In 794, Emperor Kanmu moved Japan’s Imperial Court to a river valley in the Yamashiro Basin surrounded on three sides by mountains. In planning the new capital, engineers relied on the expertise of China, whose technology and culture Japan had long been absorbing via trade and travel. Chinese principles of feng shui determined the city’s siting, and its grid layout was a replica of the Chinese capital. Eventually known as Kyoto, the metropolis flourished as a hub of politics, religion and culture for the next thousand years. In the early 11th century, at the height of its splendor, Kyoto inspired two of the greatest works of Japanese literature, “The Pillow Book” and “The Tale of Genji.” Written by ladies of the Imperial Court, both books immersed readers in the intricacies of the era’s shoji-screened refinement.
Today’s Kyoto is not so different. Spared from bombing during World War II, it has retained much of its early ordered layout. The city possesses an uncommonly graceful aesthetic, epitomized by the rows of machiyas, traditional Japanese townhomes, which line many of its streets. These dark-wooded, lattice-fronted structures once housed craftsmen and merchants and are today being scrupulously restored for use as shops, restaurants and inns. But Kyoto’s residents do more than preserve beauty; they worship it. There are over 1,500 Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Kyoto, and raked gravel Zen gardens, ponds and meticulously kept terraces abound. More than a thousand years after the Silk Road ushered in the wonders of China, Kyoto remains Japan’s cultural center; its artisans carry on traditional crafts like kimono design and woodblock printing, and its chefs make food a ceremonial art form all its own.
This enchanting new hotel feels both far away from everything — it’s set on 79 acres of cypress forest — and close to the city’s heart, within walking distance of the stunning Kinkaku-ji Temple. A complex of low-slung slate pavilions house 26 rooms furnished like those of a traditional Japanese inn, with tatami floors, cedar bathtubs and sliding blond wood wall panels. Predating the hotel by four centuries, a landscaped garden of expansive lawns, moss-covered pathways and granite boulders once belonged to the founders of the Edo-era Rinpa school of painting, which revived indigenous techniques. aman.com
Park Hyatt Kyoto
In the eastern hills overlooking the city is Japan’s second Park Hyatt, which opened in October. Surrounding a courtyard garden, the hotel’s 70 rooms offer modern warmth, floor-to-ceiling windows and the sweet smell of tamo (Japanese ash wood). Although much of the complex is new, partnerships with local merchants draw on centuries of knowledge: The spa’s signature treatment features the oil of locally harvested tea seeds, a venerable Japanese skin-care secret, and adjoining the hotel are a 360-year-old teahouse and restaurant owned by the same family for seven generations. hyatt.com
In Gion, the geisha district, Hanamikoji Street is home to the city’s finest restaurants. Most are in the tradition of kaiseki, a highly seasonal, elaborately plated multicourse meal that originated in Kyoto. Gion Nanba balances classical cuisine with newer and more challenging elements, and its 12 counter seats are usually booked months in advance. Among the 10 or so courses is a winter special of blowfish milt steamed with sake and topped with turnip mousse and yuzu dressing, which exemplifies a hallmark of kaiseki cuisine: exquisite and sometimes rare ingredients, seasoned very lightly to accentuate natural flavors. Reinvented staples include steamed rice perfumed with chrysanthemum and an egg custard that usually appears as a side dish in Japanese chain restaurants, elevated with the addition of mackerel and steamed sweet potato. kyotonanba.com
Tempura Endo Yasaka
South of Gion, the city’s elite have frequented this sprawling old three-building teahouse for over 100 years. After all that time, the welcome ritual remains the same: Visitors are greeted outside by waiting staff in pale blue kimonos and escorted past a rock garden to a dining room. Here, a copper-hooded fryer is the star of the show. The kaiseki begins with lightly battered corn, the restaurant’s most famous dish, and continues with aromatic heirloom eggplant and sea bream wrapped inside a perilla leaf. With each plate, chefs explain the ideal dipping ratio of tempura to salt, finely milled matcha powder and tentsuyu (a mixture of soy sauce, rice wine and broth). gion-endo.com
Founded in 1663 as a pharmacy, Kyukyodo now specializes in traditional Japanese paper goods. In fact, from 1891 to 1945, it was the official stationer to the Imperial House of Japan. Although there are branches all over Tokyo, the original location is in Kyoto and offers an endless array of Japanese decorative paper, calligraphy supplies and washi tape, a popular craft supply made from rice paper. Among its incense assortment is the coveted Kyukyodo Seigetsu, a Japanese aloeswood variety with honeysuckle notes. Novelty gifts are also abundant; expect silhouetted tableaus of cats darting at butterflies and corgis chasing Frisbees, designed for adorning light switches. 011-81-75-231-0510
The Japanese art of kutsurogi, meaning to relax at home, and the traditional Kyoto spirit of hospitality, known as omotenashi, have shaped the mission of this artisanal bedding shop since its founding in 1919. Over the last decade, Takaokaya has developed its own original style of cushion, the Ojami, designed to cultivate better posture while sitting on the floor. The Ojami’s diamond shape is inspired by a popular children’s toy and is filled with satisfyingly squishy adzuki beans. The showroom is next to the workshop, where all the pillows and futons are made by hand using a colorful selection of local and French fabrics. takaokaya-kyoto.com
Kawai Kanjiro’s House
As prolific as he was humble, the potter, calligrapher, writer, poet and philosopher Kawai Kanjiro was a leader of Japan’s folk art movement in the 1920s and 1930s, known for promoting simplicity, nature and quality above all. Although he became a master of ceramic varnish in the European style, he was most renowned for his own natural blends in coppery red and iron brown. After his death in 1966, his house became a museum, now run by his relatives, and the adjoining studio still contains his giant eight-chambered kiln. Kanjiro’s love of what he called “ordered poverty” is on display in the house’s carefully restored interior, which intermingles austere northern European wood furniture with tatami mats and shoji screens. 011-81-75-561-3585
Koho Nishiki Textile Studio
Nishiki is the Japanese art of silk weaving, and its value to the culture is apparent even in its ideographic character, a combination of the symbols for woven cloth and gold. The process of weaving the silk in layers (as opposed to keeping it flat) creates a three-dimensional effect, and the woven material is called “fabric of light” because of the way it shimmers when illuminated. Like many other Japanese crafts, Nishiki originated in Kyoto, where the wealthy could afford to swathe themselves in brocade. The Koho Nishiki Textile Studio restores precious textiles using traditional techniques, from the hand-threading of silk from the cocoon to the weaving itself, also still performed by hand. Over 70 processes are involved, and each is explained during a guided tour of the studio, where artisans are at work. koho-nishiki.com
By Amelia Lester