Much of what we think of as the essence of Japan – from the art of the tea ceremony to ikebana flower arranging – had its birthplace in Kyoto.
Kyoto is one of Japan's best-preserved historic cities, with intact palaces, gardens, 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, among them 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites from Imperial Japan's golden age.
Today, Kyoto is home to cutting-edge biotech, nanotech, publishing, textiles and education, including the country's top medical school. It's a forward-looking centre for art and design, where artists and artisans update traditional techniques into super-cool works with the Zen spirit and the edge of now.
Kyoto is also one of the few cities in the world with four distinct and highly photogenic seasons – spring cherry blossoms, swaying bamboo in summer, brilliant red autumn leaves, and the blanket of winter snow – each one framed by the expansive windows of Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto.
Four Seasons makes you at home, close to many of the city's finest cultural assets – while secluded in garden tranquility, 10 minutes from Kyoto's busy downtown.
UNESCO World Heritage in Kyoto
Kyoto's ancient imperial heritage offers you a wealth of temples, shrines and castles built by shoguns and aristocrats, several listed by UNESCO as cultural World Heritage Sites. Of the 17 listed in Kyoto, most are a short drive from the Hotel. Ask our Concierge for information.
Festivals in Kyoto include the Gozan Fire Festival and three processional festivals (Aoi, Gion, Jidai), which attract hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world. For the Fire Festival, the slopes encircling the Kyoto basin are the setting for five giant beds of fire illuminating gigantic Chinese characters, such as the pictogram for the word "great." The culmination of the Obon Festival in August signals the end of summer in Kyoto.
Dining in Kyoto
For over 1,000 years, Kyoto was the kitchen of the Imperial Court and those traditions remain. Local specialties include kaiseki-ryori, a formal, multi-course banquet, usually seated on a tatami floor overlooking a garden. Vegetarian-friendly shojin-ryori offers simple temple cuisine, and obanzai is home-style cooking. As with other arts in Kyoto, culinary traditions today often receive a modern twist. Let us offer recommendations.
Within a five-minute walk from the Hotel:
One of Kyoto's five monzeki temples, with priests only of aristocratic or imperial lineage, Myoho-in Temple is directly adjacent to the Hotel. As you arrive at Four Seasons, you'll see the temple roof above the treetops.
Famed for its 1001 intricate figures of Kannon, Goddess of Mercy, guarded by statues of 28 deities, the temple is a visual and spiritual treat. The central 1000-armed Kannon in fact has only 42 arms – two in this world, and the rest existing only in the 25 planes of existence.
Kyoto National Museum
One of Japan's most distinguished museums, it consists of two wings. The contemporary wing, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, known for his redesign of New York's MoMA, houses a rotating showcase from its permanent collection. The original 1895 wing hosts special exhibits.
Within 1.5 kilometres of the Hotel:
Overlooking the city, the "Pure Water Temple," a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must-see, especially when its woods blaze with spring or fall colour. The temple's popularity also comes from its Jishu Shrine, a traditional source of luck in love, and the Otowa Waterfall, whose waters may bring long life, academic success or love. Choose only one, or be labelled "greedy."
A fascinating lane winding down from Kiyomizudera, Sannen-zaka (and nearby Ninen-zaka) is a beautifully preserved window into Kyoto's past. The narrow lane is lined with traditional machiya or merchant houses, now home to souvenir shops, restaurants and tea houses.
Within a 10- to 15-minute drive from the Hotel:
Gion Geisha District
The narrow, traditional merchant houses of Gion are scenic storefronts for shops, restaurants and tea houses or ochaya. But Gion's decided lure is the glimpse you might catch of some of Japan's few remaining geishas, called geiko in Kyoto (maiko are apprentice geiko). Look for Gion Corner for a daily demonstration of geiko arts.
Originally a shogun's retirement villa, and in its day an artistic salon known as Higashiyama Palace, it became a Zen temple on the shogun's death in the 1490s. The Temple of the Silver Pavilion includes two national treasures dating to the 1480s. Superb gardens surround a pond. Notable are Ginkaku-ji's moss garden and the dry sand garden known as the "Sea of Silver Sand."
Starting near Ginkaku-ji, this 2-kilometre (0.6-mile) pathway lines a canal. Each April it becomes a bower of flowering cherry trees. Like famed philosopher Kitaro Nishida, you can meditate as you walk. Let us help you choose your time, as the site is popular in season. Pause along the way at local cafés, shops and restaurants.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Set in an immense park in the heart of Kyoto, the palace was home to Japan's Emperor and Imperial family until 1868. Stroll or bike the park's wide gravel paths, visit the Kaninnomiya Mansion, or ask Four Seasons to help you arrange a tour of the palace grounds and gardens.
Sento Imperial Palace
The Sento was once the residence of retired emperors. Today, it houses the Omiya Palace, the Kyoto lodgings for the present prince and princess. Let us arrange a translator to join you on the Japanese-only tour of the scenic walled chisen-kaiyu-teien (strolling garden).
A fun place for kids, Kyoto Aquarium lets you commune with aquatic creatures from all of the earth's waters, from pole to pole. In the display on Kyoto's rivers, look for the Japanese giant salamander. It breathes through its skin and can grow to five feet (1.5 metres) long.
Within a 20- to 30-minute drive from the Hotel:
Its upper floors gilded in gold leaf, the iconic Temple of the Golden Pavilion was built in 1398, originally as a villa for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. After his death, the building was converted into a temple of the Zen sect of Buddhism. The view from the Sekkatei Tea House is just lovely. Before you leave, be sure to stop for green tea in the rest house.
Ryoan-ji is famed for its karesansui, which translates as "rock garden" or "dry landscape garden." It's a contemplative Zen garden of gravel and stone. Though the villa became a temple in 1450, the garden's date of origin is unknown and its meaning is unclear. View it from the Hojo (head priest's residence) and guess for yourself. No matter where you sit, one rock will always be hidden.
A lush natural setting on the western edge of Kyoto, Arashiyama is justly famous for its picturesque bamboo groves. The Togetsukyo Bridge is particularly photogenic during the fall season.