While Tokyo enjoys a long-lasting love affair with all that is modern, Kyoto invites the visitor to slow down and absorb Japanese culture in a setting steeped in history. Ancient Kyoto was once the imperial capital of Japan, and the city reigned as the cultural and artistic center of the nation from 794 to 1868. Seventeen of the city’s historic sites are designated as UNESCO World Heritage Cultural sites. On the east side are such draws as the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion) and the Kyoto National Museum. On the west side are Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion) and Nijo Castle.
Niko Castle on the west side of Kyoto.
In Kyoto, most buildings are no more than three stories high. This means the mountains and hills surrounding the city are always visible, adding to its caught-in-time ambiance. It’s a wonderful walking city, with a river running through its center and green hills to the east, making it almost impossible to get lost.
March through April is cherry blossom season in Kyoto and is the busiest time of the year. Book at least six months ahead, earlier if possible. During the season, people picnic under the cherry blossoms in Maruyama Park, and stroll along the tree-lined banks of the Kamo-gawa River. Cherry blossom season raises the romance level in Kyoto, making it a particularly good time for honeymooners to visit.
Kyoto’s historic Gion District is a fascinating neighborhood of narrow streets lined with antiques shops and small restaurants. You can actually see real geishas and maiko (geishas in training) walking the streets in the evening, en route to private parties. It’s a great district to explore on foot, with the added attraction of being fairly close to a number of Kyoto’s major temples and shrines. Gion Corner is an entertainment venue that makes it easy to experience an assortment of traditional Japanese arts. During a single performance, the audience will see Kyoto-style dances, an exhibition of flower arranging, a tea ceremony, Japanese harp performance, a comic play and a puppet play as well as hear traditional music from the days of the Kyoto court. Performances are twice a day, at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
A suite at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto is modern and accommodating with clean lines and simple decor.
The top-of-the-line Hyatt Regency Kyoto is the only Virtuoso hotel in Kyoto. The 189-room, five-star hotel opened in March 2006. An attractive feature in all the rooms is the use of seven rectangles of fabric from antique kimonos on the walls behind the headboards. Each room is different: some showcase colorful kimonos, while others use a more subdued palette of browns and grays. Rooms face either the hotel’s interior Zen garden, which has its own cherry trees that blossom in season, or the Kyoto National Museum and the city beyond. The Regency Executive Suite has an interesting feature—a traditional room with a tatami mat, much like those in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese country-style inn), as well as a room with Western-style beds.
Onsite are three excellent restaurants to choose from: The Grill (French fare and Western-style breakfast); Touzan (Japanese cuisine—great food and hip interior design); and Trattoria Sette (Italian cuisine).
The spa, Riraku, has 10 treatment rooms and offers an unusual specialty: Ishku Dogen, a Japanese form of acupuncture that uses very slender needles. For advance reservations, e-mail [email protected] or call 011-81-75-541-3130.
Travel agents can reach out to Ashley Takayama, associate director of sales ([email protected], 011-81-75-541-1234).
A Superior Twin Room at Kyoto Hotel Okura.
Kyoto Hotel Okura is a 16-story luxury hotel in the heart of Kyoto, 15 minutes from Kyoto Train Station. The Kyoto Hotel Okura prides itself on its skillful blend of Western and Japanese design elements throughout the public areas, especially the lobby.
The hotel has 322 guest rooms and suites. Rooms on the eastern side of the hotel feature large picture windows opening to views of the Higashiyama Mountains, while those on the west provide Kyoto city views. Hotel accommodations include Single, Double, Standard Twin, Superior Twin, Corner Twin, Corner Deluxe Double rooms and Superior Triples. The hotel also has Family Rooms that can accommodate groups of three and four persons. All rooms have high-speed Internet service. Rates start at approximately $193. Agents with special requests can reach out to the hotel’s concierge department at [email protected].
The Kyoto Hotel Okura has seven restaurants that offer a variety of world cuisines, including Chinese, Japanese and Italian. The hotel’s signature restaurant is Pittoresque Sky Restaurant, serving French cuisine. Seating ranges from an intimate setting for two to small groups and private rooms. The restaurant is on the top floor of the hotel, providing views of Kyoto and the Higashiyama Mountains.
