Kyoto is Japan’s cultural heart, and the flow of history and traditions has continued uninterrupted here for well over 1,300 years. It’s a city which attracts lots of curious visitors keen to scratch the surface of Japanese culture and to try and understand more about the history of this fascinating nation. Kyoto was Japan’s Imperial capital for over 1,000 years until the court was relocated to Tokyo in 1869, and although it is not the actual administrative capital, it is still the most important city in terms of historic monuments, Japanese art and culture. It’s overflowing with serene shrines, elegant gardens and quintessential Japanese imagery, and there is wonderful food to try and some fantastic museums to visit. There’s lots to see on a trip to Kyoto, so here are some highlights to help you make the most of your time there.
There are around 2,000 different temples and shrines in Kyoto, and they are often exquisitely beautiful with magical gardens surrounding them, great for a peaceful pause from the busy city. The popular shrines and temples are likely to be busy with other visitors and worshippers, but there are plenty of tucked away, lesser-known temples where you can escape the crowds.
Shimogamo shrine is one of Kyoto's oldest and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a Shinto shrine which sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Takano and the Kamo, giving it a cool and peaceful aspect. The ancient forest that surrounds the shrine is known as the ‘Tadasu no Mori,’ and contains trees that are up to 600 years old. The forest is sacred, and not open to the public, but it helps give the shrine its fairytale appeal and makes it feel a world away from the city.
Fushimi Inari shrine is the must see sight in Kyoto, with the famous walkway which takes you into the hills behind through an infinite tunnel of brick-red Tori gates, each one donated by a company or individual. The ‘Sembon Torii’ is the name for this walkway, which literally translates as ‘one thousand gates.’
This thriving neighbourhood market is located five minutes walk from Shijo underground station. It is nicknamed ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’ for its dedication to all things culinary. This is a great scene of Japanese culture in action, where the city’s cooks come to restock with kitchenalia and equipment such as knives, pans and typical Japanese kitchenware. But it is also a fantastic place to get to know Kyoto cuisine, to sample the freshest produce, or local specialities whipped into exciting dishes by the shopkeepers and cooks, many of whom have owned their outlets for several generations. Usually each food outlet will specialise in just one ready-to-eat dish, and you could certainly put together a delicious meal by sampling a few different freshly made specialities as you stroll around.
Nearby you will also find Teramachi dori, a more varied shopping street that runs perpendicular to Nishiki Market and is less touristed, though perpetually busy with locals. The shops are interspersed with lots of small temples and shrines dotted behind the main street, giving the whole place a cultured air. It’s a perfect area for stocking up on traditional Japanese goodies such as incense, washi paper and stationary.
Kyoto is home to the majority of the geisha of Japan and is the major location for geisha training, which takes years. Geisha are expert entertainers, and traditionally their role was to amuse and captivate their audience at high class social events, sometimes by playing musical instruments and often with their wit and conversational skills. When the imperial court decided to make Kyoto the capital of Japan at the end of the eighth century, it triggered the creation of a new elite, the top echelons of society who had the resources for leisure time and who put beauty and poise on a pedestal. This sowed the seeds for a society where geisha would achieve high status as social butterflies with many tricks designed to entertain and enthrall their (traditionally male) spectators. During World War II, the geisha were needed for the war effort, and the tradition was abandoned temporarily. When geisha regrouped after the war, they re-embraced their traditional roles, and now see it as their mission to continue the ancient custom of geisha houses. Today, it is possible to arrange to dine with geisha or see a geisha dance, which take place five times per year, and you may find yourself wandering the streets behind a maiko (a trainee geisha) as you explore the city.
Kaiseki is a highly refined Japanese version of haute cuisine, the precursor to the current obsession for multi course ‘tasting menus.’ It is traditionally a showcase for the finest and most intricate dishes of a region, and Kyo Kaiseki, which is the Kyoto regional Kaiseki, is no exception, in fact it is considered by the Japanese as one of the finest regional cuisines in the country. A Kyo Kaiseki meal is not cheap, but it is such a great insight into Japanese culture, traditions and gastronomy that it transcends a simple dining experience. You should expect between eight and twelve courses, all presented beautifully with classic Japanese artistry and consideration for appearance. The courses are all intended to demonstrate something different about the food of the area, and flavours are carefully combined to demonstrate the abilities of the chef. When the main part of the meal is complete you will be served a shoko ji course, which is aromatic rice, miso soup and pickled vegetables, all designed to cleanse the palette before dessert. You can enjoy a Kyo Kaiseki meal at several ryokans and riverside terrace restaurants in the city.
Located in the hilly east of Kyoto, Higashiyama is a neighbourhood packed with the well preserved charms of old Kyoto. As well as the delightful serenity and beauty of the pagodas and temples of the area, there are plenty of places just to wander and enjoy the sense of history, snapping lots of pictures of the photogenic surroundings. The Maruyama Park is definitely worth a visit for its feeling of calm, imaginative planting and the lovely water features - not to mention the best cherry blossom in the city during the first half of April - while Kiyomizudera temple is a definite must-see, with its mythical waters that are deemed to have magical powers. The appeal of Higashiyama lies also in its old fashioned streets of low rise, timber buildings - many of them now cafes and shops which will tempt to to linger as you explore this enchanting relic of Japanese heritage. There is a great tradition of crafts in Kyoto, and the shops lined up along the narrow, characterful streets between Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine are a great place to look for souvenirs and gifts.
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