Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto is filled with relics of its time-honoured past but it’s also rich in modern culture, with an enviable reputation for fine food, fashion, art and architecture.
Where to stay
The Suiran Hotel is located in the hilly Arashiyama district, famous for its cherry blossoms from March to April. It’s the best of both worlds – a traditional ryokan with subtle Western influences, which you enter through a thatch-roofed gate into perfectly manicured Japanese gardens.
For a singular experience of old Kyoto, book your stay in the two-bedroom Amber House Gion, a former teahouse in which geishas once entertained. This traditional wooden machiya house, located down a cobbled side street in the heart of historic Gion, looks out on the gardens of Kennin-ji, the city’s oldest Zen temple.
Hoshinoya Kyoto is an elegant retreat located on the banks of the Oigawa River in the Arashiyama neighborhood. It’s accessible only by a private boat, which transports guests through the verdant forest to a place of unimaginable peace, surrounded by ancient cherry and maple trees. The 25 rooms are housed in a century-old former ryokan inn, and combine a traditional Japanese dwelling with contemporary western comfort. Dinners here are a highlight – a kaiseki banquet with more than half a dozen courses.
Where to drink
Opened in 1939, Hello Dolly is a dimly lit jazz and whiskey bar tucked away in an alley in the historic Pontocho district. It combines live music on weekends – and a crowd-pleasing collection of vintage jazz vinyl – with excellent cocktails in an atmospheric location that harks back to last century.
Where to eat
The fabled Honke Owariya restaurant has been serving the best soba noodles in Kyoto for 300 years; in the 15th century it was the official purveyor of noodles to the Imperial Palace. Its handmade soba, udon and tempura dishes continue to please locals and visitors alike.
Hyotei is one of Kyoto’s oldest teahouses, which opened 400 years ago to serve pilgrims on their way to Nanzen-ji, one of the city’s most significant Buddhist temples. It specialises in traditional kaiseki cuisine in a rustic setting where kimono-clad women deliver your meal.
Kaiseki restaurant Junsei elevates tofu and all things soy-based to an art form in an historic building surrounded by beautiful gardens, also close to Nanzen-ji.
Local, seasonal ingredients feature strongly in the open-kitchen Kizahashi restaurant in the new The Thousand Hotel located right by the Kyoto central train station. By day, it serves modern Japanese cuisine; in the evening, the trick is to book counter seats, and watch the expert chefs at work over the charcoal grill.
A visit to the serene Sagano Bamboo Forest in the foothills of Arashiyama will linger in your memory long after you leave Kyoto. This beautiful grove is a tranquil place lit by filtered sunlight where you can relax to the sound of wind rustling through the tall trees. Go early to beat the crowds.
No trip to Kyoto is complete without a visit to the superb Kiyomizu-dera, the Golden Pavilion, which sits in the middle of a large pond. Its top two floors are entirely covered in gold leaf, so it’s hardly surprising that it has been designated one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.
Another sight you won’t forget is a troop of Japanese macaque monkeys roaming free in their natural habitat at Iwatayama Monkey Park, on Mt Arashiyama. The park is easily accessible by train and it’s a simple hike to the top of the mountain where you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the city.
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