Kyoto: Japan’s thousand-year-old capital of culture

For a fascinating mix of the old and the new, Kyoto is Japan in a nutshell

Kyoto is an ancient city and a mecca for tourists - most importantly for temple enthusiasts - Shutterstock
Kyoto is an ancient city and a mecca for tourists – most importantly for temple enthusiasts – Shutterstock

Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, is rather a tourist mecca. Having said that, though, Japan’s idea of a tourist trap is very different to the European one. The tourists tend to be domestic rather than foreign and, such is the depth of tradition in Kyoto, tourists are generally respectful and reverent, rather than pushy.

This all happens on the outskirts though. The centre is similar to any other Japanese city (concrete! Shopping centres! Video screens! Neon!), and this city of 1.5 million people very nearly didn’t exist at all.

It was top of the list to have an American nuclear bomb dropped on it towards the end of World War II, until the personal intervention of secretary of war Henry L. Stimson, who had been there on his honeymoon and couldn’t bear the thought of it being attacked. Its survival means that one of Japan’s historical and cultural treasures is here for all to see.

Kyoto’s main annoyance, however, is the fact that most of the sights are rather scattered. This does mean that your adventure will also include navigating the Metro system – which is not extensive with only two lines – and the rather more wide-ranging bus and tram network. If you’re there for a while, the best thing to do is to choose one area to focus on each day. So let’s have a look at the different parts of the city!

Higashiyama is to the south-east of the city centre. Kyoto itself lies in a valley, and the eastern side is seemingly one long line of shrines, temples and tea-gardens. The Fushimi Inari shrine and Kyomizu Buddhist temple (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are both located in this area. The views over the valley, particularly from the temple at sunset, are breathtaking.

Kyomizu Buddhist temple well as the Fushimi Inari shrine are both UNESCO World Heritage sites - Shutterstock  Kyoto
Kyomizu Buddhist temple, as well as the Fushimi Inari shrine, are both UNESCO World Heritage sites – Shutterstock

If temples are your thing, the most famous is the Golden Temple (Kinkaku-ji), one of the most popular tourist sites in the entire country; the only issue here is getting to it. It’s to the north-west of the centre, and you need to take a bus, which can be tricky due to the lack of English signage.

Founded in 1397, the top two storeys of this three-storey building are covered with gold leaf, and the building itself houses relics of the Buddha. There is a magnificent strolling garden, with a huge, reflective pond which mirrors the temple in its waters.

More centrally located are the Silver Pavillion (Ginkaku-ji) and Nijo castle. The castle was built as the Kyoto residence of the Shoguns (Japanese feudal lords), and consists of an outer section, separated by walls and a moat, from the Ninomaru Palace in the centre.

Arashiyama temple is famous for its outstanding natural beauty. You can either stroll through bamboo groves or feed freely roaming monkeys - Shutterstock Kyoto
Arashiyama temple is famous for its outstanding natural beauty. You can either stroll through bamboo groves or feed monkeys – Shutterstock

The palace is a huge complex of spectacular rooms, many of which have an anti-intruder system known as nightingale floors. These floors were designed to squeak like birds when walked on, so as to protect the inhabitants of the palace from sneak attacks.

Outside the city to the north