Time Out Kyoto editor Nicholas Coldicott introduces his fascinating home city, where the old envelops the new
In eastern Kyoto, an apprentice geisha clip-clops down a cobbled street to meet her patrons in a nearby teahouse. Out west, a Zen monk slowly rakes his gravel into precisely the same pattern as always. Throughout the city, chefs and their kimono-clad staff stand outside their restaurants holding deep bows until their departing customers have disappeared from view. All are icons of a city that doesn’t believe in gratuitous change.
While most cities face the conflict of old versus new, Kyoto has proven adept at synthesising the two. Wooden townhouses that long ago ceased to be practical as living quarters are finding new lives as restaurants, art galleries, coffee shops and hair salons. A one-time kimono warehouse has become a stylish cocktail bar, and a former backstreet bathhouse is now a café furnished with plush sofas and tiled walls. The kimono, a garment as impractical as it is beautiful, is still a normal, everyday sight in Kyoto. The only difference is that these days it might be emblazoned with a Marimekko-style print and paired with split-toe sneakers. On Shijo Street, a dowdy shopping thoroughfare that generates little local affection, the one modern architectural eye-popper is home not to the high-end fashion of Prada or Dior, but to Fukujuen, a venerable supplier of finest green tea since 1790, repositioning the hallowed foodstuff for the 21st century.
Kyoto has good reason to be measured in its modernisation. As Japan’s capital for more than a millennium, it was – and is – the cultural heart of the nation. It is the spiritual home of the tea ceremony, of calligraphy, of both Kabuki and Noh theatre. It is also home to an astonishing 1,600 temples, 400 shrines, an emperor’s palace, a shogun’s castle and more photo-worthy gardens than anyone has been able to count. Back in 1994, UNESCO regarded 14 sites in Kyoto as being worthy of World Heritage status; since then, they’ve found another three. And the only wonder is how they managed to keep the number of designations so low. This city is the feudal-era fantasy of which visitors to Japan dream, but it is much more than just an archive of old Japan, it is an enviable example of a 21st-century city that’s modernising without homogenising.