Historic buildings, beguiling gardens and centuries old traditions are the alluring aspects of Japan's erstwhile capital but it is the confluence of the old and the new that makes Kyoto endlessly fascinating in the outsider's eye. TNA visits the imperial city in the winter of 2023 to file our inaugural Kyoto Fab List.
The City to Watch
Japan's brightest hospitality beacons have long been raised and lit in Tokyo and as recent as 2018 only a handful of bona-fide 5 stars properties are found in Kyoto. One of them is the elegant Hyatt Regency Kyoto which despite its demure branding looms large over competitors with its timeless elegance and imperial service. The opening of the Four Seasons Kyoto in 2016 really marked the new epoch of the city as an international luxury destination with a slate of high profile openings expected in the early years of this stolen decade. One of the latest is the sensational Roku Kyoto, hidden away in the kitayama enclave with spacious rooms that come replete with onsen tubs and stunning views or private gardens. Kyoto is the prime estate du jour for developers and hoteliers anxious to gain entry into the Japanese terra and one can only expect bigger and ritzier openings over the next few years.
Old, New and Everywhere in Between
When one thinks of Kyoto cuisine one immediately thinks of the impossibly regal courses that constitute Kaiseki Ryori, the haute cuisine that hails from Japan's imperial recesses. But for a region intrinsically linked to agricultural communities near and far, Kyoto's culinary scene is abundantly varied to say the least. The genres may be classical or avant-garde, humble fares or lordly affairs, but the single-minded drive for perfection comes through at the superlative joints. To sample the mastery of the modern traditionalists, look no further than the sensational Kikunoi Honten, a serene space where ingredients are transformed into works of art, and Isshisoden Nakamura, a fabled culinary address in Kyoto 6 generations in the making. On the other end of the spectrum of deliciousness, we found Nippon Ramen Rin Kyoto pushing the boundary for the perfect ramen in a space vacated by Ippudo along the Nishiki strip and Benkei Higashiyama, a nondescript diner that quite simply serves the best udon we've sampled in Japan. For more of our recommendations on Kyoto Soul Food, visit our inaugural Kyoto Gourmet Bulletin.
A Celestial High
For a city that is well over 1000 year old, the buildings that have survived the ravages of times are Kyoto's very own beacons of existence. Besides palaces and castles, Kyoto's temples are its most iconic attractions, with many of them UNESCO Heritage listed sites with centuries of history written into every beam and pillar. Some of the most popular temples frequently visited by tourists are the Yasaka shrine, the very landmark of the historic Gion district, Kiyomizudera, the ever popular iconic waterfall temple with the stunning view of the city, Kodaiji, renowned for its serene garden and seasonal illumination, and many more. Throughout the year Kyoto's major temples are always buzzing with events and activities, from the hatsumode of the Oshogetsu period (from 1 Jan) to a wide range of festivals like the 4 day celebration at the Ebisu shrine and the coming of age archery day at Sanjusangendo, both in mid-Jan, the Baikasai at Kitano Tenmangu on 25 Feb heralding the blooming of its famous plum groves, and the magnificent Gion Matsuri in July and more. These splendid buildings are not only relics from the past but pulsate with uncommon synergy with the living inhabitants of the city, constantly providing the backdrop for uncommon scenes and memories in the making.
Kyoto may be splendid throughout the seasons but it is a short fortnight in spring that captures the imagination of the world with the dramatic blooming of sakura trees throughout the city, heralding the cycle, and spectacle of regeneration. Merriment is written on the faces of all in the city, with parks and scenic spots full of merry-makers eager to have their day of hanami under these floral parasols. Restraint momentarily gives way to smiles and laughter, and these are indeed uncommon scenes of Japanese 'letting go' and expressing happiness and mirth in the open. Some of the top Kyoto spots for sakura viewing and hanami are Kamogawa River, Maruyama Park, Philosopher's Path, Kyoto Botanic Garden, Heian Shrine and Nijo Castle, which traditionally puts up some spectacular night illumination for just a few nights over the brief sakura season. The advent of spring will trigger a season of blooms in Kyoto with rape, forsyth, azaleas, irises and wisteria following in rapid succession.
The Nishiki Allure
As far as old markets go, few are as precious as Nishiki Market, a time-weathered artery of shops and restaurants integral in introducing Kyoto's culinary heritage to visitors of the world. Originally a fish market in the imperial days of yore, this octogenarian address now houses around 130 stores and eateries that showcase a whole spectrum of Japanese goods and cuisines, including raw fish and seafood, fruits and fresh produce, cut flowers, local snacks, footwear, porcelain, kimono, freshly roasted tea leaves, roasted chestnuts, traditional sweets and confections, sake food halls and more. Under the kaleidoscopic hues of the ornate arcade canopy, there is a historic atmosphere to this culinary and shopping haven and the best time to visit is over the last few days of the year where preparations for the new year hits a feverish pitch. There is continuity yet adherence to traditions, which is a balance that makes Nishiki Market a joy to visit continually.