March 13, 2018 / Property Spotlight

Kyoto: Japan’s Old-World City of Culture

From ancient temples to cutting-edge fine dining, Japan’s former capital has centuries of splendor to explore


Kyoto was the capital of Japan—and its cultural, spiritual, and imperial heart—from 794 to 1868, and part of its inexhaustible charm lies in the fact that the past rides in tandem with the present. While Michelin-starred restaurants and designer shops line the streets, “old” Japan is alive in the ancient places of worship, Zen gardens, and teahouses that continue to define the city.

Tranquil Kinkaku-ji—the Golden Pavilion—is one of Kyoto’s most beloved temples, with its peaceful gardens offering respite from the modern pace of life. It was built in the 14th century for a shogun, and was turned into a Zen temple after his death. Photograph: Alamy. Banner image: Getty ImagesKyoto is home to some 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, among them the world-famous Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji (the Golden and Silver Pavilions). Both sit in exquisite landscapes, offering opportunities for quiet contemplation, even among their visitors. Close to the Four Seasons Hotel Residences, on Mt Otowa is the 1,240-year-old Kiyomizu-dera Temple, one of Japan’s most celebrated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Its many treasures include the 11-headed, 42-armed Kannon Bodhisattva—the goddess of compassion—and a remarkable stage, constructed without using a single nail.

During the <i>sakura</i> cherry blossom season, the ancient Kiyomizu-dera Temple—named the Pure Water Temple as it was built on the site of the Otowa Waterfall—is blanketed in soft pink blooms. Photograph: Getty ImagesKyoto is as famous for its Zen gardens—or karesansui (meaning dry landscape)—as for its shrines, and Ryoan-ji is considered by many to be Japan’s finest. Two more magnificent gardens are 800-year-old Shakusuien, within the grounds of the Four Seasons Hotel Residences and mentioned in Japan’s renowned epic poem, The Tale of Heike, and Sanzen-in, where laughing Buddha statues pop up from the mossy ground.

Karesansui Zen gardens abound in Kyoto, and Rioan-ji, with its carefully arranged rock formations and raked pebbles, is considered one of the very finest. It serves as a calm place to meditate. Photograph: Getty ImagesThe city also famously boasts a still-functioning geisha district, Gion. Here extravagantly dressed geisha and maiko (geisha apprentices), can sometimes be glimpsed going from one ochaya—teahouse—to another to entertain guests.

The Gion district dates back to the middle ages, and while it is packed with bars, restaurants, and teahouses, it has retained the beauty of its past. It was the setting for much of Arthur Golden’s novel <i>Memoirs Of A Geisha</i>. Photograph: Getty ImagesNature obviously has fun in Kyoto, and the city is a pleasure to visit at any time of the year, but the cherry blossom (sakura) and autumn leaves (koyo) seasons elevate that pleasure to euphoria. Photographers arrive to capture the pinks, golds, and reds, but nothing comes close to witnessing the real thing. Watching people celebrate sakura, through the centuries-old practice of hanami—picnicking beneath the cherry-blossom trees—is a delight in itself.

Cherry blossom season is short—the flowers usually bloom between the end of March and the middle of April—and is celebrated because its beauty symbolizes new beginnings. Photograph: Getty ImagesInstagrammers also love the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, whose path is lined on both sides by soaring bamboo stalks. Hire a jinrikisha (rickshaw) to take you along it and enjoy the view.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove offers an otherworldly experience as visitors are dwarfed by the towering, swaying green stalks. Photograph: Getty ImagesKyoto likes to celebrate, and traditional pageants that date from ancient times are held throughout the year. At Daimonji, the culmination of the Obon festival, gigantic Japanese letters are set on fire, signifying the departure of the dead—who’ve come to celebrate with their families—back to the spirit world. Far, far bigger than this, however, is the month-long Gion Matsuri, which, with its colorful floats, eclipses all else. 

Gion Matsuri, Kyoto’s biggest festival, takes place throughout July. Giant floats are pulled through the streets by local men, and while it began centuries ago as a prayer for deliverance from the plague, it is now a colorful celebration of Kyoto’s history. Photograph: Getty ImagesTradition has also shaped Kyoto’s dining scene. Teahouses and old-style noodle bars abound, but there are also limitless opportunities for fine dining, with many restaurants specializing in kaiseki ryori, a multi-course feast that emphasizes subtlety and seasonality. For Michelin-starred excellence, try the Four Seasons Hotel’s Sushi Wakon, the 400-year-old Hyotei, and the three-starred Kikunoi in Higashiyama. Established a century ago, it is now headed by the third-generation owner-chef Yoshihiro Murata, a Gendai no Meiko (Contemporary Master Craftsman) of kaiseki cuisine.

While there are plenty of opportunities for high-end shopping, a walk around Kyoto’s unspoiled old streets offer an authentic taste of Japanese culture. Photograph: Getty ImagesFor upscale shopping, head to Shijo, which is lined with designer and department stores, among them Daimaru and Takashimaya, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Bottega Veneta. But take a detour away from the high street and a more authentic retail experience can be found in the tiny local markets and shops hidden down the city’s narrow alleys, and in Nishiki Market. Known as Kyoto’s Kitchen, this five-block-long street is packed with food and food-related stalls.

Ryujindo is a 100-year-old historic home, and would make a perfect second residence in Kyoto. On the market with Japan Capital Realty Inc., the exclusive affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate in Japan.Kyoto’s perennial popularity as a year-round destination for international and domestic visitors has resulted in it becoming one of Japan’s most accessible cities. Direct bullet train services from Tokyo, Osaka, and other cities take you into its center. International visitors flying into the capital can be there in less than 2.5 hours, so there’s nothing to stop you. You could be there in time for the cherry blossoms…

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Xenia Taliotis
is a regular contributor to Luxury Defined, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The New Zealand Herald, Economia, and Vie