Japan’s former capital offers a hefty dose of the country’s distant past blended with modern character
Bearing the confidence of a city that was the imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years before Tokyo took over the mantle in 1868, Kyoto remains proud of its distinct identity and unique history. Surviving largely unscathed from the devastation suffered by many of Japan’s cities in World War II, the city has retained an abundance of temples, shrines and cultural treasures that is simply unmatched anywhere else in the country. The biggest quandary for visitors is the sheer overwhelming number of potential destinations, around 2,000 temples and shrines alone to choose from.
The main part of the city is set out on a grid system, making it much easier to navigate than the jumble of streets in most Japanese cities. The subway system is also easy to utilize as it basically follows the straight lines of the main thoroughfares. However, its 19.5 miles of track means coverage is sparse in some areas of this city of 1.5 million, leaving the slightly more challenging combination of trains, street cars, buses and taxis for the rest. Walking is an option – many of the best sights are located in clusters near each other – but the famously hot and sticky Kyoto summer does take its toll.
Electronics and IT form the biggest sector of the economy, which is home to Kyoto’s biggest export – Nintendo. The video game giant is almost a metaphor for Kyoto: globally famous but secretive in many of its ways. The company cherishes its local roots and keeps its operations firmly planted in the city, never even considering moving its headquarters to Tokyo as most firms of its size have done. The city’s natural beauty and mystery, however, attract a large number of visitors, making tourism a major contributor to the city’s wealth. There are many ways to enjoy this historic place, from sophisticated food to exciting festivals.
Kyoto natives think so highly of their city’s food that they regard it as a separate branch of Japanese cooking, and refer to it as kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine). Though the city has a long and rich culinary history, it is most closely associated with kaisekiryori, sometimes known as Japanese haute cuisine, which features a series of intricately prepared dishes for which aesthetics is equally as important as seasonality and taste.
The fiery spices and rich sauces that characterize much of Asia’s culinary delights are largely absent from Japanese food, where stripping ingredients down to their barest essence is the ultimate aim. Nowhere is this done more simply and yet somehow spectacularly, than in the best kaiseki-ryori restaurants.
Many of Kyoto’s finest restaurants have centuries-old traditions, passed on through generations of the same family. So proud of their ways are some of the chefs and owners of these restaurants that they turned up their refined noses at being awarded Michelin stars when the guide launched a Kyoto and Osaka 2010 edition. Despite the city being awarded a total of 118 stars in the guide, and seven restaurants receiving the coveted threestar rating, many restaurants refused to cooperate with Michelin, with one even threatening to change its telephone number if it was listed.
Kitcho, a three-star winner, is one of the young upstarts of Kyoto’s kaiseki establishments, the current master chef, Kunio Tokuoka, being only the third generation of his family to run the restaurant. Kitcho is also less publicity shy than some of its counterparts, releasing a book about the restaurant entitled Kitcho: Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience.