KYOTO, as anyone who has ever visited the former capital of Japan can attest to, is not an easy nut to crack. Unlike Tokyo, which bares all with its fast-paced, full-on approach to living la dolce vita (the sweet life), Kyoto is the wallflower you need to woo gently. Like the way celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda puts it, "Once you make the effort, (the people)open up to you and you create beautiful, lasting friendships."
Ths Japanese national who moved to Australia 30 years ago and literally made his name with his eponymous restaurant in Sydney, and who also helms Waku Ghin in Singapore, is an avid fan of Kyoto. He's there practically every month to dine and shop at his favourite antique stores.
Given his vast insider knowledge of the ancient city, he is the ultimate tour guide for anyone who wants more than a superficial tour of Gion or a rickshaw ride in Arashiyama. But what if you're there on your own, armed with Internet research at best and just enough Japanese to say, "I don't speak Japanese"?
For that, you'll have to turn to your new best friend, your hotel concierge. No two concierges are created equal, and the difference can make or break your experience. At the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto - itself a tourist attraction given its historic past - head concierge Akemi Kyoyama has been crafting customised itineraries for food and culture-hungry travellers since the hotel opened just over a year ago.
"Apart from making reservations at Michelin-starred restaurants, private tours with guides are the most popular with our guests," says Ms Kyoyama.
Private guides cost upwards of 30,000 yen (S$332) for four hours, while cars that seat four to six people will set you back at least 28,000 yen for the same four-hour block. Alternatively, you could just hop into passing taxis, but a guide is still essential because Kyoto's addresses can be mindbogglingly complicated.
An insight into Kyoto's cuisine can be had from Ms Kyoyama's pick of restaurants such as the traditional but unfussy kaiseki of Gion Mokubei in the old city quarter headed by a fourth-generation chef. Or the one Michelin-starred Kamigamo Akiyama set in a beautiful old house on the northern edge of Kyoto in Kitayama, where you can bask in the tranquillity of the Kamigamo shrine and dine on the creations of Kitcho alumnus Naohiro Akiyama.
Interestingly enough, Kyoto's shrines also tend to house exquisite restaurants, including Shimogamo Saryo, a designated Unesco heritage site and home to a kaiseki restaurant set in Japanese-garden surroundings.