The capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, KYOTO is endowed with an almost overwhelming legacy of ancient Buddhist temples, majestic palaces and gardens of every size and description, not to mention some of the country's most important works of art, its richest culture and most refined cuisine. For many people the very name Kyoto conjures up the classic image of Japan: streets of traditional wooden houses, the click-clack of geta (traditional wooden sandals) on the paving stones, geisha passing in a flourish of brightly coloured silks, and temple pagodas surrounded by cherry blossom trees.
While you can still find all these things, and much more, first impressions of Kyoto can be disappointing. Decades of haphazard urban development and a too-visible industrial sector have affected the Kyoto landscape; in some areas you could be anywhere in Japan. However, new ordinances passed by the city government in 2007, limiting the height of new buildings and banning rooftop advertising, indicate that more serious thought is being given to preserving Kyoto's visual environment. Yet, regardless of all the trappings of the modern world, Kyoto remains notoriously exclusive, a place where outsiders struggle to peek through the centuries-thick layer of cultural sophistication into the city's secretive soul.
The vast amount of culture and history to explore in Kyoto is quite mind-boggling, yet despite this, it's perfectly possible to get a good feel for Kyoto even within just a couple of days. Top priority should go to the eastern, Higashiyama district, where the walk north from famous Kiyomizu-dera to Ginkaku-ji takes in a whole raft of fascinating temples, gardens and museums. It's also worth heading for the northwestern hills to contemplate the superb Zen gardens of Daitoku-ji and Ryōan-ji, before taking in the wildly extravagant Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. The highlight of the central sights is Nijō-jō, a lavishly decorated seventeenth-century palace, while nearby Nijō-jin'ya is an intriguing place riddled with secret passages and hidey-holes.
As the ancient and spiritual capital of Japan, Kyoto affords visitors a microcosmic view of the country as a whole. Like hustling, bustling Tokyo, there are parts of the city that resemble any other Japanese metropolis, especially the downtown area, where you will find a throng of huge department stores in the vicinity of Shijo, a congregation of fine hotels around Kyoto Tower , and exciting nightlife and entertainment spots at Pontocho in the Gion district. There is, however, an important historical fact that sets Kyoto apart from other urban centers: It was never bombed during World War II. For this reason, it is possible to wander the older streets of the city and get a good idea of how life used to be in the medieval days of artisans and courtiers, merchants and samurai. You can still find streets lined entirely with wooden buildings, as in the weaving district of Nishijin, for example. Some of these structures are more than 100 years old.
Like other major cities in Japan, central Kyoto is packed with things to do and places to see. Spread across several wards, including Nakagyo-ku, Higashiyama-ku and Shimogyu-ku, visitors can find everything from high-fashion to ancient culture. Two important Buddhist temples, the Nishi Hoganji and Higashi Honganji , are located right near Kyoto Station, while elegant, Japanese style lodgings can be found at Hiiragi-ya . The popular Gion district, Kyoto's most famous Geisha district, is full of shops and restaurants, and is perfect for a stroll, particularly down Hanami-koji street, which is lined with traditional wooden merchant houses. For something more tranquil, the stepped approaches to Kiyomizudera are the ideal place to enjoy the sights and smells of cherry blossom season.
Home of the beautiful and often-photographed Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavillion) temple, Sakyo-ku covers the East and Northeast areas of Kyoto. Largely residential in the South, with strict restrictions placed on the construction of tall buildings, and mountainous in the north, this is a great destination for those that want to escape central Kyoto. The cold months of January and February bring the Setsubun Festival to Yoshida Shrine , while the Honen-in Jodo temple is a perfect place to enjoy the peace and tranquility of this ward all year. Sakyo-ku is also home to Kyoto University.
