Photography: JOHN ASHBURNE
Fifty million domestic visitors a year pass through the portals of Kyoto's 17 World Heritage sites, its Buddhist temples, its magnificent Zen gardens, and its ryotei restaurants. The former imperial capital is synonymous with the concept of wabi-sabi, beauty amid transience, and to visit is de rigueur for any Japanese aesthete worth their cognoscente salt. Yet for years the megastar in the home tourism pantheon hardly registered a blip on the mainstream global travel radar. Its unsurpassable and unique food culture remained unheralded overseas.
Then came the French.
In 2010 the Michelin guides bombarded Kyoto with a veritable meteor shower of adoration. Six Kyoto restaurants garnered Michelin's highest three-star accolade, more than New York City. In total, 85 of the city's restaurants between them garnered 110 étoiles.
This year Louis Vuitton has upped the ante, with the first edition of the LV city guide Kyoto/Nara, which I wrote, showcasing 149 of the city's finest eateries. Kyoto has finally arrived. Here are my favourite things to do in my adopted home. Oideyasu, as the locals say. Welcome!
Top 10 Kyoto experiences
1. Dine in style at a ryotei restaurant
Kyoto's high-end restaurants are the epitome of refined luxury. You will be seated on tatami mats and served by kimono-clad waitresses bearing the nine or 10 courses of a Kyoto-style kaiseki meal. Also known as Kyokaiseki, this is the Kyoto take on classic Japanese multi-course dining, so expect an unparalleled level of subtlety and discreet opulence in everything from the lacquerware soup bowls to the flower arrangement in the tokonoma, or alcove. Kikunoi Honten is the cream of the inimitable crop. Kikunoi Honten, 459 Shimogawara-cho, Kawaramachi-dori, Yasakatoriimae-sagaru, Higashiyama-ku, +81 75 561 0015, open noon-2pm and 5pm-8pm daily.
2. Savour the local cuisine, taste history
For more than a thousand years Kyoto was Japan's capital, and at the heart of all that power stood one man, the emperor. The city's signature cuisine, known colloquially as Kyoryori, grew from an ancient Buddhist tradition rarified and expanded to suit the palate, and the every whim, of the man considered a living god. An entire market, Nishikikoji Ichiba, was established to provide the essential materials. It, like the cuisine, remains as vital as ever today.
Staple Kyoryori ingredients include tofu, fu (wheat gluten) and
yuba (tofu skin), and locally sourced vegetables such as kamo-nasu
(a round eggplant), Shogoin daikon (radish) and kujo negi (leek).
At the heart of all Kyoryori lies dashi stock, a blend of katsuo
(bonito) and konbu (kelp). You'll find all of these ingredients,
and a further dizzying array, at the market. Nishikikoji Ichiba, most stores open 9am-5pm,
most closed Wednesday or Sunday.
3. Wax poetical over lunch at Shoraian
There's tofu, and then there's tofu in Kyoto. The monks have been working their bean-curd wizardry here for several thousand years and their secular cousins were quick to follow suit. Forget the pallid imitations you find elsewhere. Kyoto tofu is the real stuff, delicate, flavourful, a culinary joy. Shoraian, a restaurant specialising in tofu cuisine in picturesque Arashiyama west of the city, perches over the Oigawa River like one of the herons in owner and master-calligrapher Kobayashi Fuyoh's paintings. The Kyoto nobility would come here to write poetry and ponder the transience of earthly existence. We suggest you order the yudofu hotpot lunch. Poetry optional, but recommended. It fits. Shoraian, Kanyuchi-nai, Saga Kameno'o-cho, Ukyo-ku, +81 75 861 0123, open 11am-5pm Mon-Thu, 11am-7pm Fri-Sun
4. Taste a Kyoto classic at Kappo Nakagawa Honten
Ponder the eel. Brillat-Savarin deemed it the "noble fish", yet for centuries in these parts the hamo (pike conger eel) was considered inedible. In Japanese it was nicknamed the "cat stride fish", because even hungry felines would give it a miss. Then a gifted Kyoto artisan, sadly anonymous and deceased sans patent, invented a heavy knife, the hamogiribocho, to separate its flesh from the multitude of bones within, and a star in Kyoto's culinary firmament was born. Hamo takes pride of place at Kappo Nakagawa Honten, originators of the shabu-shabu style of hamo cuisine. Kappo Nakagawa Honten, Shinbashi, Higashi Hashimoto-cho, Gion Hanamikoji-dori, Higashiyama-ku, +81 75 541 0552, open 5pm-10pm, closed Sunday
