Review: Four Seasons Kyoto is a masterpiece framed by an 800-year-old pond garden

Not every property can claim a setting which features a genuinely breathtaking 800-year-old ikeniwa (a pond garden), but Four Seasons Kyoto is far from your typical luxury hotel. Fairly fresh-faced in one of Japan’s most historical cities, having opened in October of last year, this property stands perfectly located in Higashiyama-ku, near plenty of temples and attractions both well-known and slightly hidden.

Being part of the highly regarded Four Seasons family has obviously set a lofty standard for classic hospitality here, that of which is delivered seamlessly and elevates the property’s stylish blend of ultra-modern comforts with flourishes of tradition. Those looking for high-end accommodation to anchor their travels of Kyoto in pure comfort would be wise to give this one a closer look.

The main entrance off Onna-zaka hill | Supplied.

The gentle, calming nature of Shakusuien, said pond garden, has clearly inspired the design of the hotel. From the minute you veer off Onna-zaka hill and shuffle along the bamboo-laden driveway there’s an instant sense of peace and relaxation that washes over, helped by the warm and inviting lobby framed by creamy coloured marble and delicate floral arrangements. This is the kind of dreamy atmosphere often reserved for a property’s spa – and yes, Four Seasons’ actual seven-room spa is impeccable.

Service is cheerful and efficient without ever being overly intrusive, nurturing the guest experience from the very start until the moment you check-out. This combined with the many different amenities of the hotel, and those fabulously detailed rooms – most of which offer different perspectives of Shakusuien – make for one of the most pleasant and energising stays I’ve personally come across on my travels.

View from the lobby | Supplied.

Even the lobby draws on the garden’s zen-like energy to bring it’s natural charm into the hotel. The far-end of the elegant, and enormous, space features nine-metre tall windows through which you can see the garden and it’s postcard-worthy glow. It’s a motif I found throughout the Four Seasons, with plenty of the property’s major spaces imbued with that stunning view.

Lounge & Bar | Supplied.

The 42-seated Lounge & Bar sits right next to the lobby, it being the ideal choice for a quick drink, some homemade pastries or all-day coffee. Step further towards the windows, down some stairs, and you’ll end up in The Brasserie. The hotel’s primary restaurant has a beautiful layout of plush lounges and intimate banquettes; a sense of comfort and style which spills outside onto the open-air terrace – seating spread out right by the water and the sightly glass bridge. Like many hotel restaurants in Japan, this draws heavily on French influences with a strong commitment to seasonal Kyoto produce (including local craft beers), an approach which also extends to the essential continental breakfast. The day-starting buffet is complemented by an a la carte menu which features the likes of a “Truffle Onsen Egg” with creamy spinach, shaved truffle and chicken jus, and the indulgent “Brioche French Toast” with caramelised banana and valrhona chocolate cream.

The outdoor terrace | Supplied.
Brasserie’s buffet breakfast benefits from fresh local produce.

Furthering the dining options, there’s also Sushi Wakon which is led by renowned sushi master Rei Masuda, he who worked with Jiro Ono for nine years before opening his own two Michelin starred Sushi Masuda in Tokyo. Now at Four Seasons, Masuda serves up traditional edomae-style sushi on a counter carved from a 200 year old Hinoki tree, just big enough to fit 10 people (not including two intimate private dining rooms). It too offers another perspective of the garden, with views from the third floor.

Inside Shakusui-tei | Supplied.
View from the glass bridge | Supplied.

Though one of the most distinctive features as far as food and beverage go is the Shakusui-tei, the property’s quaint tea house which is located deeper into the garden, perched over the pond. The atmosphere here is pure poetry, tranquil and suited for all seasons with offerings that include traditional ryūrei-style tea ceremonies when the sun is up, and lively saké sessions come nightfall. Polished timber characterise the body of the tea house, making for quite the sight when you’re staring down on it from one of the guest rooms or suites.

Walking to the tea house.
Inside one of the hotel’s suites.

Using a One-Bedroom Suite as an example only continues to highlight the highly considered design that has gone into this property. The plan is expansive, especially for Kyoto, and encompasses a large living room and dining area, a long bedroom, walk-in wardrobe, powder room and two separate bathrooms. Detail really is everything here, from the smooth rich dark leather headboards that rise over the cloud-like signature customisable bed(s) (either one king or two doubles) and super premium Lorenzo Villoresi bath amenities, to a thick marble-top working desk in front of large glass windows overlooking the garden.

Gorgeous views of the garden and tea house.

Marble en suite bathroom.

Moyohi-in Temple can be viewed from most suites but the vista is largely centered around the garden (though some others overlook the courtyard). Large windows pull in plenty of natural light to both the living room and bedroom; the latter also features a wall-to-wall banquette by the window for those who would like to sit and contemplate over such an extraordinary scene. Clearly the concepts of relaxation and rejuvenation have had great sway over how the space is used, offering more than enough to match up to the suite’s high price tag.

The cosy dining table.

Much like the rest of the hotel, though features are grand and undeniably high-end – in-mirror TV, marble fixtures, rain showers, thick luxurious robes, 55-inch flat screen – nothing ever feels overdone. The focus remains on comfort and convenience, the latter of which is best represented by the various technologies throughout the suite. Connectivity is excellent, with a USB by each bed as well as a panel featuring all the expected sockets, and there’s an iPad from which guests can easily access just about everything they need from spa treatments and in-room dining to transport and business services. The concierge also serves as a gateway to many unique guest experiences like ninja training (Shuriken and all), pottery making, zen meditation, spa treatments and city-tours in a cushioned Hermès rickshaw.

An iPad sits by the bed with all controls, information and services one needs.
An elegant rickshaw is available for city tours.

A well-stocked 24-hour fitness centre is located within the building as is a cavernous lap pool in an enormous European-styled space, the walls shimmering with a golden glow which looks incredible contrasted with the deep-blue hue of the pool and the nearby bubbling whirlpool baths. Plenty of cabana-styled seating lay around the pool, but there are also a few submerged stone beds. Lovers of a good onsen will also be pleased to know it’s a major feature of both male and female change rooms.

The incredible indoor pool | Supplied.

Across 110 guest rooms and 13 suites, two restaurants, an historical garden, one lounge bar, a waterside tea house and even a custom-designed chapel for weddings, Four Seasons Kyoto is truly an immense and meticulously detailed property. The size, scale and amount of things to do on-site bests many resorts I’ve been to, and the location is ideal for those who have exploration on their mind.

From Four Seasons you need only walk a short distance to the World Heritage listed Kiyomizu-dera, a quintessential site for both tourists and locals, an especially valuable location from which to view Kyoto’s sunset. Many of the city’s best restaurants are also quite close, though daytime is best spent immersed in the lively atmosphere of Nishiki Market, which is often cited as the city’s best for traditional food.

Rates at Four Seasons Kyoto start from around $800 AUD per night.

Four Seasons Kyoto

Address: 445-3, Myohoin Maekawa-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, 605-0932, Japan.
Contact: +81 75 541 8288
Website: fourseasons.com

The writer stayed one night as a guest of Four Seasons Kyoto.