Kyoto is historical Japan at its most recognizable. Visitors come here from around the world to stroll along the cobbled stone roads, surrounded by the narrow wooden buildings that still stand in some of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Hundreds of beautiful temples and shrines are devoted to Buddhist and Shinto deities. Here, artists work as they have for hundreds of years – whether they’re woodworkers crafting by hand, geiko studying dance and the art of entertainment, or chefs providing food in some of the oldest restaurants in the world.
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What To Do
Kyoto is an attraction in itself, with its antique wooden buildings and foliage that changes spectacularly from season to season. Capture some of its beauty for yourself as you tour some of the many temples and duck into the tiny shrines tucked around every corner. For an unmatched photo opportunity, visit the Sagano Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama. Tall bamboo stalks line the walking path on both sides, creating natural walls and ceilings where light filters through, tinged in green.
For a long time, one of the only ways to see geiko (geisha, in the Kyoto dialect) entertain in person was to know the right people and pay a hefty price. Nowadays, visitors interested in this ancient art of social grace can book seats at special dinner shows where maiko (apprentice geiko) dance and answer questions from guests. Maiko also perform at Gion Corner, a theatre devoted to sharing traditional Japanese dances, drama, music and puppetry with an international audience.
Toei Kyoto Studio Park offers all the expected theme park amenities – live shows, costumed ninja and samurai characters and souvenir stands. However, it also offers something completely unexpected – the majority of the park is an Edo era (1600s to 1800s) movie set. Over 200 period dramas are filmed here per year, so you can step into the past and, if you’re lucky, watch a little movie magic being made.
A must-try for foodies is Honke Owariya, one of the oldest restaurants in the world. Opened in 1465 and operated for the last sixteen generations by the same family, this shop serves soba (buckwheat noodles served hot or cold with broth) with a side of history. For another authentically Kyoto meal, treat yourself to kaiseki, a Japanese fine dining experience in which multiple small courses are elegantly served. Every dish is presented in order, directly from the kitchen, and the menu changes with the seasons so that the ingredients are always showcased at their best. It’s not cheap, but this is a dinner to remember for a lifetime.
What To See
One of the most iconic experiences of Kyoto is a trip to Gion. This entertainment district is great for a stroll through time, where stone streets are lined with well-preserved wooden buildings that house restaurants, shops and teahouses. At night, paper lanterns are lit outdoors and it’s possible, though rare, to see maiko in the streets on their way to entertain. Traditional handicrafts and foods can be bought here, and a growing industry has devoted itself to making the music, dancing and theatre of the neighborhood more accessible to tourists.
Kyoto is filled with temples – there are more than a thousand in the city, along with hundreds of shrines. That’s far too many to list, but here are some of our favorites.
Fushimi Inari-taisha is famous for the thousands of red torii gateways that stretch along the gently curving path uphill to the inner shrine. These square wooden archways, built to express gratitude for answered prayers, are found in shrines across Japan, but passing under so many is an experience unique to this one. Another unique shrine is Miyake Hachimangū Shrine, devoted to Hachiman Okami. Pigeons are said to be the messengers for the god, and the shrine is filled with them, from the stone guardians at the gates to the carvings inside and the statues in the garden. You can purchase a clay pigeon of your own to take home, and be sure to feed the – you guessed it – live pigeons in the courtyard of the shrine before you leave.
Sanjusangendo Temple is dedicated to Kannon, a Buddhist deity of mercy. Inside the main hall of the temple, one thousand statues of the many-armed goddess line the walls, hand-carved and gilded in the 13th century. For a peaceful and breathtaking view of Kyoto, pay a visit to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, also dedicated to Kannon. First established in the 8th century, the centerpiece of this temple is the main hall, with its large balcony that hangs high above the forest below. Take a guided tour of the grounds to learn more about the rich history of the temple, including the traditional construction techniques that allowed many of the structures to be built without a single nail.
For history buffs, make sure to experience the timeless elegance of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. Closed in the past to the general public for all but a few days of the year, this ancient palace can now be viewed without an official tour. You’ll be taken back in time as you walk by the impressive architecture, wide gravel courtyards and sprawling gardens where Japan’s emperors lived for over a thousand years.
If you’re in Kyoto during cherry blossom season, some of the best views can be found along the Tetsugaku no Michi (“Philosopher’s Walk”). Here, cherry trees line a stone walking path that follows a narrow canal through the city. Take your time to explore the picturesque neighborhood along the path, and don’t worry – this may be a prime destination for blossom watchers, but it’s a beautiful walk any time of year.