5. Embrace the shock of the new at Guilo Guilo
Kyoto is famed within Japan for its innate conservatism, but this seems to have escaped the attention of some of its most celebrated chefs, who are clearly prepared to throw caution, and the rule-book, to the wind. Leading the revolutionary charge is Edakuni Eiichi at Guilo Guilo, who punks up kaiseki classics with his kuzushi-kappo, or "break the rules" casual cuisine. Try, for example, his ko-ayu (sweetfish) tempura with coffee and potato sauce. Guilo Guilo's prices are also revolutionarily affordable. There's a branch in Paris too. Guilo Guilo Hitoshina, 420-7 Nanba-cho, Nishikiyamachi-sagaru, Shimogyo-ku, +81 75 343 7070, open 5.30pm-11pm daily
6. Soak away travel fatigue at Kurama hot-spring
Some like it post-prandial. Some like it pre-. Whatever your bathing preferences, a soak in the rotenburo at Houroku-yu hot-spring in Kurama, a rural village north-east of Kyoto, is unmissable. The views across the forested valley from the outdoor baths, separated for men and women, are spectacular. While you're here, check out the local cuisine, such as sansai soba, buckwheat noodles with mountain vegetables. Kurama Spa Houroku-yu, 520 Kuramahonmachi, Sakyo-ku, +81 75 741 2131, open 10am-9pm 365 days a year.
7. Go geisha-watching
Kyoto culture is synonymous with geisha and maiko, the apprentice geisha who live and work in the Kyoto neighbourhoods of Gion, Ponto-cho and Miyagawa-cho. While many young women are attracted to this glamourous and rarified world, few make it through the arduous training required to become fully fledged geiko, as geisha are known in Kyoto dialect. The best time to see them is in the late afternoon as they head for rendezvous at the ochaya (tea-houses).
Dining with geisha is difficult to arrange, and not inexpensive,
but it is possible. Long-term resident and geisha expert Peter
Macintosh of Kyoto Sights and Nights may arrange private
engagements and VIP dinners. Kyoto
Sights and Nights, +81 905 169 1654.
8. Hit the b-kyu gurume ramen trail
Fans of Itami Juzo's ramen-Western Tampopo, in which a truck driver rides into town to help a widowed noodle chef open a restaurant, will know that finding perfect noodles is a serious business. Shinpuku Saikan, Dai-ichi Asahi, Masutani and Tonryu are all justifiably famous ramen joints, but our favourite is the central and criminally underrated Kyohei. Their shoyu, miso and hakata pork-broth noodles are all excellent. Kyohei Ramen, Enoki-cho 99, Nijo-sagaru, Kiyamachi-dori, Nakagyo-ku, +81 75 211 5700, open 11am- 8pm, closed Saturday
9. Rub shoulders with the stars at Tawaraya
Omotenashi (hospitality) and wabi-sabi aesthetics blend seamlessly at Kyoto's legendary Tawaraya ryokan. Founded in the early 18th century, the "rice ball house" has provided shelter for, among others, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Marlon Brando, and Liza Minnelli. The ryokan oozes class, from the impeccably stocked library to the flowers discreetly adorning the entrance. A night at the Tawaraya is the ultimate high-end Japanese accommodation experience. Tawaraya, 278 Nakahakusan-cho, Fuyacho-dori, Ayeyakoji-agaru, Nakagyo-ku, +81 75 211 5566
10. Satiate yourself in the cultural cornucopia
A 400-year-old castle whose floorboards sing like nightingales? Check. A Zen garden whose inexplicable beauty makes poets lose their minds? Check. A temple coated with pure gold? Check. Nijo Castle (it of the floorboards designed to squeak to protect the shogun from assassins), Ryoan Temple and the Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji are but three of Kyoto's 17 must-see World Heritage-listed treasures. If you've time, throw in the Silver Pavilion, Daikokuji and Kiyomizu temples and the Imperial Palace for good measure. www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/theme/sites/shrines/w_heritage/
Kyoto-based writer John Ashburne contributed to the Louis Vuitton city guide Kyoto/Nara, on sale now ($42, pbk, boxed).