai: Among Kyoto’s plentiful okonomiyaki pancake houses, Nishi Warai (at the west end of the market) is a leader. Literally ‘cook what you like’, these griddled cabbage pancakes are usually filled with shrimp or octopus, and topped with everything from dried seaweed to mayonnaise. T: 00 81 75 257 5966.
££ Izuu: Zaba, the original cousin of sushi has its origins in Kyoto: large portions of box-pressed rice topped with pickled mackerel. It’s a dying art best sampled at Izuu (no music, no booze) founded in 1781. T: 00 81 075 561 0751.
£££ Nishiki: Book a pricey private room in this riverside setting and be treated to velvet tofu that benefits from Kyoto’s pure waters, feather-light sashimi and artful side dishes. T: 00 81 075 8723 4334.
Gyoza Anzukko: Start the night with beer and dumplings at this teeny den above the lively Sanjo-dori bar district. Order the gyoza set menu, cooked in a skillet and delivered steaming to the bar counter, and relish the local brews. anzukko.com
Minamiza Theatre: The birthplace of traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre, with its highly stylised dance music and dramatics. Worried it’s all just a bit too much? Gion’s buzzy bars are close to hand. kabuki-bito.jp
Taku Taku: This cavernous old sake brewery has been hosting big names in rock since ’74. It’s still the place to catch hot Japanese rock and rockabilly acts. T: 00 81 075 351 1321.
Where to stay
£ Shunkoin Temple Guest House: It doesn’t get more authentic than this eight-room temple guesthouse. Join in the daily meditation, with Zen classes in English (a rarity). There’s free wi-fi and green tea on tap, too. shunkoin.com
££ Ryokan Shimizu: A short hop from the central station, this wooden ryokan comes with western and Japanese rooms (the latter with tatami mats and futons), two traditional bathing rooms, plus savvy staff who are great for local know-how. kyoto-shimizu.net
£££ Hyatt Regency Kyoto: Impeccable service, an elegant mix of west-meets-east contemporary art and design, and a cracking tourist location. The superlative Sanjusangen-do Temple with its 1,001 Buddha statues is just next door. kyoto.regency.hyatt.com
The best way to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto is by Shinkansen bullet train, zipping between cities in two hours, at speeds of up to 200mph. If you’re making more than two journeys around the country, buy a cost-saving Japan Rail Pass before you travel: one week from £161.
Kyoto is a breeze to navigate compared to more frenetic Japanese cities. The two-line metro and buses are efficient, comprehensive and relatively easy to use (key signage in English, the former with stops announced in English). www.city.kyoto.jp/koho/eng/access/transport.html
It’s easy to explore on foot with short hops on public transport or taxi (metered and hailed off the street) where needed.
When to go
Year round. Try spring for blossoms, autumn for fiery fall colours with temperatures around 18C. Summers are humid and winters snowy — all manageable.
Need to know
Visas: A pre-paid visa and a passport with more than six-months validity are required for UK citizens. uk.emb-japan.go.jp
Currency: Yen (JPY). £1 = YPJ173.
International dial code: 00 81 075.
Time difference: GMT +8.
Wallpaper City Guide Kyoto 2014, RRP: £6.95.
How to do it
Inside Japan Tours offers a range of self-guided trips and small group tours, travelling by bullet train. Fourteen nights costs £1,940 per person, including all transport, B&B accommodation, plus some dinners/private guides.
Published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)