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PUTTING ON THE RITZ: Kyoto-lover and celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda (above) visits Kyoto almost every month, dining and shopping for antiques.

PUTTING ON THE RITZ: Pristine vegetarian fare is offered at Daitokuji Ikkyu, an eatery within Daitokuji shrine.

PUTTING ON THE RITZ: An elegant platter of garden-fresh vegetables from Mizuki restaurant, one of the eateries at the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto.

KYOTO GUIDE: The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto (above) is itself a tourist attraction, given its historic past.

KYOTO GUIDE: The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto (above) is itself a tourist attraction, given its historic past.

Head concierge Akemi Kyoyama (above) crafts customised itineraries for food and culture- hungry travellers who prefer a guided tour of the ancient city.

Kyoto's storied charms

The ancient city of Kyoto offers travellers a rare glimpse into Japan's history.
Dec 13, 2014 5:50 AM

KYOTO, as anyone who has ever visited the former capital of Japan can attest to, is not an easy nut to crack. Unlike Tokyo, which bares all with its fast-paced, full-on approach to living la dolce vita (the sweet life), Kyoto is the wallflower you need to woo gently. Like the way celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda puts it, "Once you make the effort, (the people)open up to you and you create beautiful, lasting friendships."

Ths Japanese national who moved to Australia 30 years ago and literally made his name with his eponymous restaurant in Sydney, and who also helms Waku Ghin in Singapore, is an avid fan of Kyoto. He's there practically every month to dine and shop at his favourite antique stores.

Given his vast insider knowledge of the ancient city, he is the ultimate tour guide for anyone who wants more than a superficial tour of Gion or a rickshaw ride in Arashiyama. But what if you're there on your own, armed with Internet research at best and just enough Japanese to say, "I don't speak Japanese"?

For that, you'll have to turn to your new best friend, your hotel concierge. No two concierges are created equal, and the difference can make or break your experience. At the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto - itself a tourist attraction given its historic past - head concierge Akemi Kyoyama has been crafting customised itineraries for food and culture-hungry travellers since the hotel opened just over a year ago.

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"Apart from making reservations at Michelin-starred restaurants, private tours with guides are the most popular with our guests," says Ms Kyoyama.

Private guides cost upwards of 30,000 yen (S$332) for four hours, while cars that seat four to six people will set you back at least 28,000 yen for the same four-hour block. Alternatively, you could just hop into passing taxis, but a guide is still essential because Kyoto's addresses can be mindbogglingly complicated.

An insight into Kyoto's cuisine can be had from Ms Kyoyama's pick of restaurants such as the traditional but unfussy kaiseki of Gion Mokubei in the old city quarter headed by a fourth-generation chef. Or the one Michelin-starred Kamigamo Akiyama set in a beautiful old house on the northern edge of Kyoto in Kitayama, where you can bask in the tranquility of the Kamigamo shrine and dine on the creations of Kitcho alumnus Naohiro Akiyama.

Interestingly enough, Kyoto's shrines also tend to house exquisite restaurants, including Shimogamo Saryo, a designated Unesco heritage site and home to a kaiseki restaurant set in Japanese-garden surroundings.

If genuine temple vegetarian cuisine is on your agenda, chef Wakuda might take you to Daitokuji Ikkyu, which started out as a "canteen" of sorts for the monks living at Daitokuji shrine. So you can expect clean, stimulant-free yet flavourful manifestations of tofu, vegetables and rice. Back at the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, you get more modern interpretations of Kyoto cuisine but with a strong heritage footing at the restaurant Mizuki, one of the elegant outlets in the meticulously appointed hotel which pays strong attention to local design tradition.

The property is a quiet but prominent presence on the banks of the Kamo river, and dates back to the 1960s when it was the abode of choice of John Lennon and his ilk. Completely refurbished just a year ago, the hotel's designers pay homage to Kyoto houses of old, with the use of sugi wood and shippou or "seven treasures" pattern of overlapping circles on guest room doors.

Much of the soft furnishings such as fabrics, wood and pottery were sourced from local artisans who go back centuries and if you want to see as well as buy, the hotel will organise tours to traditional art and craft studios. You can find Japanese fans at Aiba, which specialise in gosho paper fans with motifs of scenery or haiku poetry hand-painted on the surface. Modern Japanese pottery are abundant at Makuzu Miyagawa Kozan, made by the Miyagawa Kozan family, whose roots can be traced back to 1842.

Whether you want bamboo (at Nakagawa Chikuzai ten); magic mirrors (Yamamoto Gokin Seisakujo); traditional kimonos (Takahashi Toku) or woodblock printing (Tatsumura Koho), there's no end to the places that Ms Kyoyama can recommend.

But let it not be at the expense of the old-world hospitality and beauty that the hotel itself offers. Set aside time to explore the hotel, and engage in some of its in-house activities, whether it's a free tour and lesson on the in-house art, or paid classes on floral arrangement, kimono-wearing or sake-tasting.

After a few days, it's easy to understand chef Wakuda's fascination with Kyoto. Its history and culture come to life, and the best part is that you can bring a piece of it home with you.

Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, Hokodencho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 604-0902, Japan.

Tel: +81 75-746-5555

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