Traditional crafts make this profoundly Japanese city a buying haven
A luxury shopping guide to Kyoto, Japan
The great delight of arriving in Kyoto is that it is all so intensely Japanese. In this globalised world, it’s rare to find a modern city that remains so monocultural. Visit Kyoto, however, for 11 centuries Japan’s Imperial capital – and with 17 Unesco World Heritage sites, its most beautiful city as well as cultural centre – and almost every single person you encounter and every single thing you see, experience, eat or, inevitably, immediately want to buy will be Japanese.
The goods in the shops will have almost all been designed and made in Japan. The food will almost all be Japanese, apart from the occasional French patisserie shop. The stubby little cars and delivery vans are almost all Japanese. And, ignoring the tourists, everyone you meet will be Japanese, from the guides explaining the history of the most famous of the city’s 1,600 Buddhist temples and the 15th-century wood-built lakeside Ryoan-ji, site of the country’s most famous rock garden; or showing you around the mossy surrounds of the Saiho-ji Temple, where 120 different types of moss undulate along a stream and between the trees; to the staff at your hotel and the geishas presiding over proceedings at the Murin-an teahouse.
The reason for Japan’s monoculturalism is that for centuries this island nation closed itself off from the outside world. Between 1633 and 1853, few foreigners were allowed into the country and barely any Japanese were allowed out. This meant that the country existed without any external influences. It was only in 1853, when Commander Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo’s harbour with four US Navy warships, that the country began to trade on any scale with the outside world and to modernise.
Today, what makes Kyoto such a fascinating place to shop, as well as sightsee temples and gardens, is that alongside super-modern and novelty items – squishy soaps, screen-printed socks, little ironing pads that let you iron something you’re actually wearing – and clothes and accessories from famous fashion names such as Comme des Garcons, Mastermind and A Bathing Ape, are traditional items. They are of an intense beauty and minimalist design sensibility that have been made with impeccable craftsmanship in exactly the same way for centuries, from lacquered writing sets to tiered bamboo vegetable steamers. You can see something exquisite and 17th-century in the Kyoto National Museum in the morning, then that afternoon see an exact replica in a shop – made by the 21st-century descendants of the same family.
Where to shop
If you are in Kyoto for only a brief time, the best three places to head for are within five minutes’ walk of each other: the top department store, Takashimaya, the Nishiki food market and Teramachi Street, one of the oldest shopping streets in Japan, where artisan ateliers and little boutiques are interspersed with cafes and restaurants.
With a longer stay, you can explore the three main shopping areas. Downtown Kyoto encompasses all the above; the Kyoto station area includes the ultra-modern, shop-lined station building; and across the Kamo River, Higashiyama is home to the narrow old temple, restaurant- and boutique-lined streets of Gion, which for centuries has been the home of geisha houses and where you can still see trainee geishas (maiko) tripping through the streets in their traditional white make-up, kimono and wooden geta footwear.
Kyoto is a sprawling, low-rise city, but it isn’t large – its population is barely 1.5 million – and given a fair amount of stamina, you could cover all three areas on foot in a day.
You will soon need an extra bag to take back your spoils, and Ichizawa is the place to find the strong, simple canvas bags with carefully made fastenings and no superfluous detailing that have become famous in Japan. Originally made for craftsmen to carry their tools, the bags come in a variety of styles, with medium-sized totes from ¥5,600 (Dh187) to ¥16,000 (Dh535). The company’s only store is in Kyoto, a two-minute walk from the Yasaka Shrine.
Aritsugu, established in 1550 as a swordsmith, is world-famous for its kitchen knives and is a place of pilgrimage for chefs worldwide. Looked after carefully, these light, durable, super-sharp steel knives can last a lifetime. Prices start from about ¥5,500 (Dh183) and a Santoku knife with an 18-centimetre blade costs ¥18,360 (Dh614). Customers can have their initials engraved on their purchases on the spot, but note that the shop – in Nishiki food market – takes only cash. It has no website, either, but visit matcha-jp.com for more information. Seikado, set up in 1838, and Kikuichimonji also produce an extraordinary range of top-quality knives.
