Ky­oto Beck­ons

Ja­pan’s for­mer cap­i­tal of­fers a hefty dose of the coun­try’s dis­tant past blended with mod­ern char­ac­ter

Business Traveler (USA) - - INTERNATIONAL DESTINATIONS - By Gavin Blair

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.

Dining Tra­di­tions

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.

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