Old-fashioned meets newfangled in Kyoto, Japan's imperial city (photo: Agathe Marty)

This Calgarian Wants to Tell You About the Coolest Spots in Kyoto

By Kellie Davenport

Much like the geisha who scurry around town, Kyoto, Japan can be coy, alluring and jaw-droppingly gorgeous. “There’s something beautiful around every corner, from canals to kimonos to temples,” says Calgary knife retailer and AMA member Kevin Kent. After working abroad as a chef, Kent returned home to sell cutting-edge cutlery to local kitchens. The one-man venture evolved into Knifewear, a booming operation with stores in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Ottawa.

The cutler first visited Japan a decade ago, scouting blades in Tokyo. On a whim, he popped by Kyoto and has made yearly pilgrimages ever since. “This is where traditional Japan lives—temples, teahouses and the best food in the country,” Kent says.

While most of Japan embraces modernity, Kyoto honours its imperial past. The city houses some 2,000 shrines and temples; robed monks shuffle between centuries-old buildings; and artisans craft goods using skills passed down through generations. Check out some of Kent’s must-see, must-eat picks in Japan’s spiritual centre.

kyoto japan kevin kent
Kevin Kent

The knife merchant recharges in the city after time in bustling Tokyo.

Sleep: Stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Somewhat comparable to North American B&Bs, ryokan range from basic guesthouses to ultra-luxe accommodations. In Kyoto, most are family-run and feature tatami-mat flooring and fluffy futon mattresses.

See: Protruding from the side of a mountain, Kiyomizu-dera Temple was founded in 778 and remains the city’s most beloved sight. “Going to Kyoto and not seeing it would be like going to Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower,” Kent adds. The over-the-top temple boasts healing properties too: Legend says that a drink from its fountain cures common ailments.

Wonderful, weird things to see and do in Tokyo

Visit: “Hands down, my favourite neighbourhood is Pontocho,” Kent says. Just west of the Kamo River, Pontocho Alley is arguably the most atmospheric street in the city—cars and modern buildings are forbidden. Lined with shops, bars, restaurants and traditional teahouses, the alley exudes Japanese charm and is popular with local Kyotoites. Go shortly after dusk when paper lanterns illuminate storefronts and geisha—who’ve worked as entertainers in the area since the 1700s—flit between teahouses.

kyoto japan kiyomizu-dera temple pontocho alley
From left: Kiyomizu-dera temple; lantern-lit Pontocho Alley (photos: Lucas Vallecillos/Alamy)

Shop: Shopping for Kyoto fashions likely isn’t in the cards if you’re a certain size: “I’m 6’6″, so there is nothing that fits me,” Kent jokes. But the cool cutler has made one stylish find: Sneakers! Just down the hill from Kiyomizu-dera, Spingle Move crafts funky, chunky-soled runners in a rainbow of colours. Kent owns eight pairs and counting.

Snack: Around the corner from Spingle Move, Jeremy & Jemimah spins melt-in-your-mouth cotton candy. The enormous pastel fluffs come in Japanese flavours like citrusy yuzu and salted plum. The spot is a local fave and it’s common to see kimono-clad girls nibbling the floss with chopsticks.

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Eat: On a narrow street in Pontocho, Kyo Horumon Taisha is a true hidden gem. “I call it the ‘Fatty Meat on a Stick Joint’,” Kent says. “It’s my favourite restaurant in the world—a smoky little hole-in-the-wall where meat reigns supreme.” The diminutive eatery serves yakiniku (grilled meat) and specializes in the more exotic parts—like beef intestine, heavily salted and barbecued over charcoal. “It may not sound tempting, but trust me: It’s the most delicious thing you will ever eat.”

Drink: Seating just a dozen patrons, Kyoto Loves Gin is the perfect place to fall into after a big meal. Owner/bartender/resident art curator Tomoiki Sekine stirs up innovative cocktails using Japanese ingredients, like miso and matcha. Kent says: It’s a fun bar and Tomoiki tolerates my broken Japanese!”