Kyoto: The New Japanese Capital of Cool

Kyoto: The New Japanese Capital of Cool

In the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, many of
Tokyo’s creatives relocated to Kyoto,
bringing with them an influx of modern ideas and concepts. As past
and present collide, Japan’s
so-called “thousand-year capital” is booming.

For centuries, Kyoto has been a highly respected cultural
constant within Japan. It’s a beautiful city, a hub of incredible
artisans, the birthplace of the tea ceremony and home to a wealth
of traditions that haven’t changed in generations. In recent years,
the past and future have collided here, and a balance has been
struck between modern minimalist design and traditional tastes –
the resulting atmosphere is uniquely “Kyoto” and effortlessly

Set on Honshu, the main body of the Japanese archipelago which
comprises more than 6,000 islands, Kyoto is the country’s ancient
capital – its name literally translates as “Capital City”.
Surrounded by lush green mountains on three sides, it teems with a
rich history of culture and craftsmanship. The mere mention of
“Kyoto” arouses images of centuries-old temples, teahouses and
narrow winding streets lined with machiya (traditional wooden
townhouses), the sound of koto (harps-like instruments) drifting
from open windows while geishas float along below, their wooden
geta sandals quietly clicking against the haphazard stone

Kyoto is lucky. In a country born from fire and brimstone, and
in which volcanoes and earthquakes have had a marked impact on the
everyday rhythm of life, her 1,225 year history has been relatively
free from any major natural disaster. Her beauty and ancient
architecture mark a geographical safe haven.

Large swathes of the country have not been so lucky. In 2011
there was a magnitude seven earthquake and subsequent tsunami in
the Tohoku region, north of Tokyo.
The surrounds were hard hit by the effects, both of the initial
quake and the large aftershocks, that saw damage mounting into the
billions of dollars.

Joanne Laporte, a designer who creates bespoke bags from vintage
obi belts, was in Tokyo when the earthquake struck. “The city was
in shock. The earthquake highlighted our vulnerability to nature
that I’ve never experienced before. Everyday life was put on hold,
businesses were without electricity, the big screens, like those in
Shibuya Crossing, were continually rolling names of the missing. It
was so sad.”

She continues: “An unsettling feeling swept through the city.
The morning after the earthquake, my husband and I took our dog and
left on the first train to Kyoto for some respite. When I arrived,
I was so conscious of the surrounding city. I remember the moment I
knew I could live here, sitting on the banks of the river, staring
at the ink-blue mountains in the distance. It felt like home.”

The earthquake prompted an exodus to some degree. It forced many
creative Tokyoites to rethink their metropolitan lives and relocate
to smaller, safer city living in Kyoto, taking with them an influx
of modern ideas and concepts. It set into motion a shift towards a
more dynamic urban scene.

The opening of Japan’s first craft gin distillery is proof to
that end. Using local, hand-sourced ingredients from farms in Kyoto
Prefecture, The Kyoto Distillery has won numerous awards for its
flagship Ki No Bi gin as well as a number of innovative limited
bottlings (some of the most sought after on the global market)
including champagne cask-aged gin. Head distiller Alex Davies is
inspired by the harmony of Kyoto. “We took our insight from every
corner of the city, respecting the incredible traditions here but
adding something never seen before.”

“Kaiseki was a big part of that,” he adds. “We studied the way
that chefs would harmonise a few incredibly high-quality
ingredients to create a minimalist masterpiece on the plate,
allowing each constituent flavour to shine through. Ingredients are
not thrown together, everything is subtle, restrained but
beautiful. We wanted to take those principles and run with them
when creating our gin.”

The Kyoto Distillery has also worked alongside tea producer Hori
Schichimeien to create a bespoke blend of gyokuro tea a prized and
expensive leaf that’s famous in Kyoto. “We took inspiration from
the experts,” continues Davies. “We saw the detail and artistry,
the years of tradition, and we learnt from it. We adapted our
distillation to embrace a legacy that is hundreds of years old,
while hand-crafting it into something new.”

