Japan’s ancient capital has one foot in the 14th century and the other firmly rooted in the 21st.
While the megalopolis of Tokyo catapults itself into the future, Kyoto—renowned for its temples, shrines, and vibrant geisha culture—has grown cautiously. Two years ago, the government banned rooftop and flashing ads and put a cap on building height to preserve the centuries-old landscape. Now, a surprisingly modern city is emerging as stylish restaurants, shops, and inns pop up in 19th-century machiya, or wooden merchants’ houses. 1. Scene
For a glimpse of the city’s spiritual heritage, head north along the Kamo River to Daitoku-ji, a 685-year-old Zen monastery with 24 temples, and to Okochi-Sanso, the five-acre residential gardens of the late samurai film star Denjiro Okochi. Then fast-forward to the present at the new Iyemon Salon Kyoto, on the lower floors of a kimono company, with a contemporary crafts shop, chic café, and steel-and-glass gallery exhibiting 450-year-old embroidered kimonos. At night, taste rare brews at Sake Bar Yoramu, a low-key bar run by an Israeli expat.
The restaurant at Tenryu-ji Temple (lunch for two $60) serves vegetarian meals such as sesame tofu and soup made of dried gourds and sea kelp. Sounds of slurping fill Honke Owariya (lunch for two $38), which has been dishing up handmade soba, udon, and tempura since 1465. If you’re not a guest at the tranquil 208-year-old Kinmata Ryokan (dinner for two $330; doubles from $907, including meals), reserve a table for a seafood kaiseki meal made with ingredients from the nearby Nishiki Market. Check out the envelope-pushing Bassano del Grappa (dinner for two $150), where the sashimi comes with a side of pesto.
Billed as Kyoto’s first design hotel, Screen (doubles from $482) opened in 2007 with 13 unique rooms: No. 201 has a sexy red, black, and white scheme. Super Potato is one of the designers behind the Hyatt Regency Kyoto (doubles from $415), where 189 rooms have cedar tubs and silk headboards. Hotel Monterey (doubles from $190) has spotless guest rooms near shop-filled Sanjo-dori. Opening in December is Hoshinoya Kyoto (doubles from $625), a 25-room ryokan near the Oigawa River with rice-paper screens and intricate woodwork.
On one of the city’s best shopping streets, Ippodo Tea Company resembles an old-fashioned apothecary, with white-jacketed attendants measuring green tea onto scales. The gallery-like Kyoto Design House sells lacquered bamboo boxes and handwoven silk capes by local designers. At Karacho, 11th-generation craftsman Kenkichi Senda creates woodblock-printed washi paper for temple doors, as well as chic handmade pendant lanterns. And at Eitarouya, tailors stitch men’s overcoats from wool, cotton, silk, and hemp.