Kyoto Wins Top City at Wanderlust Travel Awards 2018

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Kyoto has been voted the Top City for the second year in a row at the Wanderlust Reader Travel Awards 2018!

Kyoto has roundly defeated rival cities both new and old - from new kid on the block Dubrovnik to past serial winner Luang Prabang - to claim the top spot as Wanderlust’s Top City for the second year running. It also saw off stiff competition from cities both closer to home and farther afield, beating the likes of venerable European cities such as Venice, Budapest and Moscow as well as approachable Anglophone cities such as Boston, Sydney and Vancouver. 
 

The judges said, “Long gone have the days of South-East Asian hubs being your favourite cities. You have to head even further east to find the new top dog – Kyoto, also 2017's winner. Its peek into Japan's past, geisha culture and ancient shrines have enticed you once again.”

However, Kyoto was not the only successful result for Japan this year: Japan was ranked fifth in the Top Country category, while Tokyo was ranked fifth in the Top Worldwide Airport category. Read on below to find out our top five picks if you decide to visit Wanderlust’s top city for 2018!

Wanderlust travel awards

More than 2,000 readers responded to Wanderlust’s call for opinions this year, with the eagerly awaited results announced at the Destinations London Holiday and Travel Show, Olympia, London on 1 February in front of an audience made up of both finalists and readers. 

The Wanderlust awards have been established for over fifteen years, and reach an audience of around half a million curious and responsive travellers. Unlike some other awards, they are based on visitors’ satisfaction ratings rather than sheer numbers of votes.
 
Daigoji Temple

Each autumn, Wanderlust asks its readers to reflect on their travels during the previous year and rate various aspects of their trips, from the destinations they visited to the providers they used. The results are used to compile Wanderlust’s rankings of readers’ ‘best in travel’ favourites in categories from country and city to airline and tour company.

The awards give Wanderlust’s readers the chance to communicate their feedback and impressions to the travel trade and share their latest travel experiences, both good and bad, with other readers. As one of the most well-travelled and discerning audiences around, the Wanderlust Readers’ Travel Awards are some of the most respected industry awards around, so Kyoto and Japan are very proud to have won.

Find out more about the other finalists and winners in this year’s Wanderlust Readers’ Travel Awards on their website: www.wanderlust.co.uk/awards/
 

Top Five Places to Visit in Kyoto

 
So, where should you go if you choose to visit Wanderlust’s Top City for 2018? We’ve put together a list of five of our favourite must-see sightseeing spots in Kyoto.
 

5) Pontocho

Pontocho
 
Take a stroll along the backstreets of Pontocho, one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric dining districts, after sunset and enjoy the feeling that you’ve stepped back in time. This narrow alley west of the Kamo River that runs through the heart of Kyoto is packed with bars and restaurants offering a plethora of dining options to suit all tastes and budgets, from yakitori (grilled chicken and vegetable skewers) to high-class Kyoto cuisine such as Kaiseki ryori.
 
In summer, you can also experience Kawayuka (or Kawadoko as it is known outside of central Kyoto) at one of the restaurants on the eastern side of the alley overlooking the Kamo River. This is the summer pastime of al fresco dining on raised platforms over the river. As well as being a great way to experience some traditional Kyoto cuisine in a lively, authentic summer setting, it is also a great way to beat the summer heat by enjoying the cooling effects of the river water flowing underneath.
 
Advance reservations (by telephone, usually in Japanese - you can get your hotel reception to help you) are strongly recommended, especially during weekends and holidays. A few Kawayuka/Kawadoko restaurants can also be reserved online in English on Japanican.
 

4) Arashiyama

Sagano Bamboo Forest
 
This pleasant riverside district on the western outskirts of Kyoto has long been a favourite weekend and summer retreat with the residents of Kyoto. In fact, its history as a leisure district can be traced back thousands of years to the patronage of courtiers and nobles during Japan’s classical Heian Period (794-1185).

To get there, use one of three train stations that will all deposit you near the Togetsukyo Bridge, the central landmark in the heart of Arashiyama. Take your pick from Arashiyama Station (Hankyu Arashiyama Line) south of the river, or Arashiyama Station (Keifuku Arashiyama Line) or JR Saga Arashiyama (JR Sagano Line), both north of the river. 

The sights of Arashiyama are somewhat spread-out, so if pounding pavements is not your thing then the best thing to do once you arrive is to hop on a rental bicycle from one of the rental shops near the train stations. Once you have wheels, you’ll be free to explore the area to your heart’s content, from its famous bamboo grove and fast-flowing river to its quiet rural residential areas and moss-covered woodland temples.
 

Tenryuji Temple

From any of the stations, it’s a 5-10 minute walk to Tenryuji Temple. One of Kyoto’s five great Zen temples, this 14th century temple is now a UNESCO World Heritage site - don’t miss the beautiful original landscape garden and the dragon painted on the ceiling. From here it’s a further 15-20 minute walk to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, where all your Japan holiday fantasies will come true as you stroll among the towering stalks of bamboo rustling gently in the breeze.
 
If you’ve rented yourself a two-wheeler and your thighs can stand the extra peddling, then follow this by zipping to northeast Arashiyama (technically the area north of the river is known as Sagano). Here, park up and spend a happy few hours exploring the handful of smaller temples scattered in the wooded foothills. Saga-Torimoto Preserved Street, with its traditional Meiji Period (1868-1912) ‘machiya’ (townhouses) and the Nenbutsuji Temples, with their 1,200 statues of ‘rakan’ (Buddhist followers), each with a unique facial expression, are well worth a visit.