The 18-room Yoshi-ima Ryokan has an ideal location in the heart of the Gion District. The country inn-style accommodations come complete with wooden bathtubs, futons and low tables. Guests are given a yukata, a traditional Japanese robe, to wear. The rooms’ floors are covered with tatami reed mats, the walls are paper screens and a low, black table sits in the center. Dinner is served in the rooms; it is a multicourse meal consisting of artfully arranged dishes of tempura, salmon, miso soup, sashimi, pickled vegetables, white rice, green tea and strawberries. After dinner, guests are invited to a complimentary tea ceremony in the ryokan’s teahouse, where they also hear a presentation about the history of the property and some of the lore associated with the tea ceremony.
Dinner and breakfast is included in the price. Check-in is 4 p.m. and checkout is 10 a.m. During the slow season (winter and summer), a room at Yoshi-ima goes for approximately $190, double occupancy ($250 during the spring and autumn).
Riding the Rails of Kyoto
The most convenient way of traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto is by high-speed rail on the Shinkansen bullet train, which can be boarded at Tokyo Station. Rail travelers can also travel to Kyoto aboard the JR Limited Express “Haruka,” which can be boarded at Osaka's Kansai International Airport. If your clients are considering a fair amount of rail travel, advise them to purchase a Japan Rail Pass. There are two types of passes: Green for superior-class Green Cars and Ordinary for coach class. Each can be purchased as a seven-day, 14-day or 21-day pass. The rail pass has to be purchased prior to traveling to Japan. There are six agencies in the U.S. selling the exchange order for a pass; go to www.japanrailpass.net for more information.
The JR Limited Express "Haruka" is a convenient way to travel between Kyoto and Tokyo.
Once your clients are in Japan, they’ll have to turn in the exchange order to receive the actual pass. The easiest way to do this is by going to the Japan Rail Pass office in Tokyo’s Narita Airport on arrival. The pass can be activated on the day of your clients’ arrival. Purchasing a rail pass allows a traveler to reserve seats on certain classes of trains, according to the pass they have. Strongly advise your clients to do this. It will save a lot of stress when it comes time to board. Reserved seats cost a bit more, but the cars will be less crowded. The ticket shows the seat number and car number, but not the track number. Advise your clients to ask the ticket clerk for track information.
There’s plenty of leg room on the train, although the width of the seats is narrow. There’s a pull-down tray similar to those on an airplane, and a hook next to the window where you can hang a jacket. As for luggage, I had room for a small suitcase (the size of a carry-on bag) in the rack above my seat.
While there is no meal service (at least not on the coach-class train I traveled), an attendant regularly comes down the aisle pushing a cart with beverages and snacks. On the Tokyo/Kyoto route, the waiting areas on the tracks had small convenience stores selling bento box meals and other items.[PAGE-BREAK]
Getting there: The nearest international airport is Kansai International Airport in Osaka, about a two-hour drive. Visitors also have the option to take JR Rapid trains from Osaka to Kyoto.
Entry Requirements: U.S. citizens will need a passport to enter the country.
Currency: The unit of Japanese currency is the yen. The exchange rate at press time was 99 yen to $1.
Tipping: It’s not the custom to tip in Japan. A 10 to 15 percent service charge is added to bills at higher-priced hotels and restaurants.
Time Zone: Japan is nine hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. Japan does not observe Daylight Saving Time.
Electricity: 100 volts A.C. Three-pin plugs are not used in Japan; two-flat-pin plugs are used instead. Bring an adapter.
Tour Operators: A partial list of tour operators with programs to Japan includes Abercrombie & Kent; China Travel Service (U.S.A.); Collette Vacations; Gate 1 Travel; General Tours; GTS Globotours; IsramWorld; Intrav; Orient Flexi-Pax Tours; Pacific Delight Tours; Pleasant Holidays; Ritz Tours; Swain Tours; Tauck World Discovery; and Travel Bound.