Japan’s ancient capital serves up an impeccable slice of the past with classic cuisine and the breathtaking beauty of pastel pink cherry blossoms, says James Williams
Why go? Buddhist shrines, wooden houses, tea served in tatami (rice mat) rooms – Kyoto is an unabashed keeper of traditions. It was Japan’s imperial capital for more than 1,000 years and April sees the city’s parks and gardens at their radiant best, thanks to the world-famous sakura (cherry blossom) season.
What to do Hand-painted sliding doors and ornate ceilings in the grand Nijo Castle are as impressive today as they were when artisans created it in 1603 for the first shogun of the Edo period. Listen for the creaky nightingale floorboards, designed to detect intruders, and stroll through the landscaped gardens, which include a tapestry of 400 cherry trees. It’s a good way to kick off a tour of the 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites in the wider Kyoto prefecture. Nearby, pay a visit to the vast Imperial Palace complex sankan.kunaicho.go.jp set within magnificent grounds (you must book on a guided tour led by the official household). Fans of Japanese gardens should beat a path to Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa sankan.kunaicho.go.jp in the west of the city. Design of an altogether more animated nature greets you at the International Manga Museum kyotomm.jp where there are 300,000 books and comics. Peruse them in the outdoor café or take part in weekend drawing classes. Head east to Gion, the epicentre of geisha culture, where you maybe lucky enough to catch a glimpse of these mannequin-esque hosts shuffling between clients. Explore the riverside entertainment district on foot, especially at night when lanterns line the alleyways and the teahouses and theatres with their kabuki dance performances are at their most atmospheric. Historic streets such as Shinmonzen are a great place to pick up colourful textiles and intricate prints.
Where to stay? Rather than five-star penthouses, Kyoto’s overnight charms lay in its cosy ryokans (inns). That said, they can be pretty upmarket. The 300-year-old Tawaraya 00 81 75 211 5566, Fuyacho Oike sagaru, Nakagyo-ku is situated downtown and has a celebrity clientele, ultra-attentive staff and Zen-like rooms overlooking immaculate grounds. Another ryokan in the heart of the city is Hirashin 00 81 75 221 0121, hirashin.co.jp with its futons, screens and public baths a stone’s throw from Nishiki Market. For modern luxury, Hotel Granvia 00 81 75 344 8888, granviakyoto.com above Kyoto station has a spread of bars, restaurants, an indoor pool and 535 chic rooms with warm, neutral tones. For the ultimate villa rental, look out for the wooden merchants’ houses known as machiya.
Where to eat and drink? Shadow Kyoto’s chefs along the flagstones of Nishiki Market, where fresh tofu, shellfish and piles of pickles vie for your attention. Snack on salty-sweet yakitori skewers and eat freshly sliced sashimi. Snaffle the Kyo-wagashi, prized confections that look like origami petits fours made with ingredients such as bean paste and matcha. Just 200m from the railway station, you can try them at Tea Ceremony Room Ju-An teaceremonykyoto.com along with host Mrs Kirihata’s locally grown, umami-rich teas. At Kitcho Arashiyama 00 81 75 881 1101, kyoto-kitcho.com you’ll experience the pinnacle of kaiseki (a multi-course dinner) with the added bonus of a maiko (apprentice geisha). More down to earth is Gion Karyo 00 81 75 532 0025, 570-23 Gion-machi Minami-gawa, Higashiyama-ku where you can enjoy a procession of courses, each small and artful, from smoky eel sushi to tofu with mushrooms. Shojin-ryori, a Buddhist vegetarian cooking style, is popular at temples in the Arashiyama district such as Shigetsu 00 81 75-882-9725, 68 Susukinobaba-machi, Saga Tenryu-ji, Ukyo-ku which is the perfect pit stop before seeing the incredible bamboo forest with its thick, soaring stalks.
Currency is the yen. Time is nine hours ahead of GMT and flight time is approximately 14.25 hours from Dubai. The cost to carbon-offset is $20.01. For more details visit climatecare.org
Cathay Pacific fly from Dubai to Tokyo via Hong Kong daily cathaypacific.com
Japan National Tourism Organisation has an excellent website for planning your visit. jnto.go.jp
Memoirs of a Geisha (Vintage, $3.75) by Arthur Golden is a totally gripping and intimate tale of love, life and loyalty that explores the extraordinary world of geishas in pre-war Kyoto.
Photos by Mark Parren Taylor; Charmaine Grieger; Japan National Tourism Organisation