By Nicholas Coldicott
Every city faces the challenge of meeting the future without razing its heritage. Kyoto has more reason than most to worry – it is blessed with an extraordinary vernacular architecture, but one that is predominantly made of wood and nowhere near the cutting edge of modern construction. But this is a city that doesn’t believe in needless change, and it exemplifies just how to fuse past and present.
Take Oku (075 531 4776, www.oku-style.com) in the historic Gion district: from the outside it looks like a classic Kyoto store, with its slate roof, rattan screen and golden glow streaming through the wooden latticework. But Oku is only classic Kyoto on the outside. Slide open the wooden door and you’ll find the modern, minimalist interior of the city’s coolest café.
The first thing you’ll see is a gallery of voluptuous bowls, cups and dishes. They are unmistakably Japanese, but thoroughly modern (and dishwasher-safe.) Local chef Hisato Nakahigashi designed the vessels, originally just as a hobby. When he decided to offer them for sale, he wanted customers to get touchy-feely with his designs, so he opened a café. The menu reads like classic café fare: teas, coffees, desserts and a few hot dishes, but Nakahigashi happens to be one of Japan’s most celebrated chefs, specializing in a rarified locavore cuisine known as tsumikusa ryori, so his take on the standards is never less than sensational. His main restaurant is hidden away in the mountains north of Kyoto and will set you back upwards of \30,000 for dinner, but Oku offers the chance to try his food in central Kyoto for less than \1,000.And if you like what you’re eating or drinking from, you can buy it on the way out.
Oku isn’t the only modern café to have moved into classic Kyoto digs. Café Bibliotic Hello! (075 231 8625, www.cafe-hello.jp) has been one of the city’s favourites since opening in 2002 in a former kimono store. Designer furnishings and a wall of art books contrast beautifully with the wooden shell and classic façade of the premises.
Sarasa Nishijin (075 432 5075, http://sarasan2.exblog.jp) in the north-west of the city and Sagano-yu (075 882 8985, www.sagano-yu.com) in the Arashiyama district both occupy former public bathhouses, and both have retained the showerheads and bath tiles as décor. A century ago, these bathhouses would have been one of the focal points of the local community. Now they are again, as people sip lattes on sofas where the tubs once were.
Elsewhere in the city, old kimono storehouses now operate as fancy bars (try Kura, 075 212 8701), two former sake breweries have reopened as live venues (TakuTaku, 075 351 1321, www.geisya.or.jp/~takutaku and Jittoku, 075 841 1691, www2.odn.ne.jp/jittoku), the former Tasuike Primary School is now the impressive Kyoto International Manga Museum (075 254 7414, www.kyotomm.jp/english), and even the massive Museum of Kyoto occupies a building originally designed as the Bank of Japan.
Stroll the streets of Kyoto today and it might seem that little has changed in a century or so, but that’s because you’re not looking behind the classic façade.