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Hidden bars and high-end digs: Luxury in Kyoto (and how to fake it)

Shaun Davies
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Kanga-An
Booze up in a Japanese temple ... enter Kanga-An, Kyoto.
"The food is delicious, healthy and keeps coming until you are stuffed. And then there's the hidden bar..."
Shaun Davies

Japan's most historic city mixes cultural discovery with jaw-dropping luxury. But don't worry if you're on a budget — we'll show you how to fake it, too.

Stay somewhere exquisite

History meets five-star luxury in Kyoto's top-end ryokans, hotels and guesthouses.

One of the most famous is Hiiragaya Ryokan, which started operating in 1818 and has played host to Charlie Chaplin and Nobel-prize winning Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata. It's billed as the ultimate in Kyoto-style luxury, where modern conveniences are seamlessly entwined with traditional Japanese elegance.

One night's stay for two people will set you back a minimum of 64,000 yen ($800) and as much as 180,000 yen ($2250) — but the verdict from those who stay there is that it's worth every dollar.

For larger groups, or for people who want a little more freedom, renting an entire machiya (traditional wooden house) is an option. A company named Iori rents out townhouses around Kyoto, which have been restored to their traditional glory.

Many of these houses are huge by Japanese standards — they feature tatami rooms, sliding screens and other traditional accoutrements, combined with modern amenities and occasionally even pieces from local artists. Price depends on the house, the season and the number of people staying, but budget on around $700 a night for two people in low season.

Faking it:

Get your traditional inn experience at Ryokan Shimizu, a popular choice not far from Kyoto station, for just 5000 yen ($62) a night per person. Grab your lunch at Gogyo Ramen, a top-notch noodle restaurant near the Nishiki food market in a beautifully restored machiya.

High-end temple dining (and drinking)

There is nowhere else on earth quite like Kanga-an, a restaurant situated in a centuries-old temple of the Obaku sect that serves a unique style of vegetarian cuisine called "Fucha Ryori".

Obaku monks were required to adhere to a vegetarian diet, but they missed the flavours and textures of meats. So they created Fucha Ryori, where vegetables and soya products are grilled, moulded and teased so that they resemble fleshy dishes.

Kanga-an is gaining a reputation as one of the best places to eat in Kyoto and there's a reason for that — the food is delicious, healthy and keeps coming until you are stuffed.

And then there's the hidden bar. Overlooking the garden and adjoining a room full of Buddhist artefacts, it was initially built by the temple's priestess to entertain guests, but now is open to the public (if you know it's there). They have a small but excellent range of drinks, including Guinness and Yebisu on tap. Dinner at Kanga-an costs around 10,000 yen ($120) per head without drinks.

Faking it:

Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto's most famous temples. There's a restaurant not far from the famous Otowa Waterfall where you can get a tasty bowl of noodles for around 600 yen ($7.20) while taking in the beauty of the temple.

Party with an apprentice Geisha

The culture of the Geisha (or Geiko, as they prefer to be called in Kyoto) is alive and well in the cobbled backstreets of the Gion area, but getting a seat at one of the area's exclusive tea houses is virtually impossible without an invitation from someone well-connected.

If you've a yearning to interact more closely with this unique and fascinating thread of Japanese culture, a local company called WaRaiDo can arrange dinner with a Maiko (apprentice Geiko) at a restaurant that serves Kyoto's delicate and delicious Kaiseki-style cuisine. You'll take a tour through Gion with a knowledgeable guide who will also act as a translator during your dinner. The Maiko, who lives in a local dormitory with other apprentices, will entertain you with conversation, dancing and music. All up it costs 52,000 yen ($625) for two people, including a taxi ride from your hotel.

Faking it:

WaRaiDo offers an informative walking tour of Gion three nights a week that covers the history of Geiko culture in the area. As evening falls you'll wander through Gion's charming alleys and see dormitories, tea houses and, if you're lucky, Maiko and Geiko rushing between appointments with customers. Best of all, it costs just 1000 yen ($12) per person.

Make a doll you'll keep forever

The Ando Japanese Doll Shop is a magical place. Master craftsmen work on the ground floor, creating traditional Hina dolls by hand. Upstairs you can see the results of their work — scores of these exquisitely crafted dolls, furled in beautiful kimono cloth.

In what may be the ultimate experience for a little girl, or for those who are a little girlish at heart, the shop provides a doll-making workshop. You work on an Ichimatsu-style doll, which is larger than a Hina doll, but no less beautiful, with a finely carved face and black hair made from raw silk. It takes a couple of hours to do the work, and afterwards the craftsmen (and women) will perfect the doll and ship it to your hotel, perfectly packed for travel.

The doll-making experience costs around 50,000 yen ($600) and you may want to take an interpreter for assistance (the Kyoto tourism website has a list of guides).

Faking it:

Even if you don't make a doll, the Ando Japanese Doll Shop is simply a wonderful place to visit and staff members are happy for you to drop in and take a look around.

Have you been to Kyoto? What tips do you have about living it up or faking it in this beautiful city? Share in the comments form below.

Related story: How to do Japan on the cheap

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