Mnabu Horiguchi has lived in Kyoto’s Gentaku neighbourhood all his life. Yet it was only when the 31-year-old was hired as Chef de Partie at Aman Kyoto that he realised a secret garden had existed all this while, just 10 minutes from his doorstep. Such is the magic surrounding luxury resort chain Aman’s third resort in Japan, that even for the locals, it’s a mystery waiting to be unravelled.
The resort is only a 30-minute drive from Kyoto Station, but as you near the 32ha grounds located in north Kyoto, the urban landscape fades into a glade of maple and Japanese cedar trees. Granted, it was hard to visualise that beauty in an 8pm arrival, but Aman’s magical hospitality was still felt right away as a team of six welcomed me the moment my chauffeur-driven car pulled into the driveway.
Dinner had been arranged at the Japanese restaurant Taka-An, but Head Chef Koji Mita saw my tired face and suggested a simple but comforting bowl of nyumen and conger eel in kombu and bonito flake dashi instead, telling me to take the nine-course kaiseki menu another day. I slurped down the delicious noodles, happy as a lark.
Oasis of serenity
The next morning, the mechanised blinds of my suite rolled up to reveal a serene, sun-dappled garden through the floor-to-ceiling windows. It felt surreal, especially in the wake of Typhoon Hagibis that had hit Japan only four days earlier. My minimalist room resembled an art gallery: an ikebana in a tall earthen vessel and a hanging scroll with the printed image of a fog rising from Kyoto’s Takagamine Mountain occupy a tokonoma, an alcove for the display of artistic items.
I spent my free time sitting on the tatami-covered floor gazing outside, never once feeling the urge to switch on the television that was cleverly hidden – as were other amenities such as the wardrobe and minibar – behind wooden panels. Add a steaming bath redolent with the scent of herbs and yuzu in a hinoki ofuro bathtub (factor 30 minutes for the tub to fill up, yes, it’s that big) – long enough to fit my entire 1.65m frame lying down, and there was a real temptation never to leave the room.
But with nature beckoning in the form of jewelled gardens, ancient mossy boulders and stone-cut pathways, it’s hard to resist its allure. Treatments at the Aman Spa range from Japanese Gold Leaf facials to grounding massages and scrubs for harried urbanites, and include dips in the indoor and outdoor onsens (the latter is especially bracing in chilly autumn air).
I had the autumnal version of the Aman Kyoto Signature Journey, which included a foot bath ritual inspired by the traditional ryokan welcome that dates back to the 16th century. It features organic rice bran, natural sea salt, Japanese sake (the same one offered to the gods in the nearby famous Kinkakuji Temple) and 24k gold flakes. My therapist Koko then had me close my eyes while she sounded an orin, a Japanese singing bowl. Calm and relaxed, I slumbered through the full body massage that used an essential oil blend of sweet osmanthus, Japanese orange and cider.
Nature’s bounty ended up on our plates too. Chestnuts shaken out of their trees by the typhoon became steamed snacks drizzled with molasses on my table. At the all-day dining Living Pavilion, where a central fireplace and side walls lined with handmade tiles bring on warm feels, Executive Chef Kentaro Torii brings a finesse and elegance to dishes, such as the Aman Kyoto Fish and Chips (a tender trout fillet in kataifi pastry served with pickled Kyoto turnip), and a hearty spaghetti bolognese made with Ohmi wagyu, one of Japan’s top three wagyus.
Taka-An’s kaiseki menu, which I finally took on the last night seated at the 7m-long African cherry wood counter, was filled with local ingredients at their seasonal best: matsutake mushrooms, yuba (bean curd skin), ebi-imo (a kind of taro) and grilled barracuda with ginkgo nuts.
Aman Kyoto was a 20-year project in the making, conceived even before the other two Japanese ones, Aman Tokyo and Amanemu, were on the drawing boards. Kerry Hill Architects, which designed all three, respectfully abided by heritage rules surrounding the grounds and left the original gardens and pathways untouched.
Black-latticed standalone pavilions housing the 24 suites, a pair of two-bedroom villas, and the Arrival, Living, Dining and Spa Pavilions were built on platforms that were designed as foundations for a textile museum – an unrealised dream by the former owner, who was one of Japan’s most respectable obi collectors.
The neighbourhood is full of history and culture, and makes for lovely wanderings. Cycle on an electric bike to the Imamiya-Jinja Shrine and Ryogen-In Temple, famous for its five Zen gardens, or take a 15-minute stroll to Kinkakuji Temple. Also nearby are Matsuno Shoyu, a 200-year-old soy sauce maker that supplies miso to the hotel; and along the same street, a local market hidden between the lanes, where I bumped into Chef Mita shopping for vegetables.
On the day of departure, as I traipsed down the uneven stone paths for the last time, grateful for restful solitude, I remembered Koko’s words to me during my spa treatment: In Aman Kyoto, it’s all about shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”, so just breathe in all of nature’s essence for healing. If that were true, I had inhaled an entire ecosystem of rejuvenation.
This story first appeared in PrestigeOnline Singapore