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On a recent trip to Kyoto, Japan, last winter, I was completely awestruck by the sheer number of things to do and see. The former ancient capital of Japan is truly a gem of a destination, with a total of 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites within its city boundaries. The ways in which time-honored traditions and modern influences blend together in this vibrant locale make it a must-see stop on any trip to Japan, especially for first-timers.
While there are many itineraries for travelers to follow while in Kyoto — including the city’s famous Path of Philosophy Trail, which takes in numerous temples and shrines — the following suggested itinerary mirrors my own personal sojourn. During my visit, I tried to make the most of the city’s beautiful landscapes and vistas, as well as take the time to enjoy its culture and traditions firsthand, all at a leisurely, unhurried pace.
Day OneCheck in to the Hoshinoya KyotoThe Hoshinoya Kyoto is an immaculate ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) that manages to be both exceedingly modern and traditional at the same time. The property, which belongs to Small Luxury Hotels of the World, opened in December 2009 and is owned by the Hoshino family, which has had a long and storied history in Japan’s hospitality industry, dating back nearly 100 years.
What makes the Hoshinoya Kyoto so special is its location, its attention to detail and its levels of service. The property, which is thought to have been the library/residence of wealthy Kyoto merchant Ryoi Suminokura, became a ryokan some 100 years ago and overlooks the Oigawa River. A few years ago, when the owner of this particular ryokan died, the Hoshino family decided to purchase it, making a few upgrades to the ryokan while maintaining its historic structure and traditional ambience.
The only ways of getting to the property are by car along a narrow road that curves along the valley, or by boat. Because of the Hoshinoya Kyoto’s secluded location, it may be difficult for some travelers to find it. Below are my suggestions for getting to Kyoto and the Hoshinoya Kyoto by train and taxi. However, the hotel can also arrange personal transfers for guests from either the Kansai Airport or Kyoto Station. When booking clients, notify the front desk as to when your clients will arrive; this will enable them to be able to better accommodate guests at the hotel’s riverside reception/check-in area.
A majority of travelers will most likely arrive to Kyoto by Shinkansen (bullet train) if flying directly into Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. From Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station, the ride takes approximately three hours to complete. Leaving Tokyo during the off hours, and avoiding the morning and evening commutes, is preferable. Once your client arrives in Kyoto, advise them to look for the MK Taxi stand that is located across the street from the station, near where the other taxis are waiting. MK Taxis are known for their reasonably lower fares and excellent service. By taxi, clients can travel to the Hoshinoya Kyoto by directing the driver to take them to the Togetsukyo Bridge. At the end of the bridge is where they will find the Hoshinoya Kyoto’s check-in reception and boat landing, where clients will board one of the Hoshinoya’s very own boats to travel to their room.
The guestrooms are, without a doubt, some of the most breathtaking I have ever stayed in. The luxury of the amenities lies in their elegance and simplicity; guests will not find any televisions, but they will have traditional ofuro (deep-soaking tubs); tea sets; yukata (pajamas); and, in some accommodations, their very own tatami room, from which they can take in the beautiful views of the surrounding cherry blossom trees and river. While staying here, I truly felt as though I had been transported to another time and era.www.slh.com/hoshinoyakyotohttp://kyoto.hoshinoya.com/en
Dinner at the Hoshinoya KyotoAfter making the journey to the Hoshinoya Kyoto, it is likely that your clients will simply want to relax and unwind. The hotel’s settings and facilities provide a perfect backdrop for doing just that, including a cozy library, a public Japanese-style room with traditional games and two modern gardens. The on-site restaurant offers superb traditional Japanese cuisine, featuring the freshest local ingredients and specialties, including Kyoto beef and tofu, as well as seafood. If possible, try to make reservations for your clients to sit at the restaurant’s first-floor counter area, where they can observe chefs making fresh soba (buckwheat) noodles by hand. Watching the chefs meticulously prepare soba gives you a greater appreciation for them when you devour the noodles, dipped in shoyu (soy sauce), at the end of your meal.
Day TwoIn-Room BreakfastMy favorite meal at the Hoshinoya Kyoto, however, had to be the traditional Japanese-style breakfast that I enjoyed in the comfort of my very own tatami room. The Japanese-style hot pot breakfast dish, called nabe, was both filling and delicious and prepared for us by a member of the staff. The dish features fresh tofu from Kyoto (often considered the best in all of Japan), seasonal vegetables, rice and hot tea. Clients should request this the night before from the front desk.
Hike to the Daihikaku Senkoji TempleIf your clients are up for it, they should consider taking a short hike from the Hoshinoya Kyoto toward the Daihikaku Senkoji Temple, which is perched above the Hoshinoya Kyoto. This little-visited temple offers amazing views of Kyoto and makes for a tranquil walk in the early morning.
Explore Tenryuji TempleAfter breakfast and a short hike, clients should ask the front desk to arrange boat transportation to the bridge/reception area. From there, they can explore the nearby Tenryuji Temple by foot. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally built in 1339 in memory of the Emperor Daigo II and it features a garden designed by Muso Soseki, whom many credit as the founder of Zen landscaping.
Peruse Arashiyama’s Shops and RestaurantsAfter visiting the temple, clients can explore the nearby shops and restaurants. Clients so inclined to explore even more of Arashiyama might consider taking a rickshaw ride around the area. Numerous rickshaw drivers can be hired from the area near the bridge, and the Hoshinoya Kyoto can also arrange rides for guests as well.
