By: Juliana Pires Johnson

Photo Courtesy: Sara Aiko

Sara Aiko is the Founder of Curated Kyoto, the only Travel Agency (as featured in Vogue) you need to talk to if you are thinking of visiting this magical city in Japan. We had the pleasure of having Sara not only help us curate two Kyoto visits but got to spend all days together as she took us around town, answered all of our questions, planned the lunches and dinners and  helped us catch those cabs, communicate with the locals (different to Tokyo, may of the locals do NOT speak English!) and effortlessly blend as a part of the crew. We loved both our experiences so much – a mix of the traditional must-sees in Kyoto and all those hidden gems, known only by the locals. Until your first, or next visit to Kyoto, enjoy this guide as Sara takes you on a creative journey through this enchanting city.

Follow her at @sara.aiko and @curatedkyoto

Q: Why do you love Kyoto –  what are the city’s essence and character traits?

A: There are so many things I love about this city- the design, the art, the food and the nature but specifically I love that this city really values “harmony.”

Harmony translated into Japanese is wa  和. Coexisting in harmony with each other is the theme of the Japanese culture and is experienced in Kyoto in a lot of different ways. Harmony isn’t just about the relationship between humans but it’s about the harmony between human and nature, the harmony between food and the environment, the harmony between the sound and the space etc. I love it how every element works together to enhance an experience. EVERY detail is important. That’s why an EXCEPTIONAL dining experience in Kyoto isn’t just about the food but it’s about the design of the restaurant, the ambience, the smell and even the plates the food is served on. It’s all about how they come together – harmony.

Q: What’s your favorite season in Kyoto?

 A: It’s a tie between autumn and summer. Autumn because of the beautiful autumn leaves and the climate. Also walking around in the city in the evening is so romantic in autumn. 

Q: Perfect day for a local and perfect day for a tourist 

A: I always say I want people to experience the everyday culture of the city so, I want people who visit Kyoto to experience the city like a local. That might be going for a run along the Kamo river in the morning, followed by visiting an old coffee house run by an elderly couple, visiting a serene temple in mountainside and then visiting a couple of galleries to see both traditional and contemporary artists. For lunch I recommend something easy and fun like a local soba place so at night you can splurge at a nice intimate Kappo restaurant in Gion. It’s all about the balance of low and high. 

Q: Favorite restaurants by Japanese cuisine

Sushi – It’s not a Michelin star but I love Tai Sushi and its pretty casual but is a nice hidden spot 

Tempura – Tenyu is divine. Their lunch is pretty reasonable as well 

Tofu – I love Tousuiro right by the Kamo river 

Ramen – I don’t eat that much ramen, but I hear Menya Yukou is great

Sweets- Umezono gallery. Their matcha parfait or pancakes are so delicious. 

Favorite bar + cocktail or mocktail – I love going to the roof top of y.gion for summer. I can’t remember the name of the cocktail, but they make this amazing matcha + citrus one 

Q: Favorite Temple

A: Ooo it’s hard to pick a favorite but I love Komyo-in temple. It’s a small temple in the south of Kyoto. The garden was designed by one of my favorite landscape designers, Mirei Shigemori. 

Q: Favorite garden

A: I love going to the garden at Murin-an. Murin-an is a villa which belonged to a former political leader of Japan. I love going to the villa and looking out to the garden. Its somewhere you can really, stop, relax and breathe. Sometimes I take a book there and read for hours, drinking matcha green tea. 

Q: Most stunning location

A: Again this is so hard to choose because it depends on season and the mood that you’re in. If I had to choose one, I love going to Ohara for a day trip. It’s about a 45-minute bus ride from the city center. It’s the rural part of Kyoto and the scenery is divine. 

Q: Most overrated location

A: The golden temple. Sorry guys. I know its gold, shiny and we all love our bling but there are more temples in the city where you can actually enjoy in peace and connect to the serenity. 

Q: Favorite place to meet up with friends

A: We all love coffee so we always visit a coffee shop-ranging from old coffee houses run by an old grandpa to more of the new coffee shops that serve specialty coffee. 

Here are a few of our favs: 

  • Kurasu Ebsisugawa 
  • Style Coffee 
  • Weekenders 

Q: Hotel recommendations

A -Kasuien (Ryokan), Park Hyatt Kyoto and the Node Hotel

Q: Spot that inspires you the most

A: So so soooo many inspirational places in Kyoto but I love going somewhere where I can just sit and think. One of the places I go to are the smaller temples in Daitoku-ji- for example Zuihoin. Sometimes the head abort who is in his 80s will come out and have a chat with me which again is inspiring. 

Q: Best people watching locale

A: The Kamo river. This is the main river flowing through the city. This is the best place to people watch regardless of if it’s early in the morning or if it’s at night. You can see the many faces of Kyoto. You see grandpa practicing his Tai-chi moves, the young hip couple sipping on their takeaway coffee, you sometimes even see someone practicing their cello at the river because they don’t want to disturb their neighbors in the apartment block. 

Q: What’s the feeling you want people to leave Kyoto with?

A: Relaxed but most of all inspired. Kyoto is one of those cities where you get to really experience tradition and modern culture living side by side. It’s a city that respects patience and dedication. In a fast-paced world, its inspiring to still see someone dedicate their whole life to perfect one craft or see a 1000-year-old shrine still visited by young people who go there to pray. 

Q: Mantra of the city

A: It’s not really a mantra of Kyoto but I love this  “mantra” which was born from the tea ceremony culture. 

Ichi-go ichi-e which means “one time one meeting” a.k.a Treasure every meeting (encounter ), for it will never recur

People often ask me don’t you get sick of visiting the same place over and over again with your job and my answer is this “Ichi-go Ichie e”…I might go to the same place but not one experience is the same, this could be due to the people, the season, the time of the day, the vibe, etc.… 


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