Uncovering Modern Kyoto’s New Groove

There’s a hidden contemporary side to Japan’s ancient imperial city — here’s where to find it



Kyoto’s reputation tends to overshadow its reality. The cultural capital of Japan is best known for its ancient Buddhist temples, manicured Zen gardens and delicate geishas shuffling down cobblestoned streets by the colorful dozen. But look a little closer and you’ll find of-the-moment hotels, restaurants, bars and boutiques giving cutting-edge Tokyo a real run for its money.


Kyoto is giving cutting-edge Tokyo a real run for its money


You know it’s a modern movement when two of the world’s most luxurious hospitality brands open their doors in the same city within days of each other. Last fall, Kyoto welcomed the Park Hyatt, whose low-slung property amid the tourist scene (Kōdaiji Temple, the Big Buddha, historic gardens and other checklist sites are mere steps away) is a departure for the brand known for its high-rise hotels. Outside the city center, at the foot of the Mountain of Hidari Daimonji, the new Aman was built on 80 pastoral acres for those who would rather trade the crowds for miles of lush forest and a few lesser-known temples.


The danger of staying at either, of course, is a temptation to hole yourself away in blissful opulence. Intrepid explorers might instead opt for Enso Ango, a hotel composed of five buildings within walking distance from each other in central Kyoto, that invites guests to travel like a local from structure to structure to experience the unique property’s vernacular spaces, such as the tearoom, courtyards and salons.

Exploring Kyoto by foot is a good thing, because food in this city is both an art and a religion, with restaurants boasting more than 100 Michelin stars. One case in point: Kanga-an, a 17th-century Zen Buddhist temple with a fine-dining establishment where the innovative vegetarian cuisine plays tricks on the eyes (don’t miss the sweet “chestnuts” made with tofu and wheat noodle “husks”). There’s even a secret bar overlooking a hidden garden.


The vibe is unapologetically sleek at Monk, a 14-seat bolthole where chef Yoshihiro Imai changes up the veggie-forward tasting menu daily. One thing always offered? Neapolitan-style pizza, and it’s perhaps the best this side of Europe. At Yanagi Koji Taka, a small tachinomiya (standing-only bar), young maverick Taka Nishimura, a Nobu protege, gives sushi and other Japanese staples the Italian fusion treatment. One of the city’s buzziest new cocktail kingdoms, Nokishita711, features a gin-heavy menu that mixes the spirit with everything from wasabi oil to cream cheese. The tiny bar filled with eclectic art has no prices on its menu; customers instead pay whatever they choose in exchange for the artful creations.

Sure, you could hit all of Japan’s well-known fashion houses with a walk down Naramonocho, but for a truly special souvenir, spend most of your time (and money) at the historic only-in-Kyoto ateliers. The city is known for its exquisite lacquerware, and Zohiko has been turning out the finest since the imperial days. At its Teramachi-dori Street gallery, find elaborate vases embellished with gold and silver, boxes etched with cherry blossoms and cranes, and geometric trays that can take months to create. Metalwork studio Seikado has been in operation for nearly 200 years, hammering out perfect sake cups, tea sets and incense holders in pewter, silver, bronze and copper.


And Hosoo, Japan’s finest textile atelier, known for its three-dimensional weaving technique, has been around for centuries and sells to leading fashion houses like Chanel and Dior. Its kimono cellar at the new five-story flagship in Karasuma-Oike houses thousands of archival patterns. Enjoy tea and macarons in the lounge, then select a souvenir at the shop — a pair of silk slippers, perhaps? Whatever you choose, you’ll leave with something precious but steeped in tradition. Just like Kyoto itself.


Feature image: The view of the city from the KIYOMIZU-DERA temple. Photo by Su San Lee/Unsplash.


This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of C Magazine.

Discover more TRAVEL news.

Receive Updates

No spam guarantee.

Stay Up To Date

Subscribe to our weekly emails for the hottest openings, latest parties and in-depth interviews with the people putting California Style on the map.