T ▪ House

My Secret Kyoto

My Secret Kyoto

Kyoto is magical in countless ways — a blend of ancient heritage and modernity of endless discovery and possibilities. Because I have been lucky enough to visit this special place many times over the years, I'm often asked for advice about where to eat, places to go and things to do.

“even geisha love udon...”

But the experiece I cherish most is just being there, surrounded by the city's serenely beautiful landscapes, quiet, cobblestone streets and the endless charm of everyone I meet. If you are heading to the City of 2,000 Temples for the first time, or even the fiftieth, here are some of the places you might find me:

Where to stay

Hoshinoya: Tucked away just outside Kyoto, this traditional Japanese-style hotel is accessible only by boat. As you cruise up the river in a wooden boat, the stresses of big-city living fall behind. The hotel staff, the picture of Japanese hospitality, greets new arrivals at the dock and offers an escort into the hotel. With tranquil zen gardens in place of televisions, the grounds are rejuvenating for the soul and spirit. http://hoshinoyakyoto.jp/en/

Tawaraya: One of the oldest ryokan in Kyoto, this inn is best known for its many famous visitors and its incredibly attentive staff members, who treat each guest as royalty. The service is beyond impeccable, it’s almost like they know what you would like before you know you want it yourself. Because I am obsessed with books, I love the library the most, and somehow every time I was there a fresh pot of coffee or green tea would appear. The futon there was the most comfortable I have ever slept on, I think it's filled with silk. It was like sleeping on a cloud and it’s seriously one of the things on my bucket list to buy one day. Fuyacho, Oike Sagaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, 604. Phone: (075) 211-5566.

Where to eat

Toraya: This is one of the most peaceful and beautiful places in Kyoto, and I love the way the breeze makes the water ripple. This is the one place I visit every time I go, almost always in the morning before heading home because it is so calming. The seasonal tea and sweets are always as exceptional as the view, which makes for a pretty wonderful combination. https://www.toraya-group.co.jp/english/


Nishiki Food Market: This 400-meter-long bustling marketplace has been a culinary hub for more than 400 years, filled with vendors selling every kind of food—fish, spices, candy, teas and other delights. Many also serve samples of their specialties, which is a wonderful way to try new things — every day feels like a culinary celebration. The first time I went I was with Nami, and we discovered an amazing knife store run by a family that used to make samurai swords. We also found some secret restaurants tucked behind some of the food stalls where you can get incredible meals for incredible prices. It’s also the place I first learned that you can decorate your soup (because of the colorful baked rice shapes that puff up when added to a soup). www.kyoto-nishiki.or.jp


The Sodoh: Did you know that Japan is also a good place for yummy Italian food too? I didn’t, until I discovered this delightful place. Built in the home of a famous painter, it's a wonderful place to unwind. www.thesodoh.com/en/

Gonbei: It can be very hard to spot a geisha while in Kyoto, mostly because they are in training almost all day and very busy with performances and events in the evening. But even geisha love udon, and one of their favorite places to go is this humble noodle shop. The udon is delicious and the place has a charm of its own.

Where to go

Miyawaki Baisenan: This elegant fan store is practically a fan museum. The selection of elegant, perfectly-made fans is without rival, and the company is known for providing fans to the Imperial family, celebrities, geisha, sumo and kabuki actors for generations. Be sure to check out the room upstairs that is dedicated to tousenkyo, a fan tossing game from the Edo period that is much harder than it looks! www.baisenan.co.jp/


Lisn: I was fascinated to hear that new research suggests that skin has the ability to “smell”— scent receptors in the skin react to aromas like sandalwood or citrus. Lisn is a beautiful, modern incense store that expands far beyond simply scent. The distinct fragrances are also listened to, expanding the senses and inviting the user to be fully present when experiencing the incense. I love visiting this sleek store and exploring all the different varieties they have to offer. www.lisn.co.jp/


Kenninji Temple: The oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, this special place honors the founder of the green tea ceremony — which is why tea plants surround the grounds. Art galleries and Zen gardens help to center the visitors and provide tranquil areas for meditation. I particularly love when the peonies are in bloom, lush and as big as my head. In 2002, artist Koizumi Junsaku added a stunning ceiling painting of two colossal dragons, representing the art of communication from the heart. http://www.kenninji.jp/english/


Minamiza Kabuki Theater: One of the oldest Kabuki theaters in Japan, Minamiza holds an event from the end of November through the end of December called Kichirei Kaomise Kogyo, which are a special series of traditional performances geisha traditionally attend, many even wear hair decorations signed by their favorite performers, symbolic of their shared performance heritage. www.kabuki-bito.jp/eng/top.html


Kyoto canals:  One of my favorite Kyoto treasures is actually not “hidden” at all. The canals famously crisscross the city, the water reflecting lanterns of shops and restaurants lining the edges. Cranes are frequent sights in and along the canals. There is always a crane stationed outside my favorite restaurant, who will famously bark for sushi. 


Have you been to Kyoto? What were some of your favorite spots? 


Victoria Signature

Victoria Tsai
Chief Treasure Hunter

Published October 12, 2015
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