Kyoto Charms

Daven Wu finds a city that is steeped in history but well-connected with the present.

Published Fri, Mar 3, 2017 · 09:50 PM
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Perhaps more than any other city in Japan, Kyoto takes its role as cultural and historical custodian very seriously. After all, for a thousand years, it was the country's capital - Ground Zero for just about everything that locals and foreigners alike think of as 'Japanese'.

The cuisine is a case in point. Ask a chef, say, the executive chef at the Suiran hotel, just what Kyoto cuisine is and his reply is: "Kyoto cuisine is Japanese cuisine."

With just 39-rooms, the hotel is a handy semaphore for Kyoto's many-splendoured and intricately layered delights. Set literally on the banks of the Hozu River in the ancient Arashiyama quarter, this luxurious ryokan, operated under the umbrella of The Luxury Collection group, is located next to a sweep of temples, and centuries-old gardens.

In fact, its immaculately manicured and classic Japanese garden was once part of the grounds of Tenryu-Ji down the road. Every day, around 20,000 visitors descend on this gorgeous 14th-century Zen Buddhist temple. If you're a Suiran guest, the concierge can even arrange an early morning personal (and blissfully quiet) meditation class with one of its monks, Shaku Yuho. As it turns out, the latter is a shy, gentle 68-year-old American from Connecticut who has lived in Japan since he was 19.

While it's easy to categorise Kyoto as an ancient city with over 2,060 temples and shrines, and leave it at that, it's wrong to think of Kyoto as fossilized in amber. Far from it. As Sara Aiko Coe, a local city guide, points out, the city and its population of 1.475m are adept at co-opting new elements into ancient traditions. At Sou Sou (, for instance, vintage kimono obis are transformed into hipster handbags. Arabica (, the best coffee joint in town, is a neat shack in a row of 500-year old buildings. At Ran Hotei (, tea master Randy Channell Soei, a craggy Canadian who has lived in Kyoto for over 30 years, breezily tailors the ancient ritual of the tea ceremonies for the Millennial set. The latest food craze is Owari-ya's soba tacos made from buckwheat (, and the drink du jour is an organic fruit chio-hai at Sot-ly-laisse (

Against this backdrop of effortless duality, the challenge for even the most seasoned Japan veteran is where to go. While the city is criss-crossed with an extensive network of trains, buses and taxi services, the best way to see historic Kyoto is probably in the back of an authentic two-seater rickshaw pulled by a knowledgeable guide/driver. It's a fun, if touristy, way to explore the walking paths that curl through Sagano, one of the world's most beautiful natural bamboo groves.

Equally atmospheric is Gion. Dating back to the Middle Ages, the quarter is renowned for its atmospheric collection of wooden machiya houses, limpid canals, hidden restaurants, and tea-houses. Meanwhile, bedecked in their elaborate kimono and three-dimensional make-up, Kyoto's small community of geiko (senior geisha) and maiko (geisha in training) are most famously associated with the quarter, especially for fans of 'Memoirs of a Geisha'.

Kyoto's cuisine is justly famed for its freshness and classicism. Follow the crowds. They may lead you to Yoshimura ( Here, tucked into a lane near the Togetsu-kyo Bridge, settle in for stunning tempura, alongside sensational yuzu and shiso-scented udon and soba. Tofu-fiends will thrill to Yudofu Sagano ( whose ten-dish tofu extravaganza includes seasonal specialities such as chilled Miwa somen noodles, while at Sumibi Steak Sakai (, the name of the game is a cut of Mashuko black Wagyu sirloin from Hokkaido cooked over charcoal.

The temptation is to attempt to do everything and see everything. In Kyoto, sensory overload is a tourist hazard, so pacing is important. That, and a promise to return. After over a thousand years of continuous history, chances are, it'll all still be there.

The writer was a guest of the Surian hotel.

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