Kyoto is a major destination—it receives 50 million travelers per year—so it never made sense that the city didn’t have an ultraluxe, big-brand hotel. The Hyatt Regency Kyoto became the top-tier option after it opened in 2006. That shifted with the arrival of the Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto, in 2014, and it could change again when the Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto debuts this year near the Kyoto National Museum.
The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto (rooms from $630; Kamogawa Nijo-Ohashi Hotori, Nakagyo-ku; ritzcarlton.com) is not just a great hotel; some say it might be the top Ritz-Carlton property in the world. Centrally situated on the west bank of the city’s main river, the Kamo, the hotel is about a 15-minute walk from the geisha district of Gion, the old night-life area of Pontocho (which has good restaurants, bars, and teahouses), and the shopping street of Kawaramachi, with Nishiki Market nearby. (Kyoto is very walkable because it’s on a grid.) We also like that the famous Ippodo tea shop is around the corner.
The hotel feels rather small despite its having 134 guest rooms, including 17 suites. Unlike its sister property in Tokyo, the hotel is not in a skyscraper; it has only five floors, and from the outside, the modest architecture—that of a traditional Meiji house—blends into its surroundings. The quiet lobby, which has soft mood lighting and simple elegance, feels more residential, with bookshelves curated with reading material by local shop Books & Things and a plethora of artwork. There are more than 80 Kyoto-based artists represented across the hotel’s collection of 409 pieces.
Our favorite guest rooms and suites are the ones with floor-to-ceiling views of the river and Higashiyama mountains to the east, though those who have fallen in love with Japanese gardens might opt for a room overlooking one of the hotel’s own landscaping efforts. The rooms are Western, and there is a nice balance of traditional and contemporary detail throughout. A classic circular shippo pattern decorates doors, headboards, and carpets (and echoes the long entrance corridor lined with the same motif), yet a technology panel on the nightstand allows guests to configure the lights into various “scenes,” among other functions. For something more traditional, the Garden Terrace Suite and Corner Suite are ryokan-style with tatami mats and futons—and 600-thread-count sheets, of course.
Of the hotel’s four restaurants and bars, only Mizuki, downstairs, is Japanese, serving kaiseki, sushi, teppanyaki, and tempura. The ground-floor Italian restaurant, La Locanda, offers an impressive (even for Japan) breakfast buffet, the highlight of which is the cherry blossom Croissant Ispahan from the on-site Pierre Hermé Paris boutique. Elsewhere on the property, the subterranean Espa spa has a very sexy underground lap pool.
Faced with the competition and now ten years old, the 187-room Hyatt Regency Kyoto (rooms from $290; 644-2 San-jusangendo-mawari, Higashi-yama-ku; kyoto.regency.hyatt.com) is the only other hotel game in town and still mostly holds its own. While it’s unfortunate that Ken Yokoyama, the property’s standout general manager, left in May, the rest of the staff is equally attentive—Mitsuko Washio, especially.
The location is a big draw. In east Kyoto, south of the Ritz-Carlton, it sits right next to Sanjusangendo, the Buddhist temple that is known for its 1,001 life-size wooden statues of the goddess Kannon; across the street from the Kyoto National Museum; and within relatively easy walking distance of Kyoto Station and Gion.
What of the actual hotel? The lobby is expansive and often busy (and so it can get loud). The constant activity can evoke a convention-center hotel. Interiors were designed by Takashi Sugimoto, known for his textured spaces, and the overall feel marries Japanese history with 21st-century minimalism. Muted earth tones dominate the color palette. White latticework (made of iron, not wood, because of fire codes) drawn from old kimono patterns wraps the lobby walls and ceiling, while white glass block pillars help fill the space with a soft, golden light. In the rooms, colorful kimono fabrics from the Edo to Taisho periods alternate across the headboards. No two are alike. We stayed in a Deluxe King garden-level room. While the room category (there are three; Deluxe falls between Standard and Suite) is spacious, the view, through a large floor-to-ceiling window, was of a high concrete wall, allowing scant natural light. Rooms on the higher floors look out over the inner garden or the Kyoto National Museum. The mattress may be the stiffest in the city. Our bathroom, stocked with Pharmacia products, had just a single sink.
The hotel has three restaurants and a bar. Touzan Bar is the standout. It’s dark and sleek, with a decor immediately recognizable after a temple visit or two: It’s filled with ornate nail covers. Choose a sake; it stocks over 30 varieties. Meanwhile, the Japanese restaurant Touzan is modeled after a Kyoto home.
Riraku, the hotel’s spa, focuses on four types of treatments. One worth pointing out is kosoyoku, a dry bath using powder made from hinoki trees in Nara. It is bizarre—and not for claustrophobes. You lie in a cedar box (it resembles a coffin) on a towel on top of the powder. Then you are covered up to your neck in the powder, which has the consistency of sand but the texture of moss. The natural activity of the enzymes stimulates fermentation and generates heat up to about 175 degrees Fahrenheit. It is extremely hot but lasts only 15 minutes. It’s very popular among the Japanese, and the Hyatt Regency is the only hotel in Japan to offer it, making it a reason for travelers to venture to the property even if they’re staying elsewhere.