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36 Hours in Kyoto, Japan

By Jaime Gross
April 25, 2010

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KYOTO, the former imperial capital of Japan, is a vibrant mash-up, an ancient city electrified by the breathtakingly new. Cruise the futuristic food halls of a department store, gaping at the perfect fruit and glistening sea creatures, before zipping up to the traditional floor, with its kimonos and tea ceremony implements. See 2,000 ancient temples and shrines, then dine at a sleekly modern restaurant. Glimpse a geisha gliding down a cobblestone lane, bracketed by wooden machiya houses, and feel yourself catapulted to the 18th century — until you see her duck into a very 21st-century taxi, with a passenger door that opens and shuts automatically.

Friday

5 p.m.
1) HERITAGE HUNT

Two and a half years ago, the city enacted a landmark law aimed at protecting the city’s heritage districts, which have been defiled in recent decades by concrete block towers and other forces of modernization. Fleeting fantasies of old Kyoto can be found in Gion, the entertainment district, where, around dusk, geisha and maiko (geisha-in-training) can often be spotted flitting down Hanami-koji like exquisite rare birds to meet clients. As the sky dims, wander along Shirakawa Minami-dori, an atmospheric street surrounded by preserved wooden structures. But don’t wander too far or you’ll hit a gantlet of concrete and aluminum high-rises shrouded in neon signs and tangled electrical wires.

7 p.m.
2) MODERN KAISEKI

Kaiseki is Kyoto’s haute cuisine, an elaborate multicourse meal that originated about 500 years ago as an accompaniment to tea ceremonies. Today, sampling the cuisine can be a rarefied and pricey experience; meals at Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurants like Kikunoi (kikunoi.jp/english) run upward of $160 a person. But for an unbuttoned — and surprisingly affordable — take on kaiseki, try Giro Giro Hitoshina (420-7 Nanba-cho, Nishi Kiya-machi-dori, Higashigawa, Matsubarashita, Shimogyo-ku; 81-75-343-7070), a stylish restaurant carved out of an old wooden town house, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Takase-gawa canal. Edakuni Eiichi, the chef, turns out innovative dishes like daikon rolls stuffed with foie gras and sweet potatoes. The set 10-course meal, which changes monthly, is 3,680 yen (about $40 at 91 yen to the dollar).

9 p.m.
3) AFTER HOURS

For a taste of Kyoto’s youth culture, head to one of the city’s funky live houses, or music clubs. One good bet is Taku Taku (Tominokoji-dori, Bukkoji-sagaru, Shimogyo-ku; 81-75-351-1321), a former sake storehouse that hosts big blues and rock acts like Taj Mahal and Los Lobos, and up-and-coming Japanese rock and pop bands. It’s been around since 1974, and the place oozes history, its walls plastered with concert posters. Afterward, if you’ve made some new friends, head to Super Jankara Karaoke Room (296 Naraya-cho, Kawaramachi, Takoyakushi-agaru, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75-212-5858), where premium rooms start at 450 yen a person every half-hour on weekends.

Saturday

10 a.m.
4) INNER PEACE

Though it’s mobbed by tourists during cherry blossom season (late March to early April), Maruyama Park in Gion is a tranquil spot the rest of the year. Start at the vivid white-and-orange Yasaka Shrine, where locals pray to the god of prosperity and health, and then wend your way through the park past ponds, gardens and a gigantic weeping cherry. Be sure to detour through the surreal hillside cemetery, its terraced maze of gravestones resembling a miniature city. The views are spectacular.

Noon
5) MAKE LIKE A MONK

Shojin Ryori, the vegetarian cuisine developed centuries ago by Zen Buddhist monks, consists of vegetables, beans and an array of bean curd variations, including creamy sesame tofu and chewy tofu skins. One of the best places to sample it is Tenryu-ji Shigetsu (Syojin-ryouri Sigetu, Saga, Ukyo-ku; 81-75-881-1235), on the grounds of a 14th-century temple in Arashiyama. Diners sit or kneel in a long wooden hall and eat in silence, the better to appreciate the subtle flavors on the red lacquer tray (from 3,000 yen for a set lunch).

1:30 p.m.
6) DROP SOME YEN

Shoppers will find plenty of temptations along Sanjo-dori between Muromachi-dori and Teramachi-dori, a narrow stretch lined with stylish shops and buzzing with pedestrians and bicyclists. Also worth a wander is Teramachi-dori between Oike-dori and Marutamachi-dori, where you can find vintage textiles and kimonos made from elm, hemp and linden fibers at Gallery Kei (671-1 Kuon-in-mae-cho, Ebisugawa-agaru, Teramachi-dori, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75-212-7114; gallerykei.jp).

