Temples, ryokans and tombstones: A slow travel guide to Kyoto, Japan

Cheryl Chan

CNA/The Singapore Tatler – If Tokyo is the modern beating heart of Japan, Kyoto is its old and beautiful soul. It undeniably holds court when it comes to history and tradition and is probably the best place to acquaint yourself in Japan’s unique cultural practices, whether it is the ritual behind a tea ceremony or the intricacies of wearing a kimono. There are multiple standouts on Kyoto’s tourist trail – the geisha district of Gion, the ethereal Kiyomizu temple and the iconic torii gates at the Fushimi Inari shrine immediately come to mind. It is also revered for its mastery of kaiseki, bustling coffee scene and the abundance of artisanal crafts such as lacquer and porcelain.

With so much to do in the city itself, it is not surprising that most visitors choose to spend their time taking in everything in the city centre. But in order to experience Kyoto’s true spirit, seasoned travellers should head to its quieter locales for mindful excursions that soothe the mind, body and soul. Our pick is Koyasan, an ancient village in the Wakayama Prefecture, that offers a deeper immersion into Japan’s sacred practices.

A PILGRIMAGE TO KOYASAN

There are a few ways to get to this mountainous area, but nothing beats taking a 30-minute helicopter ride. Not only is it the fastest route, the stunning bird’s-eye view of the city below is well worth the nerves; it also offers a modern counterpoint to what awaits at Koyasan. As the birthplace of Shingon Buddhism, it is home to over 100 temples and it is quite common to see monks going about their day here.

A popular pilgrimage destination for devout Buddhists and tourists alike, many make the journey to this temple settlement to experience a monk’s lifestyle – ourselves included. Our temple of choice? Souji-in, an elegant setting with both Japanese-and Western-style rooms, as well as creature comforts including air conditioning and a lift.

Arashiyama – a protected area best known for its towering bamboo forest
The geisha district of Gion
Hoshinoya Kyoto is in an area with some of the strictest landscape protection regulations in all of Kyoto. One can enjoy this well-preserved nature while gazing upon the magnificent changes in the seasons’ colours from boat. PHOTOS Hoshinoya Kyoto

Aman Kyoto is steeped in culture and heritage and located near the Kinkau-ji Temple
Tombstone tourism at Okunoin
The iconic torii gates at the Fushimi Inari shrine

In between morning prayers and meditation sessions, make sure to book a kaiseki meal in the temple’s vegetarian restaurant. It is certainly a worthy treat for those early morning prayer calls.

Food lovers should also bookmark Kadohama Gomatofu Sohompo, Japan’s most famous sesame tofu restaurant, to sample this Koyasan speciality.

TOMBSTONE TOURISM AT OKUNOIN

One of the highlights of the village is Okunoin, Japan’s largest and most sacred cemetery. Similar to Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever Cemetery or Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Okunoin is the final resting place of influential figures, including religious leaders, politicians, samurai clans, celebrities and prominent businessmen.

The presence of these figures made an otherwise eerie experience an enjoyable one, as we saw customised tombstones and structures erected near their burial places. We spotted a coffee cup, a rocket ship and even a pufferfish tombstone that belonged to a famous fugu chef buried there. Tombstone tourism may not be top of mind when visiting Kyoto, but it adds an unexpected flavour to the quintessential Kyoto itinerary.

A REGAL RETREAT IN ARASHIYAMA

One of the best ways to truly take it slow is to experience a ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel. Our pick? Hoshinoya Kyoto in Arashiyama, a short train ride away from the city centre. To call Hoshinoya Kyoto a luxury ryokan would be accurate, but it is also an under-representation of what awaits at this truly special place.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the hotel transcends from being merely a home for the night to becoming a destination in itself. A lot of it has to do with its magnificent location. Nestled in the pristine surrounds of Arashiyama – a protected area best known for its towering bamboo forest – Hoshinoya Kyoto sits on a quiet riverbank, unchanged since the Heian era (794-1185) when it was the go-to retreat for Japanese nobles.

Few are able to match the hotel’s grand welcome, which requires guests to board a black wooden boat and cruise down the Oi River. The 15-minute sail immediately puts one on a different rhythm – slower, calmer, and ready to be enveloped in serenity. Stepping into hotel is like entering a small, traditional village and feels like a microcosm of Kyoto.

The restored century-old property was intelligently reimagined – shoji screens and tatami mats meet modern touches, and the custom-made furniture are positioned to face the picture windows that frame the verdant view. This exquisite panorama is best appreciated when enjoying the Japanese breakfast brought to your room, a signature Hoshinoya touch. No stay at the hotel is complete without engaging in activities, be it learning about traditional incense ceremony or indulging in one of Kyoto’s best expressions of kaiseki at its in-house restaurant.

A SPIRITUAL STAY IN AN ARTISTIC LOCALE

If a city-centre luxury ryokan is what you’re after, then Aman Kyoto, set to open on November 2019, is our top pick. The hospitality brand’s third property in Japan, Aman Kyoto is hidden away in a secret garden at the foot of the mountain of Hidari Daimonji, north of Kyoto. The 80-acre property in the Takagamine district is steeped in culture and heritage, and located just a stone’s throw away from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kinkaku-ji Temple.

The forested grounds were once part of an artistic community that gave rise to the historic Rinpa school of painting in 17th-century Kyoto, and eight acres of manicured gardens belonged to one of Japan’s most respected obi (the ornamental sash for a traditional Japanese kimono) collectors, who had originally planned to build a textile museum within the garden for his collection.

The ethereal landscape, dotted with colourful yama momiji maples and enclosed by a small running stream, now provides the foundation for Aman Kyoto.

Designed by Kerry Hill Architects, the resort is a modern reimagining of Japan’s traditional inns, with floor-to-ceiling windows and furniture pieces exclusively designed for the property.

In true ryokan fashion, each guest room also boasts ofuro bathtubs made of native hinoki wood.

Of course, no Aman retreat is complete without the Aman Spa, which offers holistic benefits of Japan’s ancient wellness practices. The spa’s extensive menu of treatments taps into the country’s natural apothecary, such as Kyoto green tea and Kyoto silk cocoon. End with a relaxing soak in the traditional onsen, filled with local spring water that helps heal weary travellers.