Kyoto’s pre- world war II buildings still stand tall and geisha continue to roam the streets of this city that proudly guards Japan’s ancient traditions, writes Sarah Han.
The Japanese city of Kyoto reveals a bittersweet history amid its serenity and grandeur. Originally a target of the United States’ atomic bombing at the end of World War II, Kyoto was eventually removed from the target list. The US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson was responsible for saving Kyoto; he had previously visited and admired the city. Most major Japanese cities were at some point bombed during WW II but Kyoto escaped leaving its culture and traditions intact.
As Japan’s former capital city, Kyoto is still considered the heart of Japan. In fact, Kyoto translates to “capital city”.
The well-preserved shrines and temples are one of the ways Kyoto maintains its connection to the past. For an exclusive tour, nine historic shrines and temples are available for private reservation. Visitors can stroll through the temples and gardens at their own leisure or experience zen meditation and a tea ceremony.
Kyoto’s shrines and temples can also be experienced along the Philosopher’s Walk, a path following a canal lined with cherry trees. Named after famous philosopher Nishida Kitaro, the stone path was Kitaro’s route to university, which he used for daily meditation.
Koto’s seasons and festivals
Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) occurs in Spring (in March and April). The Philosopher’s Walk is one of the most popular locations to take in the panorama of cherry blossoms but during each of the seasons, the walk brings out the colours and subtleties of the four distinct atmospheres.
As spring succumbs to summer, the climate becomes hot and humid. World-renowned for its festivals, Kyoto holds two festivals in summer. Held on May 15, Aoi-matsuri is a procession of ornately decorated oxcarts from Kyoto Imperial Palace to Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine. Gion-matsuri is another summer festival spanning the entire month of July. It is one of the most famous Japanese festivals highlighted by its elaborate parade on July 17.
The green hue of summer slowly begins to fade into orange and red tinged leaves that adorn the autumn landscape. Autumn is the season for another famous Kyoto festival, Jidai-matsuri, held on October 22 every year. It is a parade of historical re-enactments featuring authentic costumes from different periods. In Kyoto autumn is also the time to honour the harvest moon. Tsukimi (moon viewing) is the tradition of gazing at the full moon to show gratitude for a good harvest.
Once winter arrives, it brings cold and dry weather along with it. Complementing the wintry atmosphere, Hanatouro brings streets and temples to life with exquisite lights and flowers. Attracting over two million people each year, it is a visual feast where hundreds of bamboo and ceramic lanterns illuminate the streets, temples and bamboo forest. As winter gives way to spring, the cycle begins once more with the budding of cherry trees.
City of culture and history
Besides the nuances of the four seasons, much of Kyoto’s charm lies in its bond with ancient traditions. The city guards its history and traces of its past dwell in every neighbourhood.
Representing imperial history, the Kyoto Imperial Palace was the residence of the Emperor of Japan until 1869 when he moved to the Tokyo Imperial Palace.
However, in the past shoguns overruled imperial sovereignty. Shoguns are hereditary military commanders of Japan who exercised absolute rule and reduced the emperors to nominal supremacy.
As a symbol of shogun history, Nijo Castle represents the Edo period (Edo is now Tokyo) where the Tokugawa shoguns held absolute power instead of the Emperor in Kyoto. Built as the residence for Tokugawa shoguns, the castle contains the Ninomaru Palace, the ruins of the Honmaru Palace, other support buildings and several gardens. One of the highlights of the castle is at Ninomaru Palace, where the corridor floors are sometimes referred to as uguisubari (nightingale floors). The floors make bird-like squeaking noises when walked on, thereby acting as protection from attacks and assassins.
1868 marks the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, returning sovereignty to the Emperor. Nijo Castle still serves as a reminder of the restoration of imperial rule.
Kyoto’s history and culture also rests in honouring the geisha tradition. The city is known for upholding the strongest preservation of the geisha tradition in Japan. Geisha and apprentice geisha (geiko and maiko respectively in Japanese) are female entertainers who perform and socialise at select teahouses. Donning elegant and ornate traditional dress, they sing, dance and play traditional instruments for their patrons. They entertain in five districts of Kyoto: Kamishichiken, Pontocho, Miyagawacho, Gion-higashi and Gion-kobu.
Geisha and maiko dance at the Miyako Odori dance festival in April and the Kamagowa Odori dance festival in May and October through to November. For the ultimate geisha experience, there is also a tea ceremony hosted by geisha and maiko. Nodate, an outdoor tea ceremony, beneath plum blossoms during the Baika-sai (Plum-blossom Festival) is held on February 25 at the Kitano-tenmangu Shrine.