Stroll Through the Sagano Bamboo GroveAt dusk, when the sun begins to set, the Sagano Bamboo Grove, which is also located in Arashiyama, takes on an even more impressive and surreal ambience. Its towering bamboo stalks are beautiful, and walking along the main path is simply magical, especially so at nightfall.
Dinner at Tempura MatsuTempura Matsu is where I had my first introduction to the potentially lethal fugu (blowfish), as well as one of the most amazing meals I have ever consumed: a 10-course omakase (chef’s selection) menu of one-of-a-kind dishes. I loved it so much that I even wrote a blog about it earlier this year. The front desk at the Hoshinoya Kyoto will be more than happy to make reservations for your guests here, as well as other fine dining establishments in the area.
Day ThreeCheck in to The Westin Miyako, KyotoAs lovely as the Arashiyama region of Kyoto is, its rather removed location makes it difficult to see some of Kyoto’s other favorite sites and attractions. So, when — or if — your clients desire to see more of the city, I would suggest they book a room at The Westin Miyako, Kyoto, which is located at the eastern end of Kyoto, in the Higashiyama neighborhood. To get to The Westin, it is easiest to hire a taxi, although it is possible to get there by train.
The Westin Miyako, Kyoto, is unique in that it offers all of the modern amenities you would expect from a Westin, but it also has an illustrious history that traces back to the 1890s. Accommodations range from Western-style guestrooms to traditional Japanese-style guesthouse arrangements. You can read more about the hotel in my full on-site review of The Westin Miyako, Kyoto.www.westinmiyako-kyoto.com
A Tea Ceremony With Wak JapanAfter checking in or dropping off their luggage at The Westin, clients can take a tour with Wak Japan. The local tour operator specializes in classes and tours that introduce travelers to Kyoto culture and cuisine firsthand. Courses can be taken at Wak Japan’s headquarter offices in central Kyoto, or in the personal homes of its instructors. For tours that require clients to visit the personal home of a Wak Japan instructor, the company will send a representative to accompany them to and from the home.
During my trip, I decided to book two in-home tours with Wak Japan: a course in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and a course in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. Lucky for me, my in-home instructor specialized in both. Learning the detailed intricacies and customs involved in ikebana and the tea ceremony was fascinating and I was grateful to have had such a personal experience during my trip.
Wak Japan also offers in-home courses in Japanese home cooking, calligraphy, origami, Japanese dance, kimono wearing, paper and fabric craftsmanship and koto (guitar/harp-like musical instrument) playing. Many of these same courses can also be taken at Wak Japan’s office for a less expensive rate. Guided tours include making sushi with a sushi chef and touring Gion, the area of Kyoto that is famous for its geisha. www.wakjapan.com
Shop at Nishiki MarketAfter learning about Japanese culture firsthand with Wak Japan, it is time to see it — and taste it — at Kyoto’s famous Nishiki Market. Markets, such as Nishiki, are one of the best ways for clients to get a glimpse into the local culture and to discover Kyoto’s love affair with artfully crafted wares and exquisitely prepared foods. Here, clients will find all sorts of vendors and shops, including delectable late afternoon lunch stops.
Toward one end of the market, they will also come across Aritsugu, a famous Kyoto knife shop that specializes in razor-sharp Japanese cooking knives and utensils. If your clients wish to purchase one of their knives, they should be forewarned that the shop accepts cash only. www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/theme/amusement/downtown/nishiki
Explore GionJust before sunset is the best time to explore Gion, the area located just east of Nishiki Market. Gion is where Kyoto’s famous geisha live and work and walking through its maze of streets feels like you have been transported back to another time and place. If your clients make it to Gion before sunset, they will most likely spot geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) hurriedly making their way to their evening appointments. Seeing their immaculately constructed kimonos and admiring their flawless appearance is something you can only do here in Japan.
Dinner at IzujuSuggest your clients finish the night with dinner at Izuju, a Gion restaurant that is famed for its specialty in preparing Kyoto-style sushi. Izuju is located directly across the street from the gate of Kyoto’s famed Yakasa Shrine. Kyoto-style sushi is different from the sushi that Americans are most familiar with; because of Kyoto’s inland location, the sushi that developed here involves cured fish, especially mackerel. The most popular type of Kyoto sushi is sabazushi (mackerel sushi) in which a whole mackerel filet is combined with sushi rice, wrapped in simmered kombu (kelp) and sliced into bite-size pieces.
Chefs prepare fresh soba at the Hoshinoya Kyoto’s on-site restaurant. // © 2010 Deanna Ting
Enjoying a breakfast of nabe (hot pot) in my very own tatami room at the Hoshinoya Kyoto // © 2010 Deanna Ting
The path leading to Daihikaku Senkoji Temple // © 2010 Deanna Ting
Tenryuji Temple // © 2010 Deanna Ting
Sagano Bamboo Grove // © 2010 Deanna Ting
Tempura Matsu offers elaborate omakase (chef’s selection) menus. // © 2010 Deanna Ting
The Westin Miyako, Kyoto // © 2010 Westin Miyako, Kyoto
Learning about the art of ikebana (flower arrangement) with Wak Japan // © 2010 Deanna Ting
Pickled vegetables from Nishiki Market // © 2010 Deanna Ting
A geisha spotting in Gion // © 2010 Deanna Ting
Japan National Tourism Organizationwww.japantravelinfo.com
Official Kyoto Travel Guidewww.kyoto.travel