The distillery is only one part of the thriving subculture of
independent brands, businesses and boutiques that have established
themselves in the city, each respecting the heritage of Old Japan,
while embracing the new. Kyoto’s quietly cool and connected
inhabitants don’t follow trends, however. Everything here is
considered, and to that end the vibe is an easy elegance edged with
an aura of the avant-garde.

It’s a testament to Kyoto’s cool that the Ace
has bypassed Tokyo, settling in an old telephone exchange
building in the heart of downtown Kyoto for its first foray into
Japan’s buzzing inbound tourism industry. Set in the dynamic heart
of Kyoto, the building has been overhauled by the architect Kengo
Kuma and is set to open in spring 2020.

Full immersion into the Kyoto experience can also be found
through a stay in one of the city’s machiya residences. These
wooden townhouses have long opened their doors to guests for an
insight into traditional Kyoto living. Maana, a home set on a quiet
residential street in the Tambaguchi area, is a wonderful base from
which to explore the city. Inside, the design is considered, with a
minimal ikebana flower arrangement in the entrance and a
handcrafted Shigaraki ceramic bathtub overlooking the tranquil
garden. Owners and former designers, Hana Tsukamoto and Irene
Chang, were inspired by Kyoto’s simple but meaningful way of life
and worked with acclaimed Kyoto architect Shigenori Uoya to
renovate the 100-year-old house. Maana not only merges modern
luxuries with traditional curiosities, but has ensured the survival
of a piece of Kyoto’s heritage, at a time when many of the city’s
machiya are falling into disrepair.

In a city where tea is so ingrained in the culture, it might be
a surprise that the coffee scene in Kyoto is a feast for the
palate. New cafés in among the city’s most famous sights are
adopting and adapting the ritualisations of the tea ceremony to
create the perfect cup of coffee. One such place, Weekenders Coffee, a traditional machiya style
building tucked away at the back of a car park in central Kyoto,
was opened with the aim of passing down the traditional kissaten (a
Japanese-style tearoom) vibe while contributing to progression in
coffee culture. This little place is the perfect fusion of both,
with an on-site roastery and creative menu. The espresso and tonic
is just delicious.

Finding food in Kyoto has never been difficult. Indeed, the city
is the birthplace of the multi-course mastery that is kaiseki, and
no Japanese town would be complete without an izakaya or two (or a
thousand in Kyoto’s case). The city’s creative scene has spilled
over into its restaurants; seasonal food is the order of the day in
design-focused spaces such as Lorimer Kyoto which puts a twist on
hearty and healthy Japanese-style breakfast and runs with an ethos
of mottainai (no waste) cooking. The idea here is simple, everybody
gets the same set meal, like a family around the dining table.
Mealtimes here are regarded as precious and joyful acts that
stimulate the senses and relax the mind – it’s a wonderfully modern
take on traditional Japanese home cooking.

The creative reach of Kyoto’s residents stretches much further
than food and drink, too. The arts scene is fascinatingly seductive
with world-renowned events carving out their place in the Kyoto
calendar. Lucille Reyboz and her husband Yusuke Nakanishi founded
the annual Kyotographie International Photography
after moving to the city in the wake of the Tohoku
earthquake. “We lived in Tokyo for a number of years, but moved to
Kyoto when my eldest daughter was three, after the earthquake,”
Reboyz recalls. “Everyone was deeply shaken by the aftermath of
such an event and we moved to Kyoto to create something for the
community, inspired to awaken people’s consciousness.”

Kyotographie exhibitions are spread across the city, creatively
staged in various traditional and contemporary settings, both by
Japanese and international photographers. “Here we can open doors
for artists to display their work in unique venues, from temples to
an old warehouse at the Kyoto central market,” Reyboz adds. “That’s
the beauty of Kyotographie, it couldn’t happen anywhere else.”

The story of the Kyotographie echoes the creative and cultural
evolution happening across Kyoto. As past and present collide, the
city possesses a spirit that’s at once unshakable and adaptable.
This is the Capital of Cool.