Full of beautiful scenery and many historical and religious sites, Ukyo-ku covers a large area of Kyoto to the West and Northwest. A few of the prominent sites include Jingo-ji , a Shingon Buddhist temple that dates back to 781, and Tenryu-ji , a temple of the Rinzai sect that is well-known for its dry landscaped gardens. Visitors might also want to stay for lunch at Tenryu-ji Shigetsu , where they can sample the six flavors of Zen vegetarian cooking. For hiking enthusiasts, the Atago Jinja Shrine is located atop the highest point in Kyoto's western mountain range.
Though a mainly residential area, Kita-ku still has a number of things worth seeing, including Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavillion) and the famous Daitoku-ji complex of Zen temples. But if you're visiting Kyoto in April, be sure to visit the Hirano Jinja shrine, famous for its cherry blossoms. Because of its location just north of busy Central Kyoto, seeing this part of the city is an easy and convenient diversion. Before you head back south though, finish off a trip to Kita-ku with an adventurous meal of blowfish at Uotake .
Dining out is one of the greatest highlights of any visit to Japan, and with the exception of Tokyo (and apologies to Osaka), Kyoto has probably the greatest range and variety of top-quality restaurants, bars and cafes in the country. In addition, the city offers a number of different styles of cuisine uniquely and exotically its own.
At the apex of Japanese haute cuisine is kaiseki ryori, which evolved in conjunction with the tea ceremony. It consists of a series of small courses with an emphasis on presentation, surroundings, and fresh, seasonal ingredients served in beautiful ceramic dishes and lacquered bowls. In Sakyo-ku, head to Hyotei if what you're after is this uniquely Japanese style of cuisine in the finest of settings, or for kaiseki ryori with all the attention to detail but a slightly lower price tag, check out Migaku .
If what you're looking for is low-cost wining and dining, however, it's hard to beat the up-and-coming student area around Kyoto University, which offers some lively and well-priced alternatives. Representative of these budget shops is the ever-popular Sunshine Cafe (Taiyo Cafe) , a mere two minute walk from the school's front gate.
This district just North of central Kyoto has a great selection of choices for those looking for good places to eat and drink, from the traditional to the modern. One example at the more traditional end of the spectrum is Shojinryori, a local form of vegetarian cooking that is based upon tofu, yuba (soybean curd) and fu (wheat gluten), was first developed around the city's many Buddhist temples. You can give it a try at Kita-ku's Izusen .
Lunch is much less expensive than dinner in Kyoto restaurants because it traditionally consists of a set meal, or teishoku, rather than a la carte selections. A favorite low-cost option for many Kyotoites is noodles, for which there are a vast number of good quality and often long-established noodle shops to choose from, such as Azekura , though don't limit yourself to Kita-ku because great noodles abound throughout the city. Or if Western cuisine is what you crave, Nanabunnoichi , located near Kinkakuji , serves French-inspired Mediterranean food that incorporate just a hint of Japanese flavors.
For something both adventurous and unique, try fugu (blowfish) at Uotake , which specializes in serving this delicate, poisonous fish. Not to worry though, non-fugu entrees are available for the squeamish. Just looking for a snack and a good pint? Try Brown's , where you can enjoy a little Jazz with your drink in a pub atmosphere.
For high-class kaiseki ryori from one of Japan's most notable chefs, Yoshihiro Murata, head over to Higashiyama-ku's Kikunoi for an unforgettably elegant experience, but be warned, reservations are essential. Or if what you're after is a chance to eat and drink in a more informal, lively atmosphere, then head for a yakitori-ya like Yakitori Ichiban for delicious grilled chicken on skewers. Just look for the large red paper lanterns hoisted outside. As with all restaurants in Japan, the short curtains, or noren, hanging in the doorway will let you know the place is open for business. Another option is to try one of the numerous busy eateries and bars around Higashiyama at random because you're sure to find something great. And for a Western experience that's every bit as elegant, sit down to a classic French dining experience at Manyoken , where the rich and famous come to dine. From a classy night out to the low-brow offerings of Backgammon, from British pubs like the Pig & Whistle , you can find just about anything here.