Ninnaji Temple

Bicycles not your thing? See another side of Arashiyama while saving your legs with an enjoyable combined ride on the Sagano Scenic Railway and Hozugawa River boat cruise. Departing from Torokko Saga Station or Torokko Arashiyama Station in Sagano, the little train trundles gamely up into the hills at a sedate pace, allowing passengers to enjoy the scenic views of steep mountains, narrow valleys and rushing rivers, before terminating at Torokko Kameoka Station (25 mins). 
 
From here, board a connecting bus to the boat pier (15 mins) and board a traditional flat-bottomed boat for the leisurely two-hour cruise downstream which will deposit you back in central Arashiyama, just a few hundred metres upstream from the Togetsukyo Bridge. Alternatively, if you’re short on time, Umahori Station (JR Sagano Line), with regular train service, is a five-minute walk from Kameoka Station.
 

3) Golden and Silver Pavilions

Toji Temple
 
Spend a day exploring the extravagant, gold leaf-covered Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple and the austere, plain dark wooden Silver Pavilion at Ginkakuji Temple - the two temples make the perfect pair to compare and contrast some of Kyoto’s more starkly different architectural styles. Both temples were originally built by Ashikaga shoguns as their retirement villas and converted into Zen temples after the shoguns’ deaths.
 
However, the two temples could not be more different in style and atmosphere. 

Start off with the subdued elegance of Ginkakuji Temple, built in the late 15th century by art-obsessed shogun Yoshimasa, in Kyoto’s eastern Higashiyama district. Follow the circular route around the grounds, paying particular attention to the dy sand garden with a giant sand cone for ‘moon viewing’ and the moss garden, dotted with islands, bridges and streams.

Daigoji Temple

Next, head to Kyoto’s northern foothills to marvel at the ostentatious grandeur of Kinkakuji Temple, built by the artistic shogun’s grandfather Yoshimitsu (also a shogun) in the late 14th century, whose upper floors are entirely clad in dazzling gold leaf. After viewing the Golden Pavilion from across the pond in front of it, follow the path through the temple grounds, passing the head priest’s former living quarters, temple gardens, and an Edo Period (1603-1867) tea house.

Despite their similar origins, functions and layout, the two temples could not be more different - and they each birthed two very different cultures. While Kinkakuji echoes the exclusive Kitayama Culture that developed in wealthy aristocratic circles during Yoshimitsu’s time, the more inclusive Higashiyama Culture - which includes many of the most famous elements of Japanese culture we know today, such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, poetry, Noh theatre, and gardening - grew up with Ginkakuji at its centre.

2) Kiyomizudera Temple

Kamigamo Shrine 
Whatever you see and do in Kyoto, Kiyomizudera Temple deserves a top spot on your list. Founded in 780 on the site of a waterfall in the wooded hills of eastern Kyoto (the temple’s name means ‘pure water temple’ in Japanese), fast forward the venerable temple’s history a few thousand years to 1994, when it was granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
 
Highlights of Kiyomizudera include the beautiful views from its famous wooden balcony, built without the use of nails or screws, jutting out from the main hall over ten metres above the steep hillside below; the ‘love stones’ at Jishu Shrine behind the main hall; the three holy waters of the waterfall for which the temple was founded, from which drinking is believed to bring longevity, academic success, or romance; and the pitch-black basement, symbolizing a mother’s womb, of Zuigudo Hall, dedicated to Buddha’s mother.
 
When you visit Kiyomizudera, don’t forget to allow some extra time (and energy!) for exploring the steep, bustling winding streets and lanes of the approach to the temple. The shops, cafes and restaurants in this area have been catering to temple tourists for centuries, and stock a huge range of products and local specialities for budgets both little and large, from local Kyoto sweets and pickles to Kiyomizu-yaki pottery.

Bonus: Higashiyama District

Ninenzaka Sannenzaka District

The Higashiyama district is peppered with many other temples worth visiting. If you’ve got your walking feet on, from Kiyomizudera you can work your way steadily north through Kodaiji Temple, Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park, Chionin Temple, and Shorenin Temple. Then head east to find Nanzenji Temple and Eikando Temple and follow the Philosopher’s Path north to Ginkakuji Temple.

1) Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Made famous in the film dramatization of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, Fushimi Inari Shrine in southern Kyoto has since become a standout symbol of Japan, along with other iconic sights like Mt. Fuji and the giant ‘floating’ torii gate at Miyajima Island, Hiroshima. The shrine has ancient origins, predating the capital’s move to Kyoto in 794, and is the head shrine of a nationwide network of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, whose messenger is believed to be a fox (hence the abundance of fox statues you’ll spot around the shrine).

The approach to the shrine, along a shopping street lined with small shops peddling traditional snacks and souvenirs, and the shrine grounds themselves are interesting to look around. However, the main draw for the majority of visitors is the network of vermilion torii shrine gates covering the labyrinthine hiking trails winding across the mountains rising up behind the shrine. The entrance to the tunnel of torii gates starts at the back of the shrine grounds with two dense, parallel rows of gates called Senbon Torii (thousand torii).

Shimogamo Shrine

From here, the trails meander through the wooded hillsides of Mt. Inari, a sacred mountain owned by the shrine, to its peak. The hike to the summit takes around 2-3 hours, although the majority of visitors don’t go all the way to the top.  If you get peckish on the way, stop off at one of the cafes or kiosks selling local fox-themed specialties such as Inari Sushi and Kitsune Udon (Fox Udon).

As you walk, keep an eye on the torii gates dotted along the trail - the names of the donators and the date of donation are inscribed on the back. Fancy donating your own gate? Costs start at around 400,000 yen (£2,600) for a small gate and one million yen (£6,600) for the larger ones! If the price tag puts you off, don’t worry - you’ll also find multiple smaller shrines with stacks of miniature orange painted wooden torii gates donated by individuals with smaller budgets. 

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