Dan Ilves of TravelStore recently traveled to Japan and is back with this report.
If Tokyo is the throbbing heart of Japan, then Kyoto might be the country’s soul of sorts: More serene and the center of Shinto-Buddhism. A “soul” is more enigmatic than a “heart,” and there’s certainly a hustle and bustle in Kyoto, too. Kyoto offers a visitor many opportunities to appreciate the beauty and nature of Japan in its hundreds of temples and many exquisite gardens.
For the traveler looking for luxurious western-style lodging (with a contemporary Japanese flair and design), Kyoto has a few very good choices here (with many more coming). Let me note there’s a wave of new luxury hotels coming to Kyoto. Capella, Shangri-La and Rosewood are all said to be eyeing or building here. Newly opened is Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto, a member of the Luxury Collection, and experiencing it was the purpose of my trip. I was able to enjoy it and Kyoto city for a week.
The hotel opened late in 2020, but due to the pandemic it was only serving Japanese guests in its first couple of years. With Japan reopening post-pandemic, Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto is geared up to welcome international guests. Under the sure leadership of Manabu Kusui, the general manager (who previously was at the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo), the hotel has a seasoned team. In fact, unlike other luxury properties in Kyoto, there were no significant staff layoffs during the pandemic, and the hotel is fully staffed with a well-trained complement of staff who can communicate well with American clients.
The hotel is owned by Mitsui Fudosan Co., Ltd., which owns a number of properties, including the Halekulani in Hawaii.
The entrance to the hotel is not on the main thoroughfare in front of Nijo-jo Castle, but on a small parallel side street one block over, providing a more discreet and quiet entry.
Location is always important when selecting accommodations, and Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto is the most centrally located of the key luxury hotels at present. (The Ritz-Carlton is a close second.) The hotel is directly across the street from Nijo-jo Castle, and several blocks from the entrance to the Imperial Palace. (The Four Seasons and Park Hyatt are in the southern part of the Higashiyama district.) Which location is preferable may depend on one’s focus and how much time one is staying in Kyoto. The Mitsui is certainly more central when considering important temples, gardens and sites to the west and the north as well as those to the east and southeast.
In addition to its location, Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto is the only luxury hotel with its own thermal spring onsen. There isn’t a swimming pool, but the stunning underground onsen offers the convenience of enjoying this Japanese tradition. This underground oasis is co-ed, featuring four large bathing areas and two Jacuzzi pools, surrounded by comfortable sofas and lounge chairs. As such bathing suits are required here. The water temperature is a consistent 104 degrees and sourced from an on-site natural spring. After a day of touring, the thermal spring was a welcome relief. While there is no charge, use of the onsen is limited to provide an appropriate relaxing experience and avoid crowding, so reservations are recommended.
The spa area includes very hot steam rooms (but no saunas). There are also two private onsens that can be booked for a fee as well as four treatment rooms, which were often booked during my stay. (Insider’s Tip: If your clients enjoy spa treatments or would like to book a private onsen, do encourage them to book in advance to avoid disappointment, especially during peak season.) Of course, there’s also a fitness area with the newest Techno-Gym equipment.
One might sum up the key selling features of the hotel as its location, its Japanese ownership and the on-site co-ed onsen area.
The main building is U-shaped with four floors plus a basement level. Rooms offer either city view, Nijo-jo or garden view (preferred). A historic gate (moved from another location) and small Japanese garden greets visitors. A number of stone artifacts are from the original Mitsui family home. The Garden Bar lounge off the main entry area with the concierge and bell desk opens up to the lovely pool and central garden where the current season can be appreciated, with a cherry tree at the heart of the garden.
Off the main lounge is a tea room to one side where a traditional Japanese tea ceremony is available to guests, while on the other side there’s a library with some 300 [mostly English] books on all things Japanese—from cuisine to design to arts and culture. I enjoyed pulling a book off the shelf every so often and reading a few pages, be it on cuisine, wood craftsmanship or graphic arts. Indeed, for those inclined, the hotel’s library provides great insight into Japanese culture and enhances one’s experience of Japan.
A hotel ambassador provides guests a tour of the art on property and its history; it isn’t very extensive but interesting in providing insight about some of the contemporary art in the hotel, as well as the historic gate at the main entry. The interior of the hotel itself is quite beautiful design-wise, with good use of different woods and stone throughout. It is tasteful and understated. Guests can also enjoy a morning wellness breathing session during their stay.
There are presently two restaurants, Forni and Toki. Forni is open all day; for dinner it has an Italian menu serving nearly paper-thin pizzas, pastas and main dishes. Breakfasts are à la carte (buffets are seasonally available), with Japanese and American cuisine. If there’s one thing (of many) Japan is obsessed over, it is its pastries and baked goods. The flaky croissants and tasty pastries at Forni don’t disappoint. There are a few different Eggs Benedict choices!
Toki is the upscale innovative French-Kyoto cuisine helmed by a chef who came from the two Michelin-starred restaurant at the Ritz in Paris, and the hotel hopes to earn one here. Toki offers an open kitchen; you can sit at a table or at the counter and watch the staff quietly creating exquisite bites you’ll savor. The menu is prix-fixe and changes with the season. Dinner here included 12 courses, each paired with an appropriate wine or sake.
In addition to the two dining venues, there is also a more traditional Japanese structure, Shiki-no-ma, a reconstruction of part of the former Mitsui home and constructed of Japanese cypress, where private events or dinners can be held.
Cuisine on property is top-notch overall as to be expected. As for the neighborhood, there are a number of small local restaurants, from Japanese to French, within a few blocks of the property, not to mention it’s hard to go more than a block or two in Kyoto and not come across a dining spot at nearly every turn. After all, Kyoto is tied with Paris as having the second most greatest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world—only Tokyo has more.
There are 161 keys at Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto. Rooms are similar in design, constructed of natural materials, with Deluxe, Premier and Garden categories ranging from 460 to 540 square feet. There are five suite types, ranging in size from about 600 square feet to 1,200 square feet, and the Presidential Suite, at nearly 2,300 square feet, is being claimed by the hotel to be the largest in the city. It overlooks the Nijo-jo Castle. (There are a couple of room categories offering a castle view, though personally I think the garden view is more desirable.)
One suite type is the Onsen Suites at the lower spa level, an area which has its own private entry. These are gorgeous rooms with beds on a raised platform and their very own private onsen outdoors amid a small garden.
All bathrooms are spacious with double sinks and plenty of counter space and feature the most amazing rain showers (it’s like standing in a misty spring rain like you’ve only dreamed about). Each bathroom has a deep stone tub, adjacent to the shower, for soaking. Comfy bathrobes and of course, slippers. Bath amenities are Parfum Satori products.
Another Japanese obsession is the high art of the toilette! Rooms feature top-end Toto toilets that, let’s just say, do it all, and leave it at that. Included in rooms are Nespresso machines and an electric tea kettle and fridge. I liked that the fridge provided a well-designed storage shelf for one’s own use, as well as the smartly designed pull-out shelf providing more space for making one’s tea or coffee. There are plenty of electrical outlets as well as a Bose sound machine bedside that you can connect with your device via Bluetooth. There is no dresser in the room, though there are storage drawers at floor level, below the shelving for luggage placement and the open closet area. Guests that like to unpack and put away their wearables may find bending down a bit inconvenient than higher placed drawers would be. The lighting is generally good if a bit subdued; it is not especially bright, especially in the hallway by the luggage shelf and above the storage drawers.
There doesn’t seem to be any regularly scheduled “live” entertainment on property, though during my stay we enjoyed a 30-minute concert by 10 students of the Seiji Ozawa Music Academy, something the hotel has done on occasion. This was a delightful and exclusive experience, and hopefully the hotel will do more live events like this in future. A single musician performing on occasional evenings in the Garden Bar would be welcome.
As do a number of resorts these days, Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto is creating its own unique and exclusive experiences for guests, both on and off site. There is a strong relationship with the Nijo-jo Castle across the street, where after-hours tours and a private buyout can be arranged. The tour included the standard tour of the castle at closing time, with exclusive access to one of the rooms and its ornately painted panels up close, which normally is off limits.
A three-hour experience at Shunkoin Temple at the Myoshinji Temple complex included an insider’s tour of the temple, with access to rooms and altar, as well as a calligraphy class (learning how to use the brushes, make the ink, and practice some basic kanji including writing our names, which was then framed and provided as a gift). The calligraphy class would be a fun family activity. This was followed by a guided zen meditation (zazen) with Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, the most personable head priest, who was educated in the States and understands and relates well with Americans. I found the complex of 49 temples here is stunning in itself and well worth a visit.
A very special and exclusive experience was visiting the home and studio of a renowned gold leaf artist Yasushi Noguchi, an interesting character; we enjoyed having tea with him and then going to his studio upstairs as he explained how he (and his son) work in gold leaf and lacquer and make gold leaf thread for obis.
Yet another exclusive experience was a private champagne visit to the Hosoo showroom and flagship store. Hosoo is known for its high-end kimonos, and they also offer kimono fitting and rentals. (Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto offers a package that includes accommodations and kimono rental and make-up). Hosoo has expanded its one-of-a-kind textile production, which is of the highest quality, and is making upholstery, bedding, textile art, women’s purses and shoes. For luxury clients looking for the very best and unique in textiles products, the Hosoo luxury experience and exhibition space is special. Hosoo has worked with Dior and just opened its Milan showroom.
Finally, Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto can arrange a private activity for a hands-on wagashi making experience, the Japanese confectionery made from mochi or bean paste. We made a couple of different types, including a cherry blossom shape appropriate for the season, and then enjoyed our wagashi with tea. This, too, would be a very fun family adventure.
Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto offers both electric and standard bicycles, and while Kyoto is an easily navigable and mostly flat city, I had second thoughts because finding a place to park a bike can be challenging here, depending on where you are going. Otherwise, Kyoto, which has 1.5 million residents, is a very walkable city, and while there’s the bus and local subway network, taxis are readily available and it’s not much to hop a cab, of course, depending how far you’re going.
Otherwise, as to sightseeing, the advice provided in guidebooks is tried and true—it’s best to schedule your visits to temples and gardens at opening hours or just before closing to avoid the crowds.