Cultural Riches and Traditional Architecture in Kyoto’s Kamigyo Ward

As Japan’s former imperial capital, from which the country was ruled between 794 and 1869, Kyoto provides a window to the nation’s fascinating history, where temples, shrines, palaces and gardens exist to relate the past to the present. Indeed, that the city stands at all is a fact it owes to its unparallelled attractions.

In 1945, the United States Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who had visited Kyoto on his honeymoon, personally saw that it was removed from the atomic bomb target list on the basis of its cultural importance.

Kamigyu Ward, which encompasses the striking Imperial Palace and the west bank of the Kamo River, is no exception, exhibiting Kyoto’s rich heritage and continued appeal through quiet streets lined with timeless, traditional wooden structures and a serenity that only a Japanese city can evoke.

Boundaries

The Kamo River draws the eastern boundary of Kamigyo Ward until it meets Marutamachi Dori, which runs along the district’s southern border to the Tenjin River, which itself marks the western edge. The northern boundary follows Kuramaguchi Dori between the Tenjin River and the Kamo River.

Price Range

Kyoto is home to some of western Japan’s priciest real estate. Last year, a luxury development in Kamigyo Ward, located between the Imperial Palace and the Kamo River, became the most expensive apartment building to launch sales in the city in almost 15 years, costing 1.6 million yen (US$14,800) per square meter for the apartments.

According to Yukiko Takano, manager of international sales at List Sotheby’s International Realty, the average price per square meter in the district ranges from 900,000 yen to 1.2 million yen. A renovated two-bedroom kyo-machiya—a traditional wooden home—currently being sold by List Sotheby’s International Realty has an asking price of 178 million yen.

Demand usually outstrips supply in Kamigyo, Ms. Takano said, adding that properties often sell very quickly.

Housing Stock

Architecturally, Kamigyo Ward is defined by its pre-war Kyo-machiya, “the wooden townhouses built using traditional Japanese construction methods without the use of nails,” explained Steven Huang, global sales and marketing manager at Hachise, a Kyoto-based realtor that specializes in this type of property.

Increasingly popular with not only international buyers, but also with Japanese keen to own a piece of their nation’s contemporary history, Kyo-machiya are symbolic of the artistry and aesthetic values behind the country’s craftsmanship. A street-level wooden lattice door opens to reveal a courtyard garden, tatami floors and sliding doors, usually spread across two floors.

Condominium apartments are also available, including some in high-end luxury developments with amenities, such as 24-hour security and access to a gym and private clubhouse. However, because of Kyoto’s strict building-height restrictions, these do not reach the same towering heights as they would in other Japanese cities, such as Osaka or Tokyo.

What Makes it Unique

Located in the heart of the city and one of Kyoto’s two original wards, Kamigyo has played host to emperors and geisha throughout the centuries, evidence of which can still be found today. The palace and its surrounding national garden are rich in tradition and are a striking expression of the power held by Japan’s former rulers, never more stunning than during sakura season in spring or during fall, when the leaves burn bright in vivid oranges, reds and ochres.

Wandering through the district’s quiet residential streets, away from the overburdened tourist attractions of Kinkaku-ji or Gion, Kyoto’s charm is clear to see. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples pepper the sidewalks, while Nishijin textile district celebrates the exquisitely hand-woven fabrics that become kimono. In summer, Kyotoites gather on the banks of the Kamo River for sunset strolls and al fresco feasts overlooking the waters as they roll by.

Aerial view of the Imperial PalaceYoshio Tomii / Getty Images

Luxury Amenities

Kyoto Station, which connects the city to the rest of the country via Japan’s high-speed shinkansen rail network, is less than 20 minutes away by car or subway, making Tokyo accessible in just over two-and-a-half hours. The main business district is about 10 minutes away by car.

Known to be one of the centers of higher education in Japan, some of Kyoto’s most prestigious institutions are located in Kamigyo Ward, including Doshisha University. Established in 1875, it is among the oldest private universities and a five-minute walk from the center of the district. Five minutes further on foot is the Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts, while five minutes by car from Kamigyo’s center, Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine has a medical school and a nursing school and specializes in the treatment of cancer.

Kyoto International School, which accepts students ages 3 to 14 and is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, is a 10-minute walk or five minutes by car.

High-end hotels in the area include The Ritz Carlton, Kyoto, which offers iconic Kyoto views from its perch on the west bank of Kamo River. The popular property also offers Michelin-star Japanese cuisine at its restaurant, Mizuki, while La Locanda serves fine Italian fare within a restored setting dating to 1908.

Nearby Kiyamachi Sakuragawa affords diners with the opportunity to become acquainted with kaiseki, or Japanese haute cuisine, where the chef presents a series of beautifully plated dishes, presented according to what is seasonably available.

In Kyoto, high-end shopping is centered around the city’s two main department stores, Daimaru and Takashimaya, which offer international brands, including Prada and Sergio Rossi, as well as a basement food hall that boasts an array of fresh produce, wine, Western goods and prepared food.

Small boutiques like Hillside, which sells effortlessly styled made-in-Japan linenwear, rare and vintage book stores and independent chocolate shops and bakeries abound on the eastern side of Kamigyo.

Who Lives There

“Kyotoites are very secretive,” Ms. Takano said. However, the area’s architecture, historical importance and location have attracted an affluent demographic of executives, most of whom are decidedly discreet with their wealth and who prefer a more understated lifestyle than their counterpoints in Tokyo.

According to Mr. Huang, a mixture of Japanese residents and those from Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Taiwan, France and the U.S., most of whom are executives, call Kamigyo Ward home.

Notable Residents

Some of Kyoto’s most important families have made Kamigyo Ward their home. Among them, the late painter Keijiro Ota, whose former residence and atelier, which was built in 1924, is still considered one of Kyoto’s most impressive buildings.

Outlook

Unlike Tokyo or Osaka, where rental income and resale rank high among buyers’ motivations for purchasing properties, in Kyoto, “people do not purchase for investment,” Ms. Takano said. Instead, people seek to own a piece of history.

According to a white paper referenced by Sonny Saito, chief executive officer at JCR Christie’s International Real Estate, the price of commercial land in central Kyoto rose 29.2% in one year from 2017, and residential prices are not far behind. “A new three-bedroom apartment with a living-dining area and a kitchen in central Kyoto was once worth about 35 million yen. Now, at 15 years old, that same apartment can be traded at more than 50 million yen,” he said.

“Kyoto is full of tourism resources but its real estate market is small,” said the JCR Christie’s International Real Estate representative. “Therefore, when good real estate properties are put on the market, they sell at surprisingly high prices.”

The city has also become popular with wealthy overseas investors looking to buy properties when they are available, which is pricing many locals out of the market. And, Ms. Takano said, hard data is hard to come by, as many of the priciest listings are sold via a “whisper campaign,” and never officially marketed.

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