The former imperial capital, dating back to 794, Kyoto lays claim to some of Japan’s most important historical sites – most spared major damage during World War II – with 17 now listed as Unesco World Heritage sites. It makes sense, then, that the city is also one of the country’s most visited places, with over 15 million tourists annually.
But away from Gion’s crowded lanes and the oft-photographed torii gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha, a quieter slice of life endures in an area informally known as Kitano. Located in Kyoto’s Kamigyo Ward, it’s also one of the city’s oldest spots. Here you’ll find striking temples, storied silk-weaving studios, historic machiya (traditional wooden townhouses) and one of the earliest kagai (geisha districts) sandwiched between mom-and-pop stores, serene gardens and cafés.
“Sometimes I just pause to take in the artistry of this shrine. From the roofs handmade with the bark of cypress trees, to the 400-year-old carvings and paintings” – Higashikawa Kusuhiko, priest at Kitano Tenmangu
Kitano’s oldest and most beautiful shrines and temples
“There is a fantastic udon place outside the gates of Tenmangu called Tawaraya Udon, where they serve a long, thick, chewy noodle in a delicious broth with a side of ginger” – Kuniyoshi Yamamoto, 82-year-old founder of artisanal tofu store and factory Toyoukeya Yamamoto
Kitano’s international flavours
This humble 10-seater eatery opened outside the front gates of Kitano Tenmangu just over a decade ago, and is loved for its hearty French bistro fare. Racine is more akin to a private kitchen or supper club, hosted by hospitable locals Koda and Saki Toru, a sommelier and a baker respectively. Their set menus feature dishes such as homemade pâté, octopus tartare or a tender, slow-cooked beef cheek, paired with a great wine list and sublime fresh breads and pastries.
The exterior of the 110-year-old machiya (wooden home) of this eclectic café and inn stands in stark contrast to its modern interior. Run by Australian owner Danny Matheson, who moved to Kyoto with his Japanese partner Kazuo Ikeda, the place exudes a distinctly suburban Melbourne vibe. Matheson fell in love with the property and spent years restoring it. You can enjoy flat whites, Aussie wines and crêpes at the cosy, antique-filled café downstairs, or stay in the boutique guest house upstairs. It’s reportedly a favourite of some of the neighbourhood’s maiko and geiko.
Flavourful seafood paella, Basque-style risottos, imported jamón and fall-off-the-fork Iberian pork shoulder are just some of the delights whipped up at this snug Spanish eatery. With the flower arrangements and pretty lights on tables creating a romantic vibe, this is a great place to enjoy a late afternoon pitcher of sangria and tapas after a tiring day of temple-hopping.
“What I love about living in this part of Kyoto is all of the quiet places to just sit and read or reflect – gardens, parks and temples” – Umehina, 21-year-old maiko (apprentice geiko) from Kamishichiken
Kyoto’s textiles district
Nishijin, on the eastern fringes of Kitano, is Kyoto’s historic weaving district, best known for producing textiles for brilliant kimonos. This museum-studio allows visitors to watch artisans creating silk kimonos or catch the hourly fashion shows featuring historic garments. The shop carries fabrics, sashes, high-end second-hand kimonos and more.
This textile studio has workshops run by veteran Hirano Kikuo, who passes down the tsuzure-ori craft of weaving silk tapestries and brocades using jagged, razor sharp fingernails to younger students. The technique is one of the oldest used in the area and is becoming a fading artform. Those nervous about learning under a master can start by browsing the smaller woven pieces such as jewellery from the studio.
This indigo dyeing workshop has been in the Utsuki family for three generations. Their boutique is stocked full of indigo dresses, shirts and other unique fashion pieces in the iconic rich blue hues – all dyed, designed and stitched by fourth-generation master craftsman Utsuki Kenichi and his wife Hisako.
Find some of Kyoto’s prettiest handmade silk kimonos at this ikebana-filled atelier, where the focus is on subtle details, superior fabrics and fine tailoring. With prices starting at around ¥200,000 (S$2,515), serious aficionados can opt for a bespoke kimono.
Singapore Airlines flies to Osaka three times daily. From there, Kyoto is just 15 minutes away by bullet train. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the August 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine