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48 Hours with Four Seasons: Kyoto

A cultural wellspring of Japan since 794, Kyoto has served as both the imperial seat and the heart of the nation’s artistic, spiritual, and commercial pursuits for over a millennium. Today, it represents a blend of rich tradition and contemporary life, where UNESCO World Heritage sites and serene Zen gardens mingle with stylish cafés, boutiques, and world-class bars and restaurants. If you find yourself with a mere 48 hours to explore, here’s a guide to embracing some the best parts of the former Japanese capital.

DAY ONE

Morning: Rise early to soak up the tranquility of the 12th-century ikenawa pond garden at Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto, where the sleek, classic-contemporary interiors are in perfect harmony with the verdant grounds. But even if you haven’t booked one of the eight garden-view Premier rooms, don’t fret—the entire hotel has been designed to showcase this striking example of traditional Japanese landscape gardening.

This can certainly be felt at Brasserie, the all-day restaurant within the airy, nine-meter-high lobby. Plush sofas make for cozy seating, while an outdoor terrace puts you right along the pond—it’s a picturesque spot to savor a sumptuous buffet breakfast. Fresh fruit, homemade guacamole, a cheese platter, and a sizable block of pure honeycomb are just a few of the myriad culinary offerings on display.

The Four Seasons is the perfect base from which to explore Kyoto’s historic Higashiyama district. Just a 10-minute walk southwest lies Sanjusangen-do (aka Rengeo-in), a 12th-century Buddhist temple concealing a mesmerizing assembly of 1001 gilded statues portraying Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion. The rows of faces, each one fashioned from cypress wood and coated in gold leaf, are a vivid display of the profound influence Buddhism has had on this ancient city. Aromatherapy enthusiasts can pick up a box of the temple’s own incense, a blend of amber with hints of agarwood, as a memento of their visit.

Garden-side terrace seating at Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto; a view of the Yasaka Pagoda.
Left to right: Garden-side terrace seating at Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto; a view of the 15th-century Yasaka Pagoda.

Afternoon: Minutes away from the landmark Yasaka Pagoda sits one of Kyoto’s most renowned tempura restaurants, Tempura Endo Yasaka. Originally built a century ago as a teahouse where geisha entertained clients, this famed establishment now serves elaborate tempura lunches that include an array of seasonally changing dishes, with chefs sourcing fresh ingredients from both land and sea, and using premium cottonseed oil to deep-fry the morsels.

Afterward, head over to the UNESCO-listed Kiyomizu-dera temple. Balanced atop wooden pillars extending from the mountainside, the temple’s main hall sits on huge wooden pillars with a veranda ingeniously assembled without nails. To get there, walk up the stone-paved street of Sannenzaka. Since ancient times, this thoroughfare has catered to the needs of pilgrims from all corners of Japan who sought blessings from the temple, though stores here now mostly sell souvenirs and traditional crafts. Once you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with a memorable view of Kyoto’s cityscape.

Evening: The rustic yet modern ambience of Sagan, a fusion-y local bistro inside a converted machiya townhouse, is sure to delight with its healthy obanzai (Kyoto home-style) meals of brown rice, simmered vegetables, and grilled salmon. Afterward, scope out Higashiyama’s nightlife by tracking down the carefully hidden Bar Kaktel, which offers modern spins on Prohibition-era cocktails, or alternatively Bar Fukuro for a more local vibe.

The porte-cochère at the Four Seasons; the hotel’s subterranean pool.
Left to right: The porte-cochère at the Four Seasons; the hotel’s subterranean pool.

DAY TWO

Morning: Start the day by lounging inside a cushioned wooden cabana and immersing yourself in the whirlpool baths at the Four Seasons’ stone-clad subterranean pool room. A satisfying breakfast awaits in the comfort of your private quarters. While American and Continental sets and à la carte options are available, the Japanese set features a gorgeously plated arrangement of seasonal vegetables, omelet, and butter-sautéed fish, all presented with the finest lacquerware.

Take a short stroll to Kawai Kanjiro’s House, a prolific potter, writer, and artist, integral to the folk art movement of the mid-1920s. His beautifully maintained wooden townhouse now serves as a museum showcasing the late master’s philosophy on life through a sublime collection of rustic folk-art pieces, including woodcarvings and ceramics created by Kanjiro himself. Look out for the firewood-fueled “climbing kiln” in the backyard.

Afternoon: Back at the hotel, venture across the garden’s glass bridge to the Fuju Tea Lounge, a fine example of a Sukiya-style teahouse built from cypress and cedar wood. While away a few blissful hours sipping on a glass of champagne—or an exclusive sake brewed especially for the Four Seasons—as you read a book and periodically gaze at the pond’s reflection. It’s all very Zen, especially with the hourly bell that resonates through the air from the Myoho-in temple next door.

Evening: If it’s a Wednesday or Saturday, you can catch a rare glimpse into the living art of maiko (geishas-in-training) through a mesmerizing dance performance at the lobby from 5:30 p.m., followed by a meet-and-greet at The Lounge & Bar. Kyoto’s famed geisha quarters of Gion, about 20 minutes away on foot, are best seen after dark when the daytime crowds have dissipated and lanterns illuminate its enigmatic cobblestone streets. The cherry tree–lined Shirakawa Minami-dori is the most picturesque route to take, thanks to a canal that runs in front of traditional wooden townhouses. Return to Brasserie at the Four Seasons and settle down for a set dinner that skillfully blends French and Japanese haute cuisine—the squid ink risotto with chorizo and basil impresses, as does the Kuroge wagyu beef fillet and pan-seared foie gras. For drinks, ask the in-house sommelier to make a recommendation: he’s a walking encyclopedia with an uncanny accuracy when it comes to pairings.

—Bryan Eastlake

A Deluxe Garden View room at Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto.
A Premier Garden View room at Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto.
ABOUT FOUR SEASONS HOTEL KYOTO

Jet-setting travelers immediately took notice when the Four Seasons brand opened its leafy Kyoto outpost in 2016. Occupying an enviable position in the historic district of Higashiyama, the property features a centuries-old pond garden, a traditional Japanese teahouse, and a stunning subterranean spa and pool. Aside from an elegant design that blends traditional Kyoto craftsmanship with splashes of modern sophistication, the Four Seasons also delights guests by way of its impeccable service and gastronomic prowess. Curious to find out more? Click here to read an in-depth review.

 

Directory of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts in Asia

 

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Jakarta

The second-generation Four Seasons Jakarta impresses with its retro-chic interiors, warm service, and terrific drinking and dining venues.

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur’s Four Seasons outpost offers a serene ultra-luxe respite amid the effervescent buzz of the Malaysian capital.

Kyoto

This garden sanctuary is an unexpected slice of calm amid Kyoto’s most well-known historic district.