Luxury Hotels

The luxury Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto is a must (but can you get a room?)

Wedding chapel (turn off the electric cross to secularise)

Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto opened October 15th, 2016, and immediately saw a full house, because it was new (and Four Seasons) and then repeats soon started, and Christmas and New Year, and next the forthcoming sakura cherry blossom season, which officially starts here, in Kyoto, on March 28th, 2017… plus, frankly, Kyoto just does not, at any time of the year, have enough places to stay. Other than needing more bedrooms, 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, says the gal, it is amazing how well they have learned skills, and English, so fast. This is, by the way, an urban design resort. Look, above, at a wall above the breakfast buffet. Look, left, at the chapel window: turn off the cross and the space can instantly be used, say, for a course by Danish floral artist Nicolai Bergmann – he has the flower shop here (he also partners with Four Seasons Hotel Seoul).

Ablution area, ladies’ spa

This entire hotel 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. It is part of a gorgeous garden, said to date back 800 years, with two-feet-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 geisha, a trainee aged 15-19, visits every weekend – see her dancing, in the video below, in the hotel’s main lobby, up on the third floor of the building. Yes, the building’s top, fourth, floor, consists of 57 residences for sale, the lobby is labelled third floor, with two floors of bedrooms beneath. Even further below, on B1, is the tasteful, quiet and professional spa, where I had an outstanding Biologique Récherché session – it also works with Sodashi, and Tatcha.

Alex Porteous in the lobby

And down at base, B2, is the 65-ft pool, and a 24/7 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. Here in Kyoto, 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 its daily 6.30 a.m. service. It was emotionally draining, and no photos allowed. For 40 minutes over 80 shaven-head monks, mostly men, chanted, in rising and falling tempo in unison, the trance 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, dressed entirely in plain cotton fabrics, 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 high income from burials and regular commemorative memorial services, they are big business. There is also financial benefit from visitors wanting to stay in the temple’s own lodging block.

Chef Masashi Yamaguchi, in front of a wall of tin shapes

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 monk recruits than the task facing geiko 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. This luxury hotel has a partnership with the two-star Michelin Sushi Wakon (master-chef Rei Masuda) in Tokyo: chef Masashi Yamaguchi, in charge here of the ten-seat counter and restaurant, trained for 15 years. Today he not only made a Nigiri lunch, from Japanese flounder through to sea eel, with gari, ginger, as between-bite palette 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 he uses 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, sic). Every hour here is further education in the DNA of Japan. NOW WATCH A GEISHA DANCE, BELOW