Japan seamlessly fuses the past with the future. A trip to the country can feel like a journey through time, with cities like Tokyo, some of whose neighborhoods feel firmly rooted in the premodern Edo period while others provide foretastes of urban life in a century or two, and Kyoto, where traditional geisha culture survives (if barely, and just for now) alongside cutting-edge fashion and food, not to mention miles of coastline harboring both modern art museums and amas (female pearl divers). Japan, unsurprisingly, is the world’s fastest-growing travel destination, with an incredible breadth of experiences and a crop of exciting newcomers that is raising the country’s already very high cool quotient.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868 and the center of its culture for more than a thousand years. Long seen as a serene counterpart to fast-paced Tokyo, the city today is a hotbed of creativity, where much of the country’s change is taking place. Most notably, the hotel scene is booming, with a riverside Aman hotel opening on the city outskirts this year and forming a pampering trio with the brand’s outpost in Tokyo and its countryside Amanemu. More groundbreaking is the impending debut of the über-hip Ace hotel downtown. The high-design, budget-friendly group’s first Asian property, it was designed by prolific Japanese architect Kengo Kuma with an industrial-chic aesthetic and stylish public spaces that are sure to make it the place to be for the creatives currently livening up Kyoto. These new properties join longtime favorites like the five-star Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, located downtown within walking distance of some of the top shops and restaurants, and the serene ryokan-style Hoshinoya Kyoto, in Arashiyama on the city outskirts, where guests are treated to a traditionally Japanese experience—the arrival, by boat, is particularly memorable.
Kyoto’s narrow alleys lined with 17th-century tea houses seem like relics from decades past, but behind the buildings’ simple façades are cutting-edge boutiques and restaurants. Leading the pack is y gion, a multistory complex, launched in 2017 by interior designer Takuma Inoue, which includes an art gallery plus rooms for holding shows and culinary events with top local chefs, as well as a rooftop bar that hosts pop-ups in the summer. Community Store to See is another multipurpose cultural venue, comprising a shop, a café and an art house, where you can find everything from artisan-made ceramics to graphic T-shirts. Otsuka Gofukuten, meanwhile, gives a fresh twist to the kimono, the iconic formalwear traditionally reserved for the upper class and geishas, with designer Yusuke Seki’s more affordable modern versions, made-to-order using vibrant, textured textiles.
Crafting the ultimate Kyoto-cool outfit, however, requires a visit to two more shops. Pass the Baton, located in a restored machiya (traditional wooden townhouse), offers a spectacular array of second-hand finds, including vintage Chanel earrings, delicate china plates and clothing from such top Japanese brands as Issey Miyake. The store, whose first location opened in Tokyo in 2009, was conceived as a place for celebrities and the capital’s style setters to resell their top-quality fashion and accessories; the two-floor Kyoto boutique has brought this concept one step further, indicating items’ previous owners and history on their tags. Arts & Science has eight stores in Tokyo and four in Kyoto, including one around the corner from the Ritz-Carlton hotel that sells the minimalist, meticulously tailored fashion worn by the chicest locals.
Turning from fashion to food, Junsei is the spot to sample Kyoto’s regional specialties—don’t miss the yudofu (tofu cooked in a hotpot)—but visitors should also try the city’s innovative eateries. Helmed by an innovative Japanese chef, the cozy Monk restaurant specializes in wood-fired dishes, serving a menu of seven courses, the last savory one always a pizza. The offerings change daily, but you can expect classics (margherita) as well as offbeat toppings like nori or Kujo leek. The equally intimate Farmoon is loved for its homey atmosphere and talented female chef, Masayo Funakoshi, whom patrons can watch as she crafts international takes on Japanese cuisine in the open kitchen. Also an artist, Funakoshi made all the ceramic tableware herself.
Although Kyoto ranks high in creativity, Tokyo still reigns as one of the world’s most fashion-forward cities, the streets below its slick skyscrapers teeming with affluent people impeccably dressed in designer garb. Ground zero for some of the capital’s coolest designs is the hipster neighborhood Daikanyama, where you can observe great street style and then shop for it at such boutiques as Okura, known for jeans and indigo fashions made using ancient Japanese techniques, and Mina Perhonen, which fuses Japanese and Finnish aesthetics in elegant wear like linen dresses and velvet loafers, all in one-of-a-kind fabrics created by designer/owner Akira Minagawa. The area’s prime attraction is Daikanyama T Site, a complex featuring a phenomenal book and magazine store, but 1LDK Apartments, an offshoot of popular Tokyo brand 1LDK, also draws a crowd with its minimalist fashion for men and women and chic leather accessories, as well as its Taste and Sense café. Lauded Parisian beauty brand L’Officine Universelle Buly wisely chose Daikanyama as the home for its first Japan boutique, and the store is a design marvel. The interior is divided into two sections with completely different styles: one half has the same antique pharmacy look as the brand’s Paris locations; the other is strikingly modern, with concrete floors and walls designed by a team of local architects.
In terms of restaurants, the roster in this city changes almost daily. One relatively new addition to Tokyo’s world record number of Michelin-starred options, is Den, a kaiseki eatery with a playful spirit, as evidenced by courses like black truffle custard served in a Starbucks-style mug and Dentucky Fried Chicken, which arrives in a red-and-white to-go box with the chef’s face printed on it in lieu of the Colonel’s. The hottest reservation for the past few years, Den might just be dethroned by the eagerly anticipated Inua, which opened last year under the direction of chef Thomas Frebel, who led research and development at Copenhagen’s Noma and incorporates Japanese ingredients into his Nordic-inflected dishes. For more Scandinavian fare, a visit to the YaNeSen neighborhood is worth the trek. The area, which escaped the World War II bombing and is one of the city’s most atmospheric, is home the Vaner bakery, helmed by a Japanese chef who spent a year in Norway before bringing his skills back home. Arrive early—the fresh sourdough and cardamom rolls sell out quickly—and then stroll the surrounding streets, making sure to stop at SCAI the Bathhouse, a top contemporary art gallery.
SCAI is just one part of a Tokyo art scene that is surging, with a slew of boundary-pushing projects. The most talked-about—and certainly most Instagrammed—recent debut is Teamlab Borderless. The 107,000-square-foot museum has 50 interactive digital installations, including the Forest of Resonating Lamps, composed of hundreds of light bulbs that change color as you approach them. You mustn’t miss the Yayoi Kusama Museum, which showcases the vibrant works of its namesake, who is practically synonymous with Japanese contemporary art; but beware—as with most of the hottest restaurants and museums in Japan, you have to reserve as soon as bookings open up. Dedicated art fans should also make a day trip to Kanagawa (one hour by car from Tokyo) to visit the Enoura Observatory. Opened in 2017 by the Odawara Art Foundation, which was established by the contemporary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto in 2009 to foster Japanese culture while adopting an international perspective, the architecturally striking structure has unobstructed water views, galleries and a tea house.
With all the new, it’s easy to forget that Japan is also about the venerable. In this change-obsessed country, part of the fun comes from combining a meal at a centuries-old tempura restaurant with a guided tour of the Tokyo electronics district, where you can get a sneak peek at the technology you’re certain to see at home in a few years. Come back in a week, and you’ll be able to experience an entirely new side of the city.
– Emma Pierce