A weekend in Kyoto, Japan
Avoid hordes of tourists and explore this Japanese city’s Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, Zen gardens, palaces, pagodas and parks
Cherry blossom in the Philosopher’s Walk, Kyoto
Otagi Nenbutsu dera temple
Gates of Inari
A full 36 hours, 36 days or even 36 weeks could be spent exploring the Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, Zen gardens, palaces, pagodas, parks and walking paths in Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan. So it’s little surprise that the most common complaint about the enchanting city is about the number of tourists, especially during the spring cherry-blossom season. To avoid crowds, consider seeking out local haunts in far-flung neighbourhoods, all within reach thanks to an extensive public transport system. You’ll quickly discover that many of Kyoto’s most rewarding attractions can’t be found in any guidebook. At least not yet.
1 Golden oldies
It’s easy to bounce from temple to temple until they all blur into a muddled mass. Be selective and focus on a single memorable spot, like Rengeoin temple, commonly known as Sanjusangendo (admission, 600 Japanese yen, about €4). The temple’s main hall, 120 metres long, houses an unforgettable sight: a gigantic statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, flanked by 1,000 human-size statues. The golden statues, each with 42 arms, carved from Japanese cypress in the 12th and 13th centuries, still look immaculate.
2 Kyoto via Copenhagen
Adapting ancient crafts to contemporary tastes is a skill some local artisans have perfected through a venture called Japan Handmade. The project is a collaboration between the Danish design studio OeO and six small Kyoto-area companies, each rooted in a traditional craft, from woodworking to metal-knitting. One of the participants, Hosoo, founded in 1688, produces luxurious fabrics traditionally used to make kimonos. Today, the patterned silks also adorn upholstered armchairs and high-top sneakers (a collaboration with the fashion designer Mihara Yasuhiro). Find these modern creations and Japan Handmade’s range of covetable items – glazed porcelain trays, cypress-wood champagne buckets – at the new House of Hosoo showroom in Nishijin, the city’s historic textile district. Visits are by appointment only.
3 Chicken dinner
Most locals don’t blow their yen on outrageously priced kaiseki dinners, and neither should you. Instead, secure a seat at Hitomi, a casual yakitori restaurant that is beloved for its warm service and delicious grilled things-on-sticks. Bar seats afford front-row views of the smoking grill, where every part of the chicken, beak to tail, is cooked with care. Don’t miss the tsukune (ground chicken “meatball”), crisp kawa (skin) and succulent momo (chicken thigh) seasoned with nothing but a pinch of salt (dinner for two, about 5,000 yen (€35.60).
4 Rebirth of the cool
After dinner, soak up the smooth sounds and surroundings at Yamatoya, a longstanding jazz bar that reopened in 2013 after a year-long renovation. No detail here is overlooked, from the classy décor – antique tables, glossy red bar – to the hand-cut ice. Then there’s the music. Hearing a Django Reinhardt record played on the superb audio system – Garrard 401 turntable, vintage Vitavox Klipschorn speakers – is like seeing new colours for the first time.
5 Discreet drinks
Spend the rest of the night hopping to increasingly discreet bars. Start at Cafe Gaea, a laidback neighbourhood hangout where you can while away an hour chatting with the affable manager, Rei. Then slip down the narrow path leading to the sliding door of Bar Bunkyu. The smiling bartender, Nao, befriends all who enter the austere space, where a few stools surround a large slab of textured wood that doubles as both bar and communal table.