4 p.m.
7) TIME OUT KYOTO

For a recharge, stop by Somushi Kochaya (Karasuma Sanjo-nishi-iru; 81-75-253-1456; somushi.com), a Korean tearoom that serves medicinal teas spiked with ingredients like ginger and persimmon leaves (from 650 yen). Or seek out the new OKU Gallery and Cafe (570-119 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku; 81-75-531-4776; oku-style.com), a minimalist white space with a long, low window overlooking a miniature Japanese garden. Until 7 p.m., it serves tea and creative treats (like a jelly roll cake flavored with mugwort for 1,400 yen) on elegant black and white ceramic tableware by the local designer Shojiro Endo.

6 p.m.
8) NOODLE DINNER

Slurp handmade udon and soba — the ultimate Japanese comfort food — at Honke Owariya, established in 1465 and said to be the oldest noodle shop in Kyoto. There are three locations citywide, but the original 545-year-old restaurant is the most charming, with both traditional tatami-matted dining areas (remove your shoes and sit on the floor) and Western-style tables and chairs set within the creaky rooms of a former confectionery shop (322 Kurumaya-cho, Nijo, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75-231-3446; www.honke-owariya.co.jp). Try its signature Hourai Soba set, topped with shiitakes, shrimp tempura, Japanese leeks and grated daikon (2,100 yen). Bonus: a descriptive English-language menu, a rarity in Kyoto. The original closes at 7 p.m., but two other locations stay open later.

9 p.m.
9) NATIVE NIGHT LIFE

Pontocho-dori, a narrow alley packed with bars, restaurants and giant glowing paper lanterns, is great for photo ops. But for a more local scene, head north to Nijo-dori, a quiet street of private homes and small businesses. Highlights include Cafe Bibliotic Hello! (Nijo-dori, Yanaginobanba Higashi iru, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75-231-8625; cafe-hello.jp), a cozy cafe, gallery and bar with a fireplace and floor-to-ceiling bookcases. End the evening at Chez Quasimodo (Takakura Dori, Nijo-agaru, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75-231-2488), an intimate bar with a low, barrel ceiling where the mustachioed owner, Yoshio Sawaguchi, pours rare Scotch, stokes the fire and plays French chanson and jazz on vinyl.

Sunday

10 a.m.
10) CULTURE SHOCK

For a whiplash tour of Japanese culture, start at the Onishi Seiwemon Museum (Kamanza-cho, Shinmachi Nishi-iru, Sanjo-tori, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75-221-2881; www.seiwemon-museum.com), run by the 16th-generation tea kettle artist Seiwemon Onishi, where you can inspect tea ceremony implements and one-of-a-kind cast-iron kettles. Then blast into the present at the International Manga Museum (Karasuma-Oike, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75-254-7414; www.kyotomm.jp), which opened in 2006 in a converted elementary school, with exhibitions, drawing demonstrations and a library dedicated to Japanese and international comic books.

Noon
11) KYOTO’S KITCHEN

The flavors of Kyoto burst in Technicolor at Nishiki-koji Market (Nishiki-koji-dori, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75-211-3882), a seven-block arcade chockablock with tiny stalls of produce, seafood and specialty foods like deep-fried eel bones. Aritsugu (Nishiki-Koji Dori, Gokomachi Nishi-iru, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75-221-1091) is a 450-year-old family business that once produced swords for the Imperial Household and now specializes in hand-wrought steel chef’s knives, which can be engraved with your name, in English or Japanese, on the spot. They’re pricey — around 20,000 yen — but they make a sharp souvenir.

IF YOU GO

Kyoto is a 75-minute train ride from Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, or a 2.5-hour Shinkansen bullet train ride from Tokyo to Osaka (english.jr-central.co.jp). In early June, a one-stop flight to Osaka from Kennedy Airport (via Tokyo) starts at about $1,200 on American Airlines or Japan Airlines.

Kyoto is well served by buses, taxis, trains and subways, and easily navigable by bike.

If you’ve wanted to sleep in a capsule hotel, try the new and surprisingly stylish Nine Hours (588 Teianmaeno-cho Shijo Teramachi, Shimogyo-ku; 81-75-353-9005; www.9hours.jp). Each 3.5-foot-high black-and-white pod costs 4,900 yen a night, or $53.75 at 91 Japanese yen to the dollar.

The four-year-old Hyatt Regency Kyoto (644-2 Sanjusangendo-mawari, Higashiyama-ku; 81-75-541-1234; kyoto.regency.hyatt.com) remains among the city’s most luxurious, with 189 rooms decorated with oak furniture and silk-upholstered headboards. Standard doubles start at 22,000 yen.

Founded in 2004, Iori Machiya Rentals (144-6 Sujiya-cho, Tominokoji-dori, Takatsuji-agaru, Shimogyo-ku; 81-75-352-0211; kyoto-machiya.com) restores old wooden houses and rents them out, with rates from 26,000 yen.