When you think of traditional Japan, you’re thinking of Kyoto. Everything I expected about rich Japanese culture came to life in this beautiful city – geishas, temples, green tea – Kyoto has it all going on. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ then you’ll be pleased to discover that Kyoto is still very much the same place as it is described in the book. For me, walking through the streets of Gion felt almost familiar because of it.Kyoto was Japan’s capital city for a very long time, although now it can only be called the seventh largest city throughout the whole of Japan. It’s hard to find evidence of the modern anime, technology culture now associated with Japan within Kyoto. (If you want that, Tokyo is your turf) Instead the city sticks to tradition and for that reason it’s well worth a visit. You could spend a week here solely devoting your time to temples and palaces and you probably still wouldn’t get through them all, but there are certainly some things that you shouldn’t be missing when stopping by.
There’s a train station that is used by both the Shinkansen and local lines. It just depends on what speed you’d like to approach the city at.
Kyoto has an excellent bus system that is very simple to figure out. It’s also got a subway and many of the districts are walkable.
What to do.
Where to begin? Every street in this district is an adventure and on every corner is another tea house. Gion is Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district and you won’t have any difficulty locating one whilst wandering around. You can also take the opportunity to dress like a traditional Geisha if it takes your fancy. My best advice, as with all places, is to get lost in its charm.
The Japanese have a special tea ceremony and if you can find one to watch then you shouldn’t hesitate to try it. There are teahouses all over this city. I don’t suppose you’ll have a lot of trouble in seeking one out.
Let me begin by acknowledging the seemingly infinite number of temples that situate themselves within the vicinity of Kyoto. There are a tonne and they’re all beautiful. Unfortunately, because I have no intention of repeating ‘this is a Buddhist temple, it is very amazing’, at least 20 times, I’m going to write very succinctly about one of them instead. That being said, don’t hesitate to turn your trip to Kyoto into an epic real life version of Temple Run. They’re really worth your time. Kiyomizu-dera was my favourite and it probably wins that title for a lot of people. Head here just before the sunset to watch Kyoto and the surrounding mountains become enveloped in a pink sky. It’s stunning. The temple itself translates to ‘Pure Water’ temple because it is built around the Otowa waterfall. You can drink the water from three different streams – one for love, one for longevity and one for wisdom. It’s considered greedy to drink from all three so choose what you’re lacking most and drink responsibly. My favourite thing about this temple is the colours of the trees. Actually, that could just be my favourite thing about Japan. To get here you’ll be heading through the Higashiyama district, which won’t starve you from stumbling upon other beautiful things as you meander through.
In just a short train ride from Kyoto to Inari, (Nara line) you’ll find this incredible Shinto shrine. The shrine is home to thousands of torii gates leading you up the sacred mountain. You can head all the way to the top and down in about two hours but most people only make it about twenty minutes and turn back around. For this reason, I highly advise that you preload on Japanese snacks and blitz it to the top to get photos where nobody but you is the star character. Alternatively, it doesn’t close so you could get up at an ungodly hour and head for an epic photo. The place is incredibly peaceful when there is nobody there, which sounds like a very obvious statement to make, but you’ll understand upon following my advice.
In western Kyoto, you can find the incredibly pleasant area of Arashiyama. It’s most commonly visited during cherry blossom season or for its famous bamboo forest.
Just a short ride out of the city centre is Kinkaku-ji, better known amongst the heaps of tourists that visit here as the Golden Pavilion. There’s really no denying it – it’s definitely gold.
On the way back from the Golden Pavilion, jump off the bus at this castle. It’s just one more of the many buildings classified as a UNESCO world heritage site within Japan. I love seeing Japanese castles because they’re so vastly different from the thing that usually pops into my head when the word castle is mentioned. (Hogwarts)
Make sure you munch on.
As with all food in Japan, everything you eat here will tickle your tastebuds. Try the traditional Japanese things like sushi and sashimi but Kyoto is also famous for its tempura. Somehow we found ourselves in a thirteen course version of it, including eel and a whole fish, but it was actually very yummy and the good stuff is not at all greasy.