Kyoto is a city of two faces: being Japan's foremost former Imperial capital it possesses a classic and timeless elegance, yet this city is no museum, and it is modern and lived in without forgetting its historical roots.
Deservedly one of Japan’s most popular destinations, this historic city has such a wealth of temples, shrines and cultural practices to show off to visitors that almost everybody leaves with the same wish – a need for a few more days’ exploration.
Kyoto plays an important role in Japan’s history as one of its ancient capitals, and even today has all the atmosphere and elegance you might expect from the emperor’s former city of residence. Famous for the multi-coloured, multi-course dining experience of kaiseki cuisine, home to Gion – Kyoto’s geisha district – and surrounded by lush nature, this city’s feeling of ‘heiwa’ (peace) prevails, even amongst the bustling tourist crowds.
What to do in Kyoto
The list of must-sees and must-dos in Kyoto is endless, but a narrow selection may look something like this…
For temples, visit the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, where the startling no-nail structure of the temple itself is second only to the stunning views of the city you’ll get from its platforms. The Golden Pavilion (or Kinkakuji as it’s known in Japanese) is every bit as beautiful as you’ll have seen in the pictures and offers visitors the chance to stroll through its surrounding gardens, admiring the structure from every angle.
Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine is just fifteen minutes from Kyoto Station, and is filled with 10,000 bright orange ‘torii’ gates which you can wander beneath. One piece of advice we would offer travellers is to keep walking; after a certain distance the crowds disperse, offering you the opportunity to be alone with your thoughts (and your camera).
If it’s geisha-spotting you’re hoping for, you can choose between the expensive option - booking a private dinner and dance, giving you the authentic experience - or the cheaper alternative, Gion Corner. This is reputedly the best spot for capturing a glimpse of Kyoto’s geiko and maiko san – though sightings are never guaranteed. However, Kyoto’s many annual festivals, including the performances at Miyako Odori festival in the spring months, allow you to witness these kimono-clad beauties up close.
No visit to Kyoto is complete without experiencing a Japanese tea ceremony – where you’ll witness the graceful posture and movements involved in carefully preparing and pouring the bright green matcha. The unusual taste belies the health benefits and instant caffeine boost offered by this powdered green tea drink, but don’t worry – the sweets to follow will soon soften the bitter blow.
If you’ve managed to wrangle more than a few days in the city, use the extra time to take a train to nearby Arashiyama. This district is most famous for its bamboo groves, but you’ll also discover majestic temples, old wooden shops and teahouses, and a monkey mountain which doubles as a lookout point over the city beyond.
How to get to Kyoto