The Allure of Kyoto in Sakura Season

The epitome of Japanese culture and tradition, Kyoto, with its imperial city legacy, 17 UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites and a long tradition of grand festivals, attracts more than 40 million Japanese and foreign visitors annually. The
city’s rooftops are dominated by thousands of Buddhist temples and hundreds of Shinto shrines. With a population of 1.5 million, Kyoto is the birthplace of geisha, the art of kimono-making and tea ceremony.

Come springtime, the timeless air in the city is accentuated by pretty sakura blossoms embellishing the parks, temples and shrines.

Naturally, the sakura season brings about a surge in tourist and MICE activities in Kyoto, as well as the price of the accommodation. Meeting planners wishing to create a successful event in Kyoto during this period must plan and make bookings well in advance.

Kyoto as a leading Japanese convention city
Due to traditional business approaches and a travel industry skewed to the domestic market, Japan has yet to fully develop its potential in the international MICE industry.  Kyoto, being an exception, has been a pioneer in the scene of international MICE business. Its inbound MICE industry was kick-started in 1966 with the opening of the then Kyoto International Conference Hall – now renamed as Kyoto International Conference Center (ICC Kyoto). This made Kyoto the first city in Japan designated as an International Convention City by the Japanese government.

The Kyoto Convention Bureau (KCB) has been set up to promote Kyoto as the convention city in Japan and a must-see destination in the Far East. One of its challenges is to overcome the ‘expensive’ image so often tagged to many Japanese cities, including Kyoto. Compared with European and North American cities, Kyoto is actually highly competitive given the quality of services it delivers. Thus, it plays an important role in supporting MICE activities in Kyoto, providing introductions to MICE buyers and organisers, as well as linking them to local suppliers.

Convention facilities in Kyoto
To date, there are seven specialist convention venues in Kyoto. The ICC Kyoto located in the north of the city is the oldest and largest in Kyoto. Spanning 156,000 m2 of land space, ICC Kyoto is a complex consisting of seven conference halls, the largest of which has the capacity for 2,000 people. There are also 70 other conference rooms of various sizes. A newer convention venue is the Kyoto Research Park. It was opened in 1989 with a total of 11 halls and meeting rooms for up to 350 people. Its central location in the city is an added advantage. Keihanna Plaza, completed in 1993, is a core facility of the Kansai Cultural and Science City Project and is located in the Kansai Science City, 30 minutes away from central Kyoto. It has a heliport which connects to Kansai International Airport via a 20-minute flight. Its main conference hall seats 1,000 people and is linked to Keihanna Plaza hotel.

Specialising in exhibitions is Miyako Messe in Okazaki Park, the largest in Kyoto with over 10,000 m2 of floor space and which is equipped with state-of-the-art audio-visual facilities. For trade shows and exhibitions, the Kyoto Trade Fair Center (also known as Pulse Plaza) offers 7,500 m2 of floor space and enjoys a good location just minutes away from Kyoto station.

In addition to specialist convention venues, Kyoto has12 hotels which offer MICE facilities, ranging from the luxury 5-star Hotel Okura and Hyatt Regency to 4-star Hotel Granvia and Grand Prince Hotel.

Charming reception venues
Kyoto is the city where you can produce that special event in graceful settings that do not exist elsewhere. There are so many possibilities for showcasing the rich heritage of Kyoto. Try choosing between the historic buildings, temples, shrines, gardens, or fine Japanese restaurants as your stage. KCB will be able to provide useful information and recommend cultural performances that match the venue.

It is possible to organise your dinner events in certain temples and shrines, including the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site Ninnaji Temple and Higashi Honganji Temple. However, a special permit is needed and you should factor in ample time to apply for the permit.

During the sakura blooming season, many temples and shrines light up their gardens in the evening for a special cherry blossom viewing. The Heian Jingu Shrine – built to commemorate the last emperor in Kyoto – is particularly famous for cherry blossoms in its well-lit garden. A reception at Heian Jingu Kaikan building overlooking this garden would definitely create a memorable evening. Heian Jingu Kaikan can accommodate approximately 200 people for a standing buffet reception.

Apart from religious venues, Kyoto has unique garden–restaurant complexes that offer an authentic Japanese experience. The Azekura is a bamboo garden with an Italian restaurant converted from a 300-year-old sake warehouse and three historical buildings with character. The tatami-styled old buildings are available for private receptions and are scattered throughout the garden, accessible only by foot and stairways lined with tall bamboos.

Enchanting traditional entertainment
Event planners will have a difficult time making choices when it comes to engaging a cultural performance in Kyoto. Kyoto is home to the fine arts that define the nation’s cultural achievements. Geisha dance, Noh theatre (a classical performance from the 14th–15th century that combines dance, drama, music and poetry using masks), and gagaku (a music and dance performance dating back thousands of years ago from the imperial court of Kyoto) are some fulllength examples. If budget is a concern, choose a maiko (an apprentice geisha) instead of the fully qualified artist; kyogen (a comical interlude in a Noh play) instead of the full length Noh theatre.

Despite being perceived as expensive, Kyoto is considerably more affordable compared with Tokyo. The language barrier may pose some difficulties but major hotels have English-speaking staff to attend to international clients. The locals are friendly, polite and willing to help.