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In Search of Kyoto's Modern Masters

Hoshinoya Kyoto, Raymond Patrick

Photo by Raymond Patrick

Taking the boat upriver to Hoshinoya Kyoto.

Talk about a bang-up sales pitch. Granted, I didn’t exactly have my guard up. I had crossed seven time zones the night before to find myself standing in Kyoto’s Nishijin district—home to the city’s centuries-old garment industry—far too early one blustery October morning. But, then again, it would be hard not to fall under Noguchi-san’s spell. A charming, older Japanese gent who wears his indeterminable age much like Sean Connery, Yasushi Noguchi is one of Kyoto’s best gold leaf artisans. And along with his son, Takuro Noguchi (whose talents rival his father’s), he produces luminescent paintings from micrometer-thin sheets of gold leaf and other metals; it’s an incredibly delicate process.

Together, the Noguchis represent the fourth and fifth generations of gold leaf artists in their family. But whereas their ancestors relied upon word of mouth to advertise, I’d stumbled across an intriguing YouTube video of Noguchi-san and decided to pay him a visit. So there I found myself, executing a rather clumsy bow to a samue-clad Noguchi-san and his son and being led through noren curtains and into the traditional 1890s wooden merchant house the pair calls their workshop and home. Over the course of several hours, I was served green tea and pastries in their tatami gallery, which sits in view of the house’s beautiful Japanese garden, before I was escorted up a set of tiny stairs to their studio to learn about their process and catalogue of work, from Noguchi-san’s more traditional, stunning pieces to the younger Takuro’s more abstract paintings. “This is Kyoto from the sky,” he tells me of a kaleidoscope-esque composition in an array of metallic colors.

       
Browsing at Kyoto Design House.        

The juxtaposition of old and new became a familiar scene during my stay in Kyoto. The city was the Japanese imperial capital until the Meiji regime moved the royal court to Tokyo in 1868, and it always has been associated with the geisha that glide through the city’s historic Gion district and the traditional artisans who work behind wooden houses like that of Noguchi-san. The city was one of the few not bombed during World War II and is filled with immaculately restored, centuries-old structures. But a growing number of residents across all spectra are showcasing a different side of Kyoto: one that gives a nod to the past but is firmly rooted in the present. Artists such as Takuro, chefs, shop owners and hoteliers are bringing traditional ideas and techniques into a modern context. And the result is a city that is undeniably in transition.

In some ways, this is a movement born of necessity as the market for traditional crafts has declined. But, as in many cases, out of desperation innovation is born, and the past several years have seen a number of doors open. This includes the Kyoto Design House, an interiors shop that commissions traditional artisans to produce daily modern-use items (a Japanese umbrella craftsman, for example, is making lampshades, while a fabric dyeing specialist produces iPhone cases). At Omo, fashion stylist Motoko Morita offers an energized take on kimonos. And Karacho employs centuries-old block printing techniques traditionally used for sliding screens and origami paper on everything from stationery to wallpaper, lamp shades and business cards.

On the food side, counter kaiseki restaurants are springing up all over town. These spots put a relaxed spin on the 500-year-old tradition of the kaiseki, an extremely formal, multicourse meal of seasonally inspired, elaborately presented dishes. Counter kaiseki menus are still seasonally based and often change daily, just as they do at the buttoned-up establishments that inspired them. But they often use less-refined ingredients and have fewer grand flourishes (place settings might be more humble, for example). Kaiseki restaurants generally serve meals to patrons in private dining rooms separated by shoji screens; counter kaisekis, however, are usually set up like standard Japanese restaurants, with several tables and a sushi counter. They’re also less expensive: Kaiseki meals can cost hundreds of dollars per person, while counter variations ring in at about $50.

But perhaps the trend is best exemplified at Hoshinoya Kyoto, which opened in 2009 in a bucolic forested setting in Arashiyama, a quiet suburban district. The property is a modern update on a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Housed in several 100-plus-year-old structures that perfectly sit at the river’s edge, the 25-room property seamlessly integrates old styling (sliding screen doors, cedar soaking tubs and tatami rooms) with of-the-moment updates (block wallpaper from Karacho; handcrafted cedar and pine settees; heated black pine floors). Instead of futons being rolled out onto the floor at night, they are lofted onto wooden platforms.

       
Kyoto National Museum.        

Guests arrive at Hoshinoya Kyoto via a lazy, 15-minute boat ride down the river (after dark, when the boat stops running, it’s a rather treacherous van ride up a narrow road to the inn) and are met by a butler, who acts as housekeeper, concierge and jack of all trades. In the morning, he serves you breakfast—either Japanese or continental—in your sitting room. And while a kaiseki dinner isn’t served to you in your room, as it is at traditional ryokan, you can enjoy a kaiseki menu at the resort’s restaurant, where your butler will attend to you. He is also happy to recommend sightseeing options: The Arashiyama district is home to several of Kyoto’s most famous temples. Or you can just stay in, as there are plenty of opportunities to delve into Japanese culture at Hoshinoya, including tea ceremonies and lessons in chanting and drumming.

The day after I met with Noguchi-san, I made my way to a southern suburb of Kyoto to visit with Sueharu Fukami, a ceramicist who is widely considered one of the top three artists coming from Japan today (his pieces are displayed in the Brooklyn Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum, among other places; they also can be purchased at the Roku Roku Dou gallery in town). Fukami comes from a strong pottery tradition himself: His father was also a potter and owned his own kiln. But a desire to differentiate himself led Sueharu to experiment with different methods. Traditionally, potters are limited to shapes they can create on a pottery wheel, but he developed a new technique for producing works: Instead of a wheel, he now builds molds that he uses to cast his creations. And the outcome is spectacular. Angular pieces, all sharp lines and edges, glazed in a sea foam blue green, populate his minimal studio space. He likens the shapes to the curve of a nearby temple’s roof or the slope of one of the mountains around town. “If I were in another city, my work would be different,” he says. “Every traditional technique here lives inside of me, and I wouldn’t be able to reach where I am now without them. I pay homage to those who come before me with what I do.” //


IF YOU GO:

Where to Stay
Hoshinoya KyotoHyatt Regency Kyoto: Far from your standard Hyatt, Japanese starchitect Super-Potato has tricked out this 189-room hotel with a mix of traditional design elements (freestanding cypress tubs in bathrooms, washi paper lampshades, headboards covered with kimono cloth) and mod flourishes. 

Where to Eat
Kitcho Arashiyama Honten: To experience a traditional kaiseki meal in all of its ritualistic glory, pop down on your knees at the low-slung table in your private dining room at this 100-plus-year-old, Michelin-starred restaurant, located just down the river from Hoshinoya. • Giro Giro Hitoshina: Housed in a former townhouse, this is one of Kyoto’s best counter kaiseki restaurants, with its coursed menu of French-inflected seasonal fare. 

Where to Shop
Roku Roku Dou: This tiny pottery gallery offers exquisite pieces by Sueharu Fukami, along with other contemporary ceramicists. 81-75/525-0166Gallery Hitamuki: This 9-year-old gallerylike boutique offers innovative interiors and tabletop items created by emerging artists from all over Japan. 81-75/221-8507Gallery Kei: A stunning array of vintage fabrics from across Japan are on display at this tiny shop. 81-75/212-7114 • Gold Leaf Art (Yasushi and Takuro Noguchi): 81-75/415-1150

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