The cultural and heritage capital Kyoto, poles apart from better known metropolis Tokyo, hides not only its own cuisine but a fascinating look into this unique country's past.
Heavily wooded mountains surround the plain on which Kyoto sits on three sides. From the city’s tallest hotel, above the modern train station, the city unfolds below like a map, it is rigorously grid-like and curiously lacking in tall buildings. The only tall structure for miles around, the Kyoto Tower, was apparently built in reaction to Tokyo hosting the Olympics in 1940 and is locally hated. As a city, Kyoto then feels gloriously gentle and old-fashioned. Residents ride around on bikes, which are seemingly never locked but jauntily left on the pavement on their stands without fear of being stolen. Small dark-wooden houses line each and every street and alleyway. These two story affairs seem rustic and monotonous to begin with, but after a day or two, each takes on a charm of its own, lit by the ubiquitous paper lanterns that act as menus for the thousands of local restaurants offering soba, tofu and kaiseki – the traditional Kyoto way of serving food in small, carefully balanced and beautifully prepared portions.
Minokechi (www.japanese-kyoto-cuisine.com) is one of the oldest kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto. It was founded in 1716 and remains traditional in its understated interior of sliding walls and simple décor. Sitting across from the super modern Kyoto train station with its two hour bullet trains to Tokyo, the restaurant sums up Kyoto – super-traditional on the one hand, but functional and modern on the other. All kaiseki meals have a balance of fish, tofu, vegetables and salads, miso soup and rice, artfully arranged usually in handmade bowls (it even has halal meals all ready to go as well). Kyoto pottery is famous in its own right and there are many potteries in the city to purchase the gorgeously elegant bowls, chopstick rests and soy sauce dishes.
Most of these potteries can be found around the run up to the most popular temple, the Kiyomizu-Dera complex, which sits at the top of a pedestrianised hill lined with souvenir shops. Every day the street is filled with large school groups and young women in traditional kimonos as well as tourists working their way slowly up to the West Gate entrance. This temple has commanded the landscape here for 1,200 years, although most of the structures that exist today were built in the 17th century. A sprawling estate of gates, inner sanctuaries, shrines and statues, it is a stunning example of Kyoto’s grandeur in times gone by and one of the most loved temples in Japan.
Also along this tourist stretch of Kyoto is the tofu-only restaurant Okabeya. Built on the site of a famous teahouse, this legendary restaurant serves up dishes with one main ingredient – tofu. While in other places a tofu-focused lunch might not be first on your list, here it is cooked with reverence and plenty of flavour. A huge bowl of tofu and miso soup is left on the table, the soy blocks cut like soft butter under chopsticks, while the waitresses bring rich sesame flavoured versions of soy skin, a delicacy known as yuba (it’s much more delicious than it sounds).
Tasty temple trails
While you can’t move in Kyoto for tripping over a temple or two, you’ll never find one exactly the same. The Kodaiji temple is another fascinating example across on the western side of the city. It was built in the 17th century by the wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a warrior and politician, who had a huge impact on Japanese life. He solidified the class system, banned slavery and created a legacy of respect for the elegant tea ceremony that now sits at the heart of so many social and cultural occasions in Japan. So beloved was making time for tea, that Hideyoshi had a mobile tea ceremony room made, covered in gold leaf, and took it with him everywhere he went. This remarkable contraption can be seen at the temple along with other remnants from his time.
At the Tawaraya Yoshitomi sweet factory (www.japanartsandcrafts.com), the tea ceremony is still practiced reverently, overseen by a tea master. Visitors can attend a ceremony and be enthralled by the complex ritual that goes into making a bowl of green tea. With rules covering the entire process, from preparing the room, to which way the implements face, through to first gasp and last slurp, it’s a fascinating insight into Japanese culture.
As Japan’s intellectual and cultural centre for over 1,000 years, Kyoto’s history is intertwined with the fate of the samurai, which culture both began and ended in the city. The head of the samurai, called a Shogun, was based in Kyoto at Nijo Castle, which was built in 1603. It was also here in 1867 that the fifteenth and last Shogun, Yoshinobu, succeeded his power back to the Emperor, where it has remained ever since. The open plan, one level ‘castle’ is open to the public and visitors can see the original screen-printed murals that are beautiful examples of the famed Edo period. Whilst samurai and geishas’ clothes were decadent and rich, the castle itself is sparsely decorated, a commitment to minimalism that continues in Japanese design today.
A testament to both ancient Japanese culture and to minimalist design, is a ryokan. Ryokans (Japanese inns) sprung up in the 17th century as family homes with guestrooms, much like a Japanese version of a western B&B. They are now difficult to find in larger cities, replaced by hotels, but in Kyoto, a few remain. The most famous is Ryokan Yoshidasanso (www.yoshidansanso.com), which was built in the 1930s for the Emperor’s uncle. Still alive, the uncle is now in a nearby home, and the beautiful building, complete with sliding doors, paper screen walls and futons for sleeping on, is open to a small number of visitors. Tomoko Nakamura runs the ryokan with her family and has opened a small artisanal café in the old garage next door. An overnight stay with Tomoko offers a very special insight into traditional Japanese culture and a kaiseki meal in the evening – for which guests are encouraged to dress for dinner in kimonos the ryokan can lend you – serves up some cuts of fish, tofu and various sorbets that you will never forget! The garden is perfect for meditation in the morning, and if you’re feeling brave, you can also try the hot communal bath that sits within the shared bathrooms.
While visitors could spend weeks discovering Japan’s traditions amongst the narrow streets, colourful temples and zen gardens, time should be taken to explore the Pontocho District, one of the oldest areas of Kyoto. The riverside district is a den of narrow streets, strings of lanterns and is home to several hundred geisha. Misoguigawa (www.misogui.jp) is one of the standout restaurants in this district. Another converted teahouse with a beautiful view over the river, the restaurant offers Chef Teruo Inoue’s French-Japanese creations. A nine-course tasting menu will present you with Mediterranean flavours reimagined for a nation of sushi and sashimi lovers. It is a total treat for foodies and a fabulous introduction to anyone who’s not quite sure about diving completely into a world of Japanese food.
Altogether, a trip to Kyoto, which is a world away from heady, 24-hour Tokyo, is a fantastic way to understand there’s more to Japan than karaoke and sushi (although, should you wish to partake in the former, there are plenty of music venues, just waiting for you to take to the stage).
Fly to Osaka via Singapore on Singapore Airlines (from Dhs 3,525; www.singaporeairlines.com). From there Kyoto is a half an hour taxi ride away.
Stay at Hotel Granvia, the city’s leading hotel, that is well set up for foreign visitors (from Dhs990; www.granviakyoto.com).