Finding Zen in Kyoto

Writer Pete Wong | July 4, 2018

It’s easy to understand why travellers get post-holiday blues after a trip to Kyoto. Formerly Japan’s capital for over 1,000 years, the city of 1.5 million is the embodiment of Japanese culture with thousands of old temples, mysterious geisha districts and breathtaking scenery, especially during spring or autumn. Locals are relaxed and courteous, streets are spick and span while service in the hospitality industry is delivered with finesse often ending with deep reverent bows to customers.

The ancient city has a little bit of something for everyone. “Japanese schoolchildren from across the country make field trips to Kyoto to learn about the country’s history and culture,” says Akiko Yamada, a local resident.

“We are here to find our ikigai,” says Tina DeSalvo, on vacation with her husband, referring to the Japanese concept of work-life balance or raison d’être for getting up in the morning. Other tourists are just happy playing geishas for the day, walking around in rental costumes.

Kyoto is also known for its unique kyo-kaiseki culinary experience, the traditional multi-course dinner made with seasonal local ingredients and served painstakingly in beautiful small dishes, akin to western haute cuisine with added refinement.

For those seeking wellness, the city does not disappoint. Public baths, or onsens, are dotted all over the city, even within capsule hotels and Japanese-style inns called ryokans although not all establishments use real geothermal hot spring waters.

On the western outskirts of Kyoto is the Arashiyama mountainous region. Formerly a playground for court nobles, it is now a popular tourist destination with attractions like the bamboo groves, Tenryu-ji temple, Iwatayama Monkey Park and the Sagano romantic train ride. The best way to get there is by hopping onto the antiquated Randen electric tramline – reminiscent of Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies – that will take you there in 30 minutes. Standout accommodations at Arashiyama are Hoshinoya Kyoto and Suiran, a Luxury Collection Hotel.

For a more traditional onsen experience, a two-and-a-half-hour train ride north of Kyoto will take you to the charming town of Kinosaki. Tucked between the mountains and a river, the town is blessed with natural onsens that have healing powers, according to the Buddhist priest who discovered the place 1,300 years ago. Visitors check into the ryokans, slip into yukatas (traditional robes) and hit the onsen trail. All day long, you will hear the clickety-clack of getas (wooden clogs) hitting the pavements as visitors scurry between the seven onsens all located within walking distance.

Kinosaki is also known for its fresh seafood, Tajima beef and Matsuba snow crabs during winter. There is no shortage of ryokans at Kinosaki but the Nishimuraya group runs two of the best, Hotel Shogetsutei and the ryokan-style Honkan.


Nestled between a museum and a school, Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto is an oasis built around an 800-year-old pond surrounded by a manicured Japanese garden. Just a 10-minute taxi ride from downtown, the 123-room hotel pampers guests with attentive service and luxurious rooms. At the resort, a perfect day starts with breakfast at the outdoor terrace of The Brasserie overlooking the pond.

For wellness, The Spa offers kyo no iyashi (Kyoto healing) in its seven treatment rooms, including a VIP couples’ spa suite. Sharing the same floor with the spa is an indoor pool and 24-hour fitness centre. On the spa menu are signature treatments and massages ranging from 70 to 150 minutes, and a four-hour couple’s session that includes lunch and facials. All therapies use natural and synthetic-free products like Tatcha and Sodashi.

“Ours is the only place in Japan that offers Tatcha facials,” says Pin Chinnapat Veerasomboonsin, director of Spa at Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto. Tatcha products incorporate Japanese ingredients like tsubaki (camellia) oil and rice enzyme powder which are beauty secrets passed down by generations and favoured by geishas.


Booking a stay at the 134-room Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto is no easy task given its central location on the banks of the Kamogawa River. Within walking distance is the Kiyamachi shopping and nightlife strip leading to the famous Pontocho entertainment area within Gion district where geishas can sometimes be spotted scurrying to a rendezvous.

Located at the basement is the Ritz-Carlton Spa with seven treatments rooms including a spa suite, as well as a relaxation room, steam room, dry sauna, fitness centre and a 20-metre swimming pool. The decor is luxurious and spa beds are draped with soft satin sheets while therapists are well-trained and speak excellent English. Spa treatments incorporate elements indigenous to Kyoto like green tea and bamboo, complemented by ESPA products from the UK, which are made from quality botanical essences and marine actives.

We are here to find our ikigai
~ Tina DeSalvo