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28.09.2015

Kyoto, the gentler anagram of big sister Tokyo (read our postcard here), has countless shrines but also many pilgrimage-worthy jazz bars. Just a two-hour bullet ride from Tokyo, we suggest you take the train for hot baths, cool jazz and geisha-goggling. 

Stay

The lean green Mitsui Garden Hotel, Sanjo is designed to look like a Japanese Zen garden and is equipped with an onsen, the Japanese baths that Kyoto is known for. Step out and you’ll find yourself in the centrally located maze of lanes that shelter pretty cafes and little vintage stores. If you want a time-share with residents of a century gone by, check into a ryokan (traditional Japanese guest houses) that barely fits 4-8 guests, so book in advance. The luxe Hoshinoya is a ryokan-hotel hybrid that’s gorgeous but super pricey, can only be reached by boat and overlooks the ice blue Hozu Gawa River where you can raft through gentle rapids in the summer. 

Mitsui Garden Hotel, Sanjodori Karasuma Nishiiru Mikura-cho 80; call 604-8166; Hoshinoya, 11-2 Arashiyama Genrokuzancho, Nishikyo Ward, call 3786-0066. 

Drink

Kyoto is populated with little jazz clubs run by ‘Masters’ that you’ll want to be like when you grow up. Take the 60-odd year old Master at Stardust Club for instance, who gave up his temple inheritance to collect Japanese whiskies and nurture a nest of local Louis Armstrongs; or Master Yamaguchi at Room 335 who forages up in the mountains to pick roots and herbs for his small Italian-only menu. Both bars have little elbow-room, are frequented by Kyoto residents and feature live jazz and blues bands. For a more intellectual salon-like vibe, get drinks at Violon, where Kyoto university professors and archeologists dig deep into world problems over single malts.

Get an electric bike and cycle through Kyoto’s narrow lanes. Ride the subway to far-flung neighbourhoods and imagine yourself as a Murakami protagonist who has a fetish for ears and talks without punctuation marks. Drink a lot of sake and make misinformed choices like wearing a silk kimono at Guiches Rentals and running around the city. 

For sake, meet Aioki. Her name means ‘love child’ in Japanese and she runs Jam Hostel & Sake Bar, which has the best sake tasting menus at just Rs 500 for 3 glasses, curated based on regions in Japan or “just what I feel like drinking today”. Pair these with Yatsuhashi (sticky rice skins) folded around cream cheese cubes and dusted with cinnamon. Upstairs, Aioki runs a neat little hostel with bunk beds, in case you’re too sake-d out to walk to your hotel.

Stardust Club, Asahi Building 2F, 50m north on the west side of Pontocho, Shijyou, Nakagyou-ku, call +81 75-221-2505; Room 335, field before Ponto-cho Nakagyo district, call +81 75-211-7713; Violon Dongshan District Pulley Cho, 80-3, call +81 75-532-4060; Jam Hostel & Sake Bar, Higashiyama -ku Kawabata Shijo Agaru Tokiwa-cho, 170, call +81 75-201-3374.

Eat

Eat a magic mushroom (hey, any shiitake that’s the size of an umbrella is pretty magical) and venture into the psychedelic Nishiki food market where stalls vend hamachi tuna, yuzu honey, spiced sesame, green tea chiffon cake, dried kelp, sake-pickled radish, oodles of noodles…the list is endless.

For lunch, there are a dizzying number of options to choose from, Japanese restaurants but also stylish cafes. For a traditional Kyoto set lunch of rice + miso soup + fish + vegetables, get a seat at Sugizen. The stuck-in-time pedestrian-only Ponto-cho Street, strung with lanterns and local restaurants, is a good place to sample soba noodles and ramen after sunset. Kyoto also has a branch of the world-famous Ippudo Ramen, with its signature giant red bowls.

Café Bibliotic, an ancient Japanese house with banana trees and Wi-fi; and Café Independants, a beat basement with terrarium lights and lots of beer, are good for a change of scene.

Nishiki, Nishikikoji Teramachi-Takakura, Nakagyo-ku; Sugizen, Nakagyo-Ku, call 75-257-7958; Ponto-Cho, Nakagyo-ku; Ippudo, 653-1 Jin Building Hikaru, call +81 75-213-8800; Cafe Bibliotic 650 Seimei-cho, Nagakyo, call +81 75-231-8625; Cafe Independants, Bunkyo Benkei Stone-Machi 561,928 Hikaru Building B1F, call +81 75-255-4312.

Do

Get an electric bike and cycle through Kyoto’s narrow lanes. Ride the subway to far-flung neighbourhoods and imagine yourself as a Murakami protagonist who has a fetish for ears and talks without punctuation marks. Drink a lot of sake and make misinformed choices like wearing a silk kimono at Guiches Rentals and running around the city.

Next, get overwhelmed by a list of recommended shrines and temples. There are way too many in Kyoto, so a good way to go is to just pick one. We strolled through the pretty Nanzen-ji, surrounded by water bodies and blue heron cranes. Fushimi Inari shrine or Orange Gates complex (featured in the opening credits of Memoirs of a Geisha) is touristy but beautiful and the hike up there will take any vacation food-and-drink guilt off you. Also in every guidebook with good reason is the bamboo path, accessed by a picturesque open-air train ride, also a good way to see the Hozu Gawa river. 

PS: bpb Instagram follower Nishant Walimbe recommends you Google map Elephant Factory Café when you’re around the bamboo path for pour-over coffee and go up to the secret bar with “no name and no lights” run by a gentleman called Kazu. 

In Gion, you can play spot-the-geisha, usually an elusive sighting in the summer. And if you’re not self conscious, soak in an onsen, a traditional Japanese bath house where you go in your birthday suit. Our resident Kyoto friend uses the family-owned Tama No Yu, where the radio is set to Japanese oldies, the sweet grandma loves to gossip and a resident grandpa counts his gold finger rings and your blessings.

Guiches kimono rental, 4F, Teramachi Street, Nakagyo-ku, visit http://guiches.co.jp; Nanzen-ji, 86, Sakyo-ku Nanzenjifukuchi-cho; Fushimi Inari, Fushimi-ku; Bamboo Path, walking distance from Arashiyama Torokko Station; Tama No Yu, Nakagyo-ku. 

 Special thanks to our resident Kyoto friends and guides Asia Kimpop Kissko and Kohie Mikki. Also to Bombay friend and food writer Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi for sending us to Ippudo and Nishiki.

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