Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto opened 15 October 2016 and immediately saw a full house, because it was new (and a Four Seasons) and then repeats soon started at Christmas and New Year. Next comes the forthcoming sakura cherry blossom season, which officially begins 28 March 2017. And, frankly, Kyoto just does not have enough places to stay. Does GM Alex Porteous have any problems? No, not with marketing this superb luxury hotel. He hired his 270-strong team, currently all Japanese, mainly for attitude, but it is amazing how well they have learned skills, and English, so fast.
This 123-room hotel, owned by Berjaya Kyoto and designed by architects Kume Sekkei, with interiors by HBA’s Singapore-based Agnes Ng, is, by the way, an urban design resort, with maximum flexibility. In the wedding chapel with its massive window, for example, turn off the electrically illuminated cross and the space can instantly be used, say, for a course by Danish floral artist Nicolai Bergmann – he has the flower shop here, and also partners with Four Seasons Seoul. (Based in Tokyo, Bergmann is one of the artists featured in the world’s most gorgeous pop-up lifestyle store, Isetan’s Tabisuru, directly opposite Andaz Tokyo – no visitor to Tokyo should miss this store, ideal for all Christmas gifts, and for yourself.)
Four Seasons Kyoto is exquisite. First, its location, on the site of a former hospital – where, coincidentally, the guest experience specialist, as well as a concierge, were born – is part of a gorgeous garden, said to date back 800 years, with 60-centimetre-long bright orange koi in its big pond. My room, 106, looked down to the garden and across the pond to a traditional teahouse where Billecart-Salmon and saké are served every evening, and where a maiko, a trainee geisha (or geiko in Kyoto) aged 15-19, visits every weekend. She also dances in the hotel’s main lobby, up on the third floor of the building. Yes, the lobby, at the end of a stone entrance approach flanked by exactly-upright bamboos, is floor three. Above, on the top floor, are 57 residences for sale. Below the lobby are two floors of bedrooms. Further below is the tasteful, quiet and professional spa, where I had an outstanding Biologique Recherche session; they also work with Sodashi and Tatcha. And even further down is the 20-metre pool, and a gym that reminds me, thanks to its wood floor with blocks outlined in black, kind of retro style, of the fitness facility in The Greenwich Hotel, New York (this one here is 24/7 and the equipment is Mantra).
Alex Porteous made sure I had plenty of exercise, by the way – although he fortunately stopped short of suggesting I try geisha dancing. He sent me across the road to Chishakuin Temple, affiliated with Shingon-shū Chizan-ha Buddhism, for the daily 6.30am service. It was emotionally draining, and no photos allowed. For 40 minutes over 80 shaven-head monks, mostly men, chanted in unison, in rising and falling tempo, broken only by elders, and visitors, including me, being privileged to add tiny nuggets of incense to three ceremonial burners, with deep bows before and aft. All the monks wear back aprons, generally different colours from their black or saffron knee length coats over matching pleated skirts, all over mid-calf white skirts and white flipflop socks. I learned later that temples are privately owned and that thanks to the high income from burials and regular commemorative memorial services, they are big business. There is also income from visitors wanting to stay in the temple’s own lodging block. Who becomes a trainee monk? Not surprisingly the kids of owners are ‘encouraged’ to train, but with so many there it must be easier to find recruits than the geiko and geisha owners, who apparently have to trawl far and wide to find teenagers prepared to undergo the geisha discipline.
There seems to be no shortage of sushi chefs, thank goodness. Four Seasons Kyoto has a partnership with the two-Michelin-starred Sushi Wakon in Tokyo; chef Masashi Yamaguchi, in charge of the 10-seat counter and restaurant here, trained there for 15 years. Today he not only made a Nigiri lunch, from Japanese flounder through to sea eel, with gari, ginger, as between-bite palate cleanser, but gave me, via my translator Maaya Arakawa, so much explanation. Now I know that men’s hands are colder than women’s, that chopsticks should be made of cedar, and that Kyoto water is not the best either for sushi rice or green tea – some bring water from Tokyo but Yamaguchi-san prefers bottled drinking water (and the thick soy sauce he uses for brushing sea eel, his own particular favourite nigiri, starts with fish broth boiled gently for two weeks).
Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com