With such sights as the Kyoto Tower and the busy Kyoto Station, you can rest assured that great dining options are anything but in short supply in Shimogyu-ku. In fact, you can start right when you get into town by heading up to Hamamura , an a la carte Hong Kong delight located on the 11th floor of the station. Also on the 11th floor of the station, and a choice spot for cheap yet traditional eats is Edogawa , which specializes in unagi or broiled eel. For something more scenic, situated right on the Kamo River, The River Oriental is top choice in this ward. With its beautiful waterfront views, and refurbished ryokan atmosphere, this is one dining experience where the sights will be just as wonderful as the tastes.
Due to its inland location and the historical absence of fresh fish, Kyoto is renowned for its vegetable dishes, especially its pickles, such as those offered by Daiyasu . Highly recommended, too, is a visit to Nishiki Market. Here, samples are readily available to introduce visitors to the rich diversity of local food, which tends toward more subtlety and variety of flavor than foods from other areas of Japan.
The main concentration of dining and drinking establishments in Kyoto is around the historic entertainment district that once made up the old pleasure quarters of the Floating World. These include Kamogawa Odori at Pontocho Kaburencho in the Gion district, long associated with Kyoto's community of geisha, and Kiyamachi and Kawaramachi, bounded by Sanjo to the north and Shijo to the south. Indeed, many enterprising restaurateurs have set up businesses in converted wooden townhouses, or machiya: Tosai , for example. Dining in these old buildings can add extra special ambiance to your meal.
Of course, any visit to Kyoto is going to be packed with sightseeing, and after visiting temples and palaces all day, you will probably be in need of a little rest and liquid refreshment. If it is tea or coffee you desire, Kyoto is well served by both traditional shops like Inoda and more modern cafes like Le Cafe Salut , as well as by teahouses like Ippodo Tea Company , where you can try Kyoto's famed green tea, macha. Kyoto prides itself on its vibrant cafe society.
If you hanker after something stronger, Kyoto definitely has a watering hole for you. In fact, there is a veritable maze of late-night bars and clubs around Kiyamachi and Pontocho. Whether you seek a quiet tipple or a barhopping carousal lasting until dawn, you will find just the right spot, from the sophistication of Sama Sama to live jazz houses like Sesamo, from 60s chic at Switch Forum to 90s cheek at Bar, isn't it? , and from real ale at Liquor Mountain to real cheap at ING . Also, don't forget to check out an izakaya such as Shizuka for the full Japanese experience.
In short, Kyoto is a gastronome's delight, an epicure's dream, and has almost every dining and drinking experience you could wish for in rich abundance. All this combined with the city's justified reputation for refined presentation and immaculate service will make any stay here a memorable feast.
While the main attractions of most Japanese cities can be seen in a few days, Kyoto really deserves a full week or more of exploration. Your decision on what to see while you are here will be determined almost entirely by how long you have to visit. Among temples and shrines alone you have more than 2,000 sites to choose from. It could take you an entire day just planning where you will spend the rest of your time! But assuming your stay is limited, here are five brief itineraries you can follow, each one easily completed in no more than a day by using the buses, subways, trains and taxis that make transport in the city so convenient.
Start your tour of Northwest Kyoto at Daitokuji , a large Buddhist temple established by the Rinzai Zen sect. The grounds contain so many paintings and architecturally interesting structures that you may be tempted to stay many hours. Better to move a bit west, however, where you will find what many believe to be Japan's finest temple of all, Kinkakuji , the famed "Golden Pavilion." Linger here long enough to contemplate its gold-leaf image reflected in the waters of a pond and etched against the greenery of surrounding woods, then move on to nearby Ryoanji where the famous sand garden is located. Your meditative experience will only be broken when you realize there is still enough time to see the five-story pagoda of Ninnanji . The site of a former 9th century palace, some of the buildings here are over 300 years old.