Japanese traditional theatre continues to be performed today in Kyoto. Kabuki theatre is a 400-year-old traditional drama performed only by men and accompanied by music. While Kyoto had seven kabuki stages in the past, only Minami-za Theatre now remains. As a classical musical drama also performed by men, Noh theatre is known for its ornate masks and slow elegance. Yokyoku (recitative chants) and a small orchestra comprising a flute and three drums complement the traditional drama.
Where to Eat:
Kyoto-ryori or Kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine) is known for its refined flavours and meticulous presentation. Kyoto’s specialty is kaiseki dining, a feast of small dishes over one or two hours. Kaiseki stems from the tea ceremony of the courts and temples in Medieval Japan. Renowned for its precision in serving dishes at the correct temperature and as soon as they are prepared, kaiseki also requires the dishes to be served in the right order.
Kaiseki adheres to the ichiju-sansai (one soup, three sides) tradition, consisting of a bowl of miso, three okazu (side dishes) and rice. Okazu usually take the form of seafood and vegetable dishes. Vegetables grown in the area such as Kamo-nasu (a round eggplant) and Kujo-negi (a sweet, green onion) are often ingredients in kaiseki. Known for using seasonal and healthy ingredients, kaiseki is now associated with Kyoto cooking. Today it is regarded as the highest form of culinary sophistication in Japan.
This 300-year-old traditional restaurant serves authentic kaiseki cuisine. Diners can enjoy their extravagant kaiseki feast in one of the private teahouses set in a lush garden. For an additional fee, geisha will serve the meal to guests.
Accentuating the harmony between French and Japanese culture, the first-rate French kaiseki menu features long-established French cuisine from the Belle Epoque period using seasonal ingredients to complement the traditional Japanese ambience.
French Dining Top of Kyoto
Kyoto does not merely offer kaiseki cuisine. Showing off its expertise in decadent French cuisine, French Dining Top of Kyoto is a revolving restaurant on the 14th level of Rihga Royal Hotel. It takes 90 minutes for the restaurant to revolve, allowing diners to take in the beautiful views of Kyoto’s scenic environs.
Where to Stay:
Kyoto offers ryokan (traditional inn), machiya (traditional townhouse) stays and luxury hotels. Ryokan are a great way to experience traditional Japanese living and architecture. Known for its tatami (straw) mat flooring, ryokan usually serve breakfast and dinner in guestrooms. Machiya stays provide guests an entire traditional house for occupancy. Designed for functionality to suit the Kyoto lifestyle, machiya are narrow but deep townhouses and are said to contain unagi no nedoko (eel bedrooms).
This five-star ryokan is world-renowned, offering guestrooms with views of the delightful garden and traditional kaiseki meals. For over 300 years Tawaraya has catered to the luxuries of celebrities like Alfred Hitchcock. Each of its 18 rooms is uniquely decorated and artworks in the interiors are changed every month.
As one of the nine Iori townhouses available for reservation, the Shinmonzen is among the most luxurious. The Iori Company restores old machiya and allows guests to use the townhouses as their own. Featuring traditional architecture, the machiya are equipped with modern luxuries like in-floor heating, wireless Internet and air-conditioning. Originally a florist, the Shinmonzen is located on Kyoto’s “Art street” with access to the shops and restaurants of Gion.
The Westin Miyako
Nestled within 16 acres of woods and gardens, this five-star hotel is one of the best known in Japan. The guestrooms offer spectacular mountain views. Modern facilities like an indoor pool, outdoor jogging track, and tennis courts are also available. Although the hotel is essentially western, it does not neglect to pay attention to Japanese culture. A traditional teahouse sits in the gardens and one of the restaurants serves traditional Japanese cuisine. The hotel is located in the midst of Higashiyama, Kyoto’s main sightseeing area.
Private tour of shrines and temples: www.luxurykyoto.jp/exclusive/index.html
Kabuki theatre: www.kyoto.travel/what_to_do/kabukikaomise.html
Noh theatre: www.kyoto.travel/what_to_do/noh_japanese_traditional_play.html
Tawaraya: Tel: +81 75 211 5566
The Westin Miyako: www.starwoodhotels.com/westin
Hyotei: Tel +81-75-771-4116
French Dining Top of Kyoto: Tel +81 75 341-2311