Home to Nintendo, manga museums, a heaving underground music scene, glitzy nightclubs, traditional festivals, Zen gardens, tea houses, authentic architecture and thousands of years of history and culture – Kyoto offers the best of Japan in a nutshell.
Geishas and temples are often associated with Kyoto, but start exploring the city and its surroundings you will soon realise that no travel guide can truly do justice to the ancient capital of Japan. Dare to get lost, and you will stumble upon ancient alleyways and small traditional handicraft shops that won’t be found in any guidebook.
For those on a tight schedule – get a ¥500 one-day bus pass and a free map at the train station and start exploring. The map will give you detailed information on the major sites and bus routes. Most visitors go straight to the Golden Pavilion, a Zen temple in the north of the city where the top floors are covered in gold leaf. The sight is overwhelming, but so can be the crowds.
For a more relaxing experience, take the bus to one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Kyoto – Fushimi Inari Taisha – which is protected by hundreds of red gates and surrounded by a dense bamboo forest. Run through the red gate tunnels, hike in the maze and wind down in the tranquility of the forest.
Another must-see destination in Kyoto is Ryoan-ji, home to one of Japan’s most austere Zen Buddhist gardens. Fifteen rocks rest on a rectangular bed of white pebbles, and the space borders a verandah and low walls. Raking produces a pattern around the rocks in a complicated mathematical order. The rocks are placed in a way so that you can only see 14 rocks at any one time from whatever angle you look at the garden.
In Buddhism the number 15 denotes completeness. So in order to make this a meaningful experience you must have a total view of the garden, but in the current condition of this world, that’s not possible – according to Zen Buddhism. Hoards of high school students and elderly people come here and spend all afternoon trying to figure out the system. It’s entertaining to watch them!
At night when the temples are closed, there are more great opportunities for people watching in the back streets of the entertainment district Gion and nightlife hotspot Pontocho-dori. Spotting Geisha or Maiko (apprentice geisha) becomes rather addictive and trying to photograph them as they rush to appointments is a challenge.
In that area you will find shows to cater for all budgets, from traditional musical dramas to the cultural show of geishas. Some teahouses in Gion require membership or even a personal invitation. Geisha entertainment in such an exclusive place starts at around ¥800,000 for an evening.
For those who want entertainment without spending any money, window shopping is a treat in Kyoto, a city that for centuries has been famous for weaving and lacquer ware, bamboo crafts and ceramics. Handicraft is on display in hundreds of artisans’ shops.
Should you travel to Kyoto in the summer, try and visit in July when the whole city celebrates Gion festival, one of the most famous festivals in Japan. It culminates in a huge parade along the main street. Dozens of floats are paraded through the city, followed by thousands of people in traditional costume.
Whatever season you choose to visit, make sure you have at least three days to be able to experience Kyoto – the best of modern and traditional Japan.