Ginkakuji (Silver Pavillion)
The Higashiyama (East Mountain) area will also bring you much sightseeing pleasure. You will want to begin with Ginkakuji , the "Silver Pavilion," from which you can walk in contemplation along the Path of Philosophy, following a creek past willow, cherry and maple trees, just like famous priests before you. Stop at the 17th Century thatched temple, Honen-in , or at lesser known Zenrinji (Eikan-do), where a unique image of Buddha looking over his shoulder can be seen. But if you are in a hurry, head straight for the next major attraction: Nanzenji , reputed to be the most important Zen temple in the world. There are numerous restaurants in this area, where you can get some nourishment before walking 15 minutes to extravagant Heian Shrine , Kyoto's 1,100th anniversary gift to itself. If you do not end the afternoon here, you might want to drop in at one of the art museums at nearby Okazaki Park, a refreshing break from the temple circuit.
The center of old Kyoto was the Gion district, where you can still see geisha and rickshaws, old wooden buildings and classic antiques. A tour of this area should include the vermilion-colored Yasaka Shrine , the memorial to the world's unknown soldiers of World War II at Ryozen Kannon , and the beautifully landscaped Maruyama Koen park. South of Gion, you will encounter the temple for lovers, Kiyomizudera , with its panoramic view of the city (and its great souvenir shops). Down the slopes, you will come to Kyoto National Museum , worth hours of your time all by itself.
You may be beginning to think you have seen the best of Kyoto by now, but there is more—so much more. In the vicinity of Kyoto Station you must see both Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji , historic rivals for the hearts of Buddhist followers. Not far south from the station is Toji Temple , with its spacious gardens, three ponds, and the tallest three-story pagoda in Japan, a real Kyoto landmark. After lunch in the area, travel due north to see Kyoto Imperial Palace and the old residence of Japan's shogun Ieyasu, Nijo Castle . If you choose to pop in to a museum or gallery along the way, who could blame you? The touring possibilities are endless.
An interesting day trip or half-day excursion can be made to scenic Arashiyama and Saga in the extreme west of the city. Centered around the historic wooden Togetsu-kyo Bridge that spans the clear Hozu River, Arashiyama is noted for its peaceful mountain setting and many fine temples, especially the exquisite Tenryuji Temple . About 7-kilometers/4-miles away, the Ryoanji Zen temple with its famous rock garden is also located in this area of Kyoto, perfect for silent contemplation or simply admiring the exquisite peacefulness of the setting. Activities you might enjoy in the area include riding the gentle rapids downstream from nearby Kameoka, night cormorant fishing (ukai) in summer, and dining at one of the area's many vegetarian shojin-ryori restaurants, such as Tenryuji Shigetsu . There is also the Iwatayama Monkey Park for the kids to enjoy, as well as Kyoto Studio Park , the Japanese equivalent of Universal Studios theme parks.
Unfortunately, your stay in Kyoto will most likely come to a close long before you have visited all of the "must-see" sights of the city, but with the time you have left you might be tempted to take a day trip to the ancient city of Nara, where the world's largest wooden building, massive Todai-ji Temple , houses a huge bronze Buddha. Or you may wish to enjoy fishing, camping, or hiking at nearby Lake Biwa.
One thing is certain, the best formula for any trip to Kyoto is to get up early, stay up late, and see as much of this fascinating city as you can. Your visit here is going to be simply unforgettable. Lots more information about touring Kyoto is available from your nearest representative of the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO).
Amanohashidate Tour Boat (+81 77 2420323/ http://www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/theme/activities/activity/historical/ama_boat/)
Hozugawa River Boat Ride< (+81 77 122 2111/ http://www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/theme/activities/activity/historical/hozugawa_boat/)
Ine Bay Pleasure Cruise (+81 77 242 0323/ http://www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/theme/activities/activity/historical/ine_bay/)
Sunrise Tours (+81 35 796 5454/http://www.jtb-sunrisetours.jp/index.aspx)
Walk in Kyoto Talk in English (+81 75 622 6803/ http://web.kyoto-inet.or.jp/people/h-s-love/)
Kyoto City Tourist Association (+81 75 752 0227/ http://www.kyokanko.or.jp/eng_tour/english_tours.html)