Photographed by Sara Aiko
Kyoto, Japan’s former Imperial capital is the more mythical counterpart to urbanized Tokyo with its traditional peaked roofs and kimono-laden streets. It is also one of those cities that can be overwhelming once the crowds descend during peak season. For Philippe and I, traveling to Kyoto means bypassing the beautiful yet wildly overpopulated temples in favor of visiting independent artisans housed inside quaint little shops. To that end, we asked Kyoto-based creative Sara Aiko to take us on a curated tour of the historical city she calls home.
Hi, Sara! Please tell us a bit about yourself.
I am the founder of a travel boutique called Curated Kyoto which introduces creative travellers to a new way of enjoying culture, food and lifestyle in Kyoto for the web and in-person tours.
“Curated Kyoto’s mission is for people to really connect with Kyoto, not just see it. For instance, I love New York… Of course I went to see the Statue of Liberty on my first trip but the Statue of Liberty is not what made me go back to New York. It was the people that I met, the culture, the vibe of the city. That’s what I want people to feel when they come to Kyoto.”
How did Curated Kyoto begin?
After working in a media team that promotes Kyoto tourism, I noticed there was plenty of information out there about Kyoto’s major tourism sites like the golden temple but little to no information about the hip restaurants loved by locals, temples off the beaten path, galleries and stylish Kyoto shops. This version of Kyoto that is loved by locals is the version of Kyoto I wanted to introduce to people. So I got my tour license and decided to leave my job and start Curated Kyoto. I curate “inspiration tours” for global brands and also work with individuals who want to enrich their Kyoto experience. Without sounding like a total cheese ball, I love what I do and it gives me such pleasure to share and connect people to Kyoto.
I have my cultural up bringing to thank for allowing me to do what I do now. My mother, who is Japanese, made sure my sister and I were raised with both cultures growing up in New Zealand. Although it was a pain in the butt going to two schools (tantrums everyday), now I am very thankful. I owe my mother a lot of chocolates… or a trip around the world.
Curated Kyoto’s mission is for people to really connect with Kyoto, not just see it. For instance, I love New York – I’ve been there about 6 times now. Of course I went to see the Statue of Liberty on my first trip but the Statue of Liberty is not what made me go back to New York. It was the people that I met, the culture, the vibe of the city. That’s what I want people to feel when they come to Kyoto. I wanted Curated Kyoto to be that bridge that connected Kyoto to the world and the world to Kyoto. Today I wanted to share with you some of my favourite places in Kyoto for the creative traveller.
Curated Kyoto by Sara AikoKurasu Coffee
The Kyoto Coffee scene really changed a few years ago when Arabica Coffee hit the scene. Before Arabica, it was mostly old Japanese style coffee houses and Starbucks. A new wave of stylish coffee shops has hit Kyoto that serves specialty coffee and I haven’t stopped smiling. Today I want to introduce you to Kurasu Coffee since it’s right by Kyoto Station and a lot people will benefit from a good coffee after or before a long train ride. A small yet intimate shop with wooden interiors and crisp white walls, owner Yozo Otsuki wanted Kurasu to be a place where customers and baristas can easily communicate. The friendly staff who have overseas working experience are very knowledgeable about their coffee and know how to make a good soy latte.
Garden of Fine Arts
Now, I chose this place not for the art but for the architecture. If you are visiting in Kyoto and want to see modern architecture, visit the Garden of Fine Arts in Kitayama, Kyoto. The unique open air gallery was designed by Ando Tadao, a world-famous Japanese architect who has designed some of my favourite structures in Japan. This venue exhibits classical works of art, such as Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” and Renoir’s “On The Terrace,” reproduced on porcelain panel. You can see Ando’s signature concrete walls for only 100 yen. That’s right, entrance to this gallery is only a hundred yen.
Lisn is one of my favourite shops in Kyoto. The beautiful Lisn incense boutique sells over 150 kinds of colourful incense sticks. Blending ancient techniques with designer appeal, Lisn was launched in 1989 as a branch of the Shoyeido incense company, which has been making traditional Japanese incense since 1705. The helpful staff will help you pick the right scent to match your mood. When I visited today I bought myself a scent called ‘Natty’ and ‘Orange in love’. Both only 324 yen. These vibrant incense sticks make perfect Kyoto gifts to take back home.
A lot of people who visit Kyoto often say they don’t know where to go to enjoy the nightlife. It’s true, Kyoto is filled with amazing restaurants and bars but there are hardly any clubs, lounges or venues where you can enjoy a bit of creativity. When y gion opened in the heart of Gion last year, it was just what the Kyoto locals and visitors needed. y gion is a new entertainment complex that hosts music events, art exhibitions and even pop-up dinner events with famous Kyoto chefs. People come to Kyoto expecting only to find a traditional and historical city but I always urge people to experience this more contemporary and creative side of Kyoto. To keep up to date with y gion’s events you can check them out here.
Tea Ceremony with Amae
One of the reasons I started Curated Kyoto was to connect my guests to creative local people like tea ceremony host Amae. Amae is an architect who fell in love with the ‘world of tea’ 10 years ago when he was designing teahouses. He loved the process and the philosophy that goes into performing tea ceremonies “Japanese Tea Ceremony is a meditation in action”. I love Amae’s ceremonies because they are intimate and very insightful. I come out not just more alert from the matcha caffeine hit but feeling more mindful. Perfect for the busy person who wants to slow down. You can book a session with Amae through Curated Kyoto.
Behind every beautiful flower arrangement, there’s a hip-hop loving bearded middle-aged man behind it… Okay, maybe not always, but this is certainly true when it comes to the flowers created by Kyoto’s botanical genius Kaseya. Maestro is a Kyoto-based business which creates botanical pieces for spaces and arranges flowers for gifts and events. What I love about Kaseya’s arrangements is that you can’t quite categorize his work. The arrangements are both delicate and edgy, executes both western and eastern influences and is forever pushing boundaries. He wants his pieces to evoke an emotion from the people who sees them. If you are interested in his arrangements you can enquire here.
A perfect example of how to enjoy traditional Kyoto in a modern atmosphere, This café is run by a famous 140 year-old copper tea caddie company called Kaikado. In 2016, Kaikado teamed up with a Denmark-based design firm to revitalize an old government building and turn it into this café. The café provides a very calming atmosphere and always seems to get the best sunlight, making it the best place to sip on your coffee and enjoy some light reading. The Kaikado atelier and flagship store is just around the corner from the shop but you can also buy the beautifully designed copper tea caddies at the café.