Kyoto is a world of restraint, a strong contrast to the bright lights of Tokyo, Osaka and much of what people assume Japan to be like. In Kyoto, traditional culture and pastimes reign in what was once the nation’s political capital, and now its rightful cultural capital.
The third most visited city in Japan, Kyoto is home to a bewildering number of temples and shrines, as well as some of the country’s most incredible natural landscapes.
HISTORY OF Kyoto
The home of the Japanese Emperor from 794 (when it was known as Heian) until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the city of Kyoto still retains its political strength in name only; ‘Kyoto’ translating as ‘capital city’. Like almost all major cities, Kyoto has gone through many forms and rebirths.
Much of the city was destroyed during the Ōnin War in the mid-15th Century and as a result, the city we see today was largely built during the Edo period. Unlike many other cities, it was spared the atrocious bombing of WWII and reportedly saved from the A-Bomb by US Secretary for War Henry Stimson because he felt it too historically significant.
This piece of good fortune, amidst such awful devastation throughout the country, has allowed Kyoto to preserve its 2,000 shrines and temples, and is worth remembering when basking in its cultural splendour today.
Location of Kyoto
Linked to the neighbouring cities of Osaka, Kobe and Nara through extensive rail networks, a shared sense of humor and a fondness for lighter-colored soy sauce in contrast to their countrymen in Tokyo/ Kanto, Kyoto is a key component in the Kansai region.
Based on the Chinese city of Chang’an (now Xi’an), Kyoto’s original grid layout still remains today but to truly explore all that Kyoto has to offer, you’ll need to venture outside the city limits. Part of the Yamashiro Basin, Kyoto is situated within the Tamba highlands with mountains surrounding much of the city, and Lake Biwa to the East.
What to do in Kyoto
Fans of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines can pretty much wander anywhere in Kyoto and stumble upon an ancient reminder of Japan’s past. However, there really is so much to see in Kyoto that it’s worth planning ahead, especially if you want to beat the crowds. For some in-depth insights into the city and its culture, we recommend joining an organized tour, for example, this one-day Kyoto tour or this half-day Kyoto tour, which allows for more time to explore the metropolis on your own.
The most popular temples are Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji. The former is a Buddhist temple perched atop Mount Otowa on the Eastern edge of the city, while the latter is a golden-plated pavilion located within the Rokuon-ji Complex to the north. Though it’s nominally a shrine, Fushimi-inari Taisha is a truly unique one. An estimated 32,000 torii’s (traditional orange gates) line the gentle walk to the top of Inari mountain, making for an unforgettable hike.
If you’ve had your fill of man-made culture then head North-West on the train line where you will find the mystical Arashiyama bamboo forest. Thousands of bamboo trees reach up to the sky, creating a dizzying walkway for thousands of tourists at their feet. Come early if you want to avoid the crowds and allow for a few hours of exploring the natural surroundings, quaint shopping streets and the picturesque Sagano Scenic Railway. Joining an organized Arashiyama Tour is ideal for those who wish to get closer to nature and visit this scenic part of Western Kyoto that is surrounded by mountains, lakes, and woodland.
These religious sites are where countless rituals and ceremonies have taken place in Japan for thousands of years but there is another kind of tradition that is unique to Kyoto: the Geisha. Stroll around the entertainment district of Gion or the romantic Ponto-chō alley in the evening for the best chance to spot one of the country’s most famous (and most misunderstood) symbols. You can even join a “Spot a Geisha Tour“.
How MUCH TIME TO spend in Kyoto
Those trying to see Kyoto within a day on a speeding Shinkansen from Tokyo will no doubt enjoy their day but will regret not giving the city more time. Kyoto and its thousands of years of history deserve much longer and the city moves at a slower pace than the rest of Japan so allow for a few days at least. Consider basing yourself in Kyoto and exploring the Kansai region from here.