Glossy, waterproof and hard-wearing, Japanese lacquered wood is one of the crafts that Kyoto has produced for centuries. The sap of the lacquer tree is poisonous until it dries, so lacquerware has always been the preserve of skilled craftsmen, and the best-known company, Zohiko, has been producing lacquerware since 1661. Its store on Teramachi Street is where you see duplicates of items the company made centuries ago that are on show at the Kyoto National Museum: a graceful four-tiered food carrier, for instance, among plates, trays, mirrors and stationery holders. A business-card box is one of the less expensive items at ¥38,888 (Dh1,300).
Also on Teramachi, Gallery Hitamuki sells a huge range of ceramic tableware, from tiny chopstick stands (from ¥40 [Dh1]) to large, graceful asymmetric bowls. Sione’s delicate white porcelain bowls, decorated with slivers of gold, exert subtle appeal, with a large stemmed hira-wan bowl at ¥20,000 (Dh668) and ridged beakers at ¥3,000 (Dh100). Find them at the Takashimaya department store, along with delicately crafted bowls produced by historic company Asahiyaki.
The new Kyoto crafts movement is a big thing in a city traditionally home to peerless craftsmanship. In 2012, to stop these crafts from dying out, six local companies with heritages stretching back centuries got together to revitalise themselves by making traditional items relevant for a new generation. Together, they launched Japan Handmade, and now you can find the exquisite items these six companies produce at select stores around the world.
Takashimaya is Kyoto’s main stockist, along with the companies themselves: Hosoo silk textiles are commissioned by royal families all over the world and include some mind-boggling innovations, such as DNA from luminous jellyfish injected into silkworms to produce a naturally luminous fabric; Asahiyaki for delicate pottery; Mokkougei for handcrafted wooden ice buckets; Kohchosai Kosuga crafts finely woven bamboo handbags and baskets; Kanaami-Tsuji for knitted wire-netting kitchen tools such as strainers and toasting sheets; and Kaikado makes elegant metal tea and food storage canisters so precisely made that the lids require no screw-turns – they simply slowly sink down onto the jars, rendering them air-tight. Prices start from ¥10,260 (Dh345).
About 20 artisan companies in the Kyoto Artisans group let visitors try various traditional crafts in their ateliers. At the KOHO Nishiki Textile Studio, which restores precious ancient textiles, you get a tour, instruction and the chanveto weave a coaster, all for ¥2,500 (Dh84). And to try kintsugi – “joining with gold”, the Japanese art of mending cracked or chipped pottery with lacquer mixed with gold powder – a 90-minute class costs ¥12,000 (Dh401) (shitsugeisya.jimdo.com).
The ojami is a floor cushion traditionally filled with dried azuki beans. It is covered in a variety of fabrics, and in Kyoto, is made in a variety of shapes, all designed to help one sit on the floor comfortably but gracefully. They look so decorative, scattered over a terrace or in a den, that you may go mad and buy three or five (Japanese design insists on odd numbers) to take home. The Takaokaya shop and the department stores stock dozens of varieties, which cost from about Dh243.
The Nishiki food market, or “Kyoto’s pantry”, a long covered arcade lined with stalls backed by storage areas and workshops, is a daily destination for many locals and a must-see for any tourist. But while locals consider the merits of mysterious dried items, tourists’ eyes are drawn more to wagashi, or Japanese sweets. They are delicately made – mostly from boiled and pounded sticky rice or azuki-bean paste sweetened with sugar – and beautifully packaged.
A packet of 12 mochi, a squidgy little round rice cake stuffed with azuki-bean paste, typically costs about ¥1,805 (Dh60). The numerous novelty flavoured KitKats that one never sees anywhere else but Japan are fun buys: pancake, strawberry, wasabi or, best, delicate green-tea matcha flavour. Nishiki also houses a ceramics atelier, squishy soap stores and the Aritsugu knife shop.
The porcelain look of many Japanese women means skincare is often high on visitors’ shopping lists, and it is fun to browse pharmacies for novelties and department store beauty sections for cult favourites. Most Japanese skincare is based on natural ingredients, and the emphasis is on thorough cleansing, exfoliating and moisturising. Brands to look for – priced at about 20 per cent less than outside Japan – include SK-II, Shiseido and Kanebo. Nationally famous products include DHC’s olive-oil-based Deep Cleansing Oil (Dh102); Takami skin-peeling serum (Dh166); Kose Sekkisei Emulsion, which fades brown spots (Dh183); Kao’s Megurism self-heating eye-masks (about Dh62 for 14 sheets); Isehan’s smudge-proof Kiss Me Heroine Make Long & Curl mascara (Dh62); and Muji compressed face masks (at five for about Dh9, these are a bargain, and great for travelling). Best of all are the soft squishy Japanese soaps that look almost edible and are scented with cherry blossom, cinnamon and rose. Made from the konjac plant (also the source of no-calorie spaghetti) they cost about Dh60 each. One major supplier is konnyaku-shabon.com.
Cosmetic brushes and nail varnish
Hakuhodo is a renowned name in the world of make-up brushes, and its store on Teramachi Street is invariably packed with cosmetics addicts and make-up artists. Prices start from Dh55 for a little lipstick brush. Nail varnish is another surprisingly interesting Japanese buy. Gofun is a pigment traditionally used in Japanese painting, and now in the subtly but vibrantly coloured water-soluble (and thus undamaging) nail varnishes made by Ueba Esou (gofun-worldwide.com), which cost ¥1,300 (Dh43) each.
Wrapping paper, some so lovely that it could be framed as an artwork, is another example of the hard-to-resist beauty of so many everyday items in Japan. On Teramachi Street, traditional paper for drawing and painting, stationery, handmade printer paper, plus a wall of washi wrapping paper (from Dh10 to about Dh60 a sheet) makes the Unesco-listed Kamji Kakimoto (kyoto-kakimoto.jp) a thrill to visit. Elsewhere downtown, Uragu Hatch and Noren are stationery stores filled with irresistible little items such as pens shaped like samurai and geisha that cost ¥648 (Dh22).
The Japanese spend a lot of time padding around in their socks, and as a visitor, you will too. It is routine to remove one’s outdoor shoes and slide into a pair of the waiting rank of slippers when visiting a temple, teahouse, private homes or anywhere with straw tatami mats on the floor. Because nobody wants the shame of exposing socks that are less than pristine or that have holes, much attention is paid to fit and texture, and the result is a marvellous choice. The top brands include the best-selling Tabio, with hundreds of different patterns, lengths, materials (including silk and alpaca), “occasion” socks (such as “wedding after-party”), and screen-printed and split-toe tabio socks. The prices range from about ¥800 to ¥3,000 (Dh27 to Dh100). Muji and Uniqlo, which produces sleekly fitting cotton socks in 50 different plain colours, are also good sources.
Where to stay
If you like a peaceful riverside setting away from the hustle and bustle, Suiran makes sense, with traditional cedar-wood onsen baths in wonderful tiny indoor-outdoor bathrooms and exceptionally good food in the old river-view restaurant. Double rooms cost from ¥98,000 (Dh3,274). The Tenryu-Ji Temple, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the Gio-Ji moss-garden temple are just a five-minute stroll away.
On the edge of Gion’s little streets, the new Celestine provides good value for money, with light-filled, ingeniously well-designed rooms, big buffet breakfasts, all-day free snacks and an immaculate tiny spa. Doubles cost from ¥25,300 (Dh845).
If you are happy with a kind of upmarket Airbnb, the Hosoo Residence, a two-bedroom traditional machiya house that’s a showcase for Hosoo fabrics and Japan Handmade items, can be rented for ¥53,000 (Dh1,771) a night.
Biggest, best and most conveniently placed for shopping and exploring downtown Kyoto, the art-filled Ritz-Carlton, which opened in 2014, reveals all sorts of pleasing details. Highlights include large rooms with steam-room bathrooms, a serene spa (which offers excellent reflexology). Restaurant-wise, you will find Italian and French flavours, as well as Japanese, when you sink into a seat for dinner at the Meiji-era restaurant, built in 1908 and around which the hotel was constructed. The 134 rooms include 17 suites. Double rooms cost from ¥85,000 (Dh2,841).