Kyoto Uncovered

Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji

Japan's former imperial capital and Tokyo's more traditional sister city is enjoying its own cultural moment.

It’s hard not to compare Kyoto, Japan’s Imperial capital, with Tokyo, the teeming usurper that took the political lead post-1868. If Tokyo is associated with everything trendy, Kyoto is its traditional opposite. Japanese have long appreciated the heritage here; some 12 million overnight annually. Now, in its own graceful way, Kyoto is having a moment, opening slightly to new development and expressing a pride of place poised to attract international attention.

Kyoto is not awash in international retail or hotel brands. But the upcoming Four Seasons, set to open in 2016, and the new Ritz-Carlton (rooms, from $700; Kamogawa Nijo-Ohashi Hotori; 81-75/746-5555), on the banks of the Kamogawa River, are expanding lodging in a pampered direction. At the Ritz, the Japanese tea ceremony, developed in Kyoto, is the inspiration for the spa’s Ryokucha Serenity Ritual ($255), featuring poultices steeped in matcha (green tea).

For a more traditional inn experience, there’s Hoshinoya Kyoto (rooms, from $660; 11-2 Arashiyama Genrokuzan-cho; 81-50/3786-0066), just a ten-minute boat ride on the Ooi River. After the kaiseki meal at the Michelin-starred restaurant, take the new riverboat that offers sake-tasting moonlight cruises through the Arashiyama gorge. Return to your room to steep in a cypress-wood bath.

Traditional cuisine, known in its entirety as washoku, recently received unesco World Heritage status, bringing attention to Kyoto’s contribution: vegetables. Try Honke Owariya (322 Kurumayacho-Nijyo; 81-75/231-3446), which has been doing soba noodles for royals and monks since 1465. For a modern approach, pull up a stool at Isoya (1 421-5 Shimomaruya-cho; 81-75/212-5039); its menu is in Japanese only, but ingredients are on view, so use the point-and-pray ordering method.

It’s not uncommon in Kyoto to meet 12th-generation craftsmen who make anything from ceramics to obi sash weavings. Masataka Hosoo, whose family has been making obi since 1688, recently partnered with the Danish design studio OeO and the descendants of other craft dynasties to form the collective Japan Handmade (by appointment only; 752 Bisyamon-cho Kuromon-dori Motoseiganjisagaru), which makes modern items like stools and trays using traditional techniques.

For art, in September the new Collections Hall addition to the classical campus of the Kyoto National Museum (527 Chaya-cho) opens to house treasures such as Buddhist scroll cases dating back to 1007.

The city’s 1,600 or so tem­ples range from monk-maintained meditation sites to more extroverted spaces. Among the latter, the 17th-century Kanga-an (278 Karasuma Dori, Kuramaguchi Higashi Iru) has long sustained itself as a vegan kaiseki restaurant. In 2009 it opened a small bar that remains unadvertised and unmarked—walk up the lantern-lit path to the main temple and take a left—and patronized by in-the-know locals.

Sweet shops line the lanes around Kyoto’s biggest temples. Learn the basics of making mochi-covered red-bean-paste desserts at Kanshundo (1 292-2 Kamihoritsume-cho; 81-75/561-1318). (Classes are taught in Japanese but with plenty of demonstration that is easy to copy.)

Just shy of 6 p.m. nightly, Kyoto’s geiko—the local term for geisha—and maiko, or apprentice geisha, generally make their way to appointments in teahouses clustered in the historic Gion district, where travelers-turned-paparazzi jostle nightly. Hire Bodhi Fishman, a California expat guide and the owner of Bodaiju Travel & Arts (81-75/746-4513), to reveal more discreet geisha quarters.