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Kyoto’s ultimate front desk

For about a year, Hotel Mume in Kyoto (261, Umemoto-cho, Shinmonzen St., Higahymama-ku) has been’s favourite hotel in Kyoto. This is not a bad achievement for a hotel of eight rooms, listed as first amongst 150 hotels in a big international tourist magnet like Kyoto. A visitor recently wrote – “This could well be the best boutique hotel in the world.” It sits in a side street near the heart of the popular Gion or old Kyoto area, with its many simple wooden buildings designed around fast running waterways.

Hotel Mume’s real claim to fame is its front desk staff, who meticulously take over the running of a Kyoto holiday, in particular the petite and worldly hotel manager Hisako Shibata.

Don’t be taken in by that sweet and disarming smile, and beguiling charm. Hisako plays a smart guessing game. With Japanese reserve and an astute eye, she sizes you up when you arrive, but not before a lot of generous welcoming in the great tradition of Japanese hospitality. The hospitality is only part of the story.

In our case, over a welcoming cup of coffee, she directed us to cull down our ungainly wish to see the UNESCO declared temple sites to a manageable 5-10 out of about 25. “You won’t be sorry,” she explained demurely. We weren’t.

She first put us on the bus system to the fabled Golden Pavilion, one of the great cultural sites of Japan – a temple covered in gold leaf which was famously destroyed in 1950 by a disturbed monk (who could not bear to share its beauty) and then lovingly rebuilt. Mishima (of disembowelling fame) wrote a famous book about the temple. Its glittering presence obviously has a dark edge – very Japanese.

We found the most serene of Kyoto’s many temple gardens at Heian Jingo (a 15 minute walk from Hotel Mume). Whilst there, we met an elderly Japanese gentleman who had previously visited the finely manicured garden 40 years before and remarked that it seemed almost (to a tree and shrub) entirely unchanged from his previous visit, and had probably been unchanged for decades earlier if not centuries.

Directed by our conductor and manager Hisako, we then walked to Eikando Temple, with its brooding “looking away” Buddha – she picked us as the brooding types. Normally Buddha is fixed with a knowing or serene stare. Not this one, who looks away from the viewer, almost in an apology.

The “looking away” Buddha is at one end of “the Philosopher’s Walk” of about a kilometre – the Silver Pavilion being at the other. The Silver Pavilion was no doubt to be a match for the Golden Pavilion, but no one got around to finishing it in silver leaf. It kept its name all the same, and includes an imposing sculpted version of the much-loved Mt. Fuji made from tiny pebbles. At the end of the walk, we parked ourselves at Omen noodle restaurant – a local favourite, for good cause (

Just to add to the general confusion and mystery, many of Japan’s temples have both Shinto and Buddhist shrines. The Shinto shrines are dedicated to the veneration of historic objects, like a chair or table, or depictions of nature. Shinto is the only religion I know which does not have a deity. The reason that Buddhist shrines are to be found at the same locations is that apparently people prefer a little involvement with deities at certain crucial times, in particular funerals.

Kyoto is completely surrounded by temples in the near foothills just above the valley where the modern city of about 1.5 million functions. In this way, the new city is circled in temples, many of which are hundreds of years old and made from wood with thatched as well as tiled roofs. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto was spared bombing in the Second World War. Tokyo was complete destroyed. In the case of Kyoto, the United States took the astute and compassionate decision to spare the ancient capital, and with it many of the great treasures of Japanese civilisation spanning centuries.

It is hard not to fall in love with Kyoto, which was Hisako’s unstated plan.

It did not take a lot of work on Hisako’s part to realise that good food was going to cap off our affair with Kyoto.

Kyoto has more two hat Michelin restaurants than Paris. There are restaurants within short walking distance of Hotel Mume which offer every conceivable variant of Japanese cuisine, the best of which was Gion Karyo (Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku) with its vast array of courses. It is a little hard to find (aided again here by Hisako) and we were the only non-Japanese there (a good sign). No one spoke much English, but sometimes what you don’t know won’t hurt you. A food-marked Japanese-English dictionary gave some insight into which obscure sea creature we would be devouring next.

Other Hisako favourites in the great labyrinth of options – Wabiya Korekido (Kaburenjo Nishi-Minami, Pontocho Sanjo Sagru, Nakagyoi-ku) – which serves 20 different varieties of yakotori chicken and its sister restaurant Wabiya Rakutyutei (nearby) – and its 20 different varieties of tempura. Again, in both restaurants we were the only non-Japanese customers. Most of these restaurants had no English signage, so we were dependent in Hisako’s map and photos of the entrances.

Being in Japan, we thought we should be drinking sake. In each of these restaurants we seemed to be the only sake drinkers, with our Japanese fellow patrons opting for wines – preferably French.

A note word of “real world” about Hotel Mume. Despite illusions otherwise, all is not perfect with Hisako’s hideaway. It is located in a street signed as “art street”, and there are a number of fine small private galleries in the street, selling beautiful and often inexpensive woodcut block prints of kabuki characters. In the streets nearby are quite a few brothels (they don’t tell you that on These brothels typically are restrained in their presentation (from the street at least) and are not unpleasant and intrusive, but do prompt a turned eye. Boisterous displays of sex services are not the Japanese way. We could not help notice a few older Japanese men in the restaurants I have mentioned in the company of very beautiful (and much) younger women, who could have been wives (but might not have been as well).

After a few days, we were keen to divert from temples. Up to the challenge, Hisako put us on the underground train and bus to the Miho Museum (in Shiga), about an hour away in the hills behind Kyoto. The journey through the hills was reminiscent of a drive through tropical rain forest.

A sidebar about travel on buses and trains – Kyoto has a useful underground. Pay special attention to all the machine-like texting going on in kanji script. This is a nationwide phenomenon. How they get mobile phones to text in such a massive alphabet is yet another moment in Japanese technological brilliance.

Miho’s considerable claim to fame is that it was built by the Chinese-born American architect IM Pei, through the extreme largesse of the head of a Shinto cult (overseen by the Shumei family) which owns the gallery and nearby shrine. IM Pei designed the pyramid entrance to the Louvre and the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington. I could not think of anyone better to engage with a spare $100 million or so for the design and building of my private gallery. It was later explained that religions are a major source of tax deductible donations in Japan, and Miho was clearly no exception.

Just to make sure that full value was extracted from IM Pei, the design involved a complicated entrance to the gallery reached only through a tunnel cut into a mountain, clad in a silver finish, which would suit James Bond, the Maserati and accompanying blond very nicely.

The Miho collection is interesting, but the building and the tunnel are better. There happens to be a better private collection in a beautiful, if slightly less auspicious private gallery in Hakone, near Tokyo, called Pola (and well worth the detour from the comforts of the Kyoto-Tokyo bullet train).

Saying goodbye to Hisako and her staff was always going to be challenging. Over the days of her sizing us up - as brooding, temple-going, restaurant lovers - she had moved well beyond the front desk to bespoke travel guide and general manager of all things “good taste”. There was much mutual expression of great appreciation as we approached our taxi. John Cleese (and “Fawlty Towers”), eat your heart out. Petite Hisako (and Hotel Mume) is everything you are not.

And just as we were leaving, thinking to ourselves (and quite rightly) how we had been treated as the most esteemed guests ever to have visited Hotel Mume, the next lot of visitors to be organised were arriving from around the corner. Hisako and her team were just getting started.