Kyoto has long been considered the epicenter of Japanese heritage, tradition, and preservation: As Japan’s ancient capital from 795 to 1868, many of the city’s temples, shrines, and parks stretch back to the 8th-century Heian era, when the city was established and modeled after the Chinese Tang dynasty capital, Chang’an. It’s only during the last 20 years that the city has become a sort of traveler’s antidote to Tokyo and Osaka’s crowds and pace.
In some ways, Kyoto is to Japan what slow food–birthing Piedmont and Turin are to Italy: a call to slow down. But since the dawn of the Reiwa era in 2019, when Emperor Naruhito ascended the throne, the city of 1.4 million has done anything but slow down, with the advent of dazzling contemporary museums, an extensively updated portfolio of hotels, and a litany of new tours that better access the city and its surrounding areas. Here’s what’s new.
New additions offer palimpsestic layers to Kyoto’s ancient landscape. After a three-year renovation by architects Jun Aoki and Tezzo Nishizawa—who also designed the Louis Vuitton store in Tokyo’s Ginza district—Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art reopened in March 2020. The redesign pays loving homage to the original 1930s brick building designed in Imperial Crown style known as teikan, typically characterized by neoclassical facades topped with Japanese-style roofing. But an airy new Central Hall and more modern areas like the Higashiyama Cube—a wing for contemporary art with a roof terrace overlooking the Japanese Garden’s maples, pines, and ponds—ushered the museum into the 21st century. In addition to preserving the 250 years of heritage in its permanent collection, the museum aims to host more contemporary events, like a forthcoming retrospective of Japanese female artist/painter Uemura Shoen (1875–1949) and an exhibit on iconic manga character Doraemon, where 28 artists reinterpret the character.
In the outlying Kyoto district of Arashiyama, October 2019 saw the opening of the Fukuda Art Museum. The harmonious fusion of metal, glass, and stone designed by architect Kōichi Yasuda is parked near the Katsura River, with a sunny lunch café offering views of the area’s historic Togetsu Bridge. The museum’s glassy verandas and cavern-like galleries showcase items from the private collection of 1,500 artworks by major Japanese artists, emphasizing Kyoto painters ranging from the Edo period (1603–1868) to today, with many pieces never before on public display. Forthcoming shows include a reprise of 2020’s Beauty from Every Angle, which centers on Bijinga, a genre of Japanese art depicting beauty (mostly of the female figure); after closing twice due to the pandemic, the exhibit will be shown again with a revised list of works.
Few things have changed more than Kyoto’s hotel scene, which had very few recognizable brands in 2010 but became a hotbed of international hotel chains in the past three years, each a masterclass in Japanese branding and design.
In November 2019, the 26-suite Aman Kyoto opened, sitting in an ancient riverbed in the foothills of Mount Daimonji and surrounded by 80 acres of mossy forest thick with native maples, cedars, and blue oaks. Rooms are spacious and feature cypress-wood soaking tubs and heated stone bathroom floors, while a wooden onsen pavilion in the spa adds comforting touches of Old Japan.
Another newcomer, Park Hyatt Kyoto, is an origami-like cluster of Japanese carpentry with interiors designed by Tony Chi and construction from Takenaka, a 17th-generation construction company that built many of Japan’s temples, shrines, ryokans, and skyscrapers. It opened in October 2019 and sits almost undetectable in Higashiyama’s shrine-dense hillside, with mesmerizing views of Yasaka Pagoda from the rooms and restaurants, temple-like themselves, thanks to angular ashwood ceilings, basalt stonework, and shoji screens made of local washi paper.
Asia’s first Ace Hotel opened in June 2020 in Kyoto’s busy but centrally located Karasuma Oike district, with 213 rooms and three restaurants. The 1926 structure is housed in the former HQ of Kyoto Central Telephone and was a collaboration between architect Kengo Kuma and L.A.-based Commune Design, with vintage brickwork, big windows, and lofty ceilings that you’d expect from Seattle-born Ace. There are nine room types, most with Japanese soaking tubs, Pendleton wool blankets, Tivoli radios, and amenities and artwork from more than 50 local artisans and artists. (There’s also a cheery taco lounge and mezcal bar, open daily.)
For more traditional tranquility, the Mitsui, which opened in November 2020, occupies a former private residence opposite Nijo Castle. Its 161 rooms in muted hues of moss and maple are surrounded by a tranquil strolling garden. Maana Homes, meanwhile, is an elegant collection of machiya townhouses with a spartan minimalism that showcases each structure’s architectural bones, a concept executed brilliantly by Kyoto architect Uoya Shigenori. Two properties opened in 2019 and four will open in coming years, including Maana Kiyomizu, near Kiyomizudera Temple, later in 2021.
By the end of 2021, beloved luxury cult brand Hoshino Resorts will have opened three of its high-design, low-budget OMO hotels in Kyoto in the year. The 120-room OMO3 Kyoto Toji opened April 15 with a mandala wall featuring 21 Buddhas and a tracing sutra sand table in the lobby. OMO5 Kyoto Sanjo opened the same day near the Sanjo bridge, the endpoint of the Tokaido, lively cafés and izakayas of Sanjo street, and the Takase River canal. OMO5 Kyoto Gion debuts in autumn and promises to unlock some of the mysteries of the Gion district, where kimono-clad geisha shuffle through the cobblestoned alleyways.
While Kyoto has some of Japan’s finest ryokans, honeymooners have long complained about Kyoto’s lack of romantic and splashy properties. Two new properties promise to deliver: French brand Fauchon Hotel Kyoto, which opened 70 pink-hued rooms in March 2021 in the Shimogyo-ku district, marries the romance of Paris with the tranquility of Kyoto; look for hybrid touches like matcha eclairs at Fauchon Salon de Thé and Patisserie and foie gras on gingerbread at the café. And resort lovers eager for an infinity thermal pool will enjoy the forthcoming 114-room Roku Kyoto: Hilton’s LXR Hotels brand will open its first Asian property here in fall 2021, set in the hilly, green Takagamine Sanzan (Three Mountains of Takagamine) in northern Kyoto.
Around the city—and region
Touring in Kyoto used to mean checking off temples, shrines, geisha, and teahouses, but congested prepandemic tourism and a deepening interest in artisan traditions in both the city and the outlying areas has led to more interest in exploring Kyoto inside and out. Lake Biwa Canal Cruise, which launched this past spring, explores the series of canals that connected Lake Biwa to Kyoto in 1890 to bring water to the city. The tours—offered through June and in October and November—are a good way to glide under sakura and ume blossoms in spring or marvel at the fall foliage.
Aman junkies with deep pockets can join the Kyoto to Greece Aman Private Jet Expedition, kicking off from the Kyoto Aman and rebooted for spring 2022. Kanazawa- and Tokyo-based operator Okuni, run by American and British women business partners who live in Japan, specializes in custom trips to authentic Japanese destinations you won’t hear about in guidebooks. New itineraries for 2021/22 include the coastal Kyoto prefecture, Akita Mountains, and Sado Island.
Japan has not announced an official reopening date for international visitors, but many in the country anticipate that it will not be sooner than autumn 2021. For those who can’t wait—or are longing for a fix of Japanese culture—the Kyoto City Tourism Association has teamed up with Luxury Tours Japan for a series of new virtual tours and cultural experiences including geisha entertainers, swordsmiths, sculptors, taiko drum performances, and guided meditation performances with Buddhist priests. Hey, even if you can’t travel to Kyoto this year, you can benefit from a virtual visit.