The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto, self-styled as Japan's first "luxury urban resort", is one of the former ancient Japanese capital's ritziest hotels, with room rates to match. This outwardly unremarkable, low-level and boutique-like establishment, at a relatively meagre 134 guest rooms, opened almost four years ago. Its arrival roughly coincided with an unprecedented surge in foreign visitor numbers to Kyoto. But a combination of factors such as building restrictions, with modern structures unable to surpass the height of the city's historic temples, and a paucity of available and affordable real estate, has meant the hotel has faced relatively little competition since its opening, allowing, crucially, for high room rates.
The hotel's location is one of the best in Kyoto, nestled beside the Kamogawa River, which flows gently through the heart of Kyoto with the contiguous Higashiyama mountains, along with a profusion of unmistakable Shinto Buddhist temple spires, as its captivating backdrop. Nearby are some of the city's most popular and rewarding attractions as well as some of the best shopping in Japan.
Kyoto, with its irresistible human scale, cultivated cuisine, deep culture and multiple UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites, remains the essence of Japan. The owners of the Ritz-Carlton are to be commended for the effort made to commission Kyoto's wealth of artisans to design and create the hotel's sumptuous decorations and fittings, including some impressive sculptural and traditional lighting. Indeed, the skilful design of the hotel's overall interior by Peter Remedios celebrates Kyoto's rich cultural and artistic heritage with the American's design concept predicated, if a trifle arcanely, on five key Japaneses words and emotions, namely utage (festive), seido (serenity and movement), miyabi (elegance), hana (splendour) and nagomi (harmony).
Of course, hotel rooms in Japan can be notoriously small but that's by no means the case at the Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto. The dimensions of the luxuriously appointed rooms and suites, after all, begin at a generous 45 square metres. Handmade soaps are included in bathrooms and the bed linen boasts a 600-thread count. Many of the rooms feature pleasing views of the river and mountains while others look out to an attractive Japanese Zen garden. For the more adventurous guest, traditional tatami-matted suites with futons are available, an experience all western visitors really should try at least once.
In a city renowned for its cuisine there's no shortage of dining options but the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto's refined in-house Mizuki restaurant, encompassing kaiseki, teppanyaki, tempura and sushi in one elegant and sizeable space, represents a worthy match for external eateries. If you do hanker for western food there's also the stylish La Locanda, an Italian restaurant and, more casually, the elegant and serene Lobby Lounge, specialising in a range of teas and exquisite cakes, pastries and other treats from Pierre Herme Paris.
Many of the city's main attractions are nearby, such as Pontocho, a pedestrianised laneway traditionally frequented by geisha, and Gion in the historic Higashiyama district, its atmospheric, dimly lit streets lined with well-preserved machiya, or traditional townhouses. Both districts feature some of the city's finest restaurants and bars, some of which can still remained barred to foreigners. Elsewhere, Kawaramachi, the city's vibrant main shopping district, full of criss-crossing covered market-like streets, is within walking distance of the hotel.
Not unlike Kyoto itself, this well-located Ritz-Carlton is all class, even though such panache in this part of Japan tends to come with a matching price-tag. The hotel's commitment to local art provides it with an uncommonly distinct sense of place from the moment you arrive. A stay here, let alone a visit to Kyoto, can be difficult to forget.
Doubles start from JPY68,000 a night. 543 Hokodencho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto. See ritzcarlton.com/kyoto
The myriad works of local artisans that grace the hotel provide a real sense of being part of a unique city, something many other establishments around the world fail, or don't bother, to achieve.
The giddily high tariffs for a room at the hotel may be out of reach of most travellers, unless they're willing to splurge, though those who can afford it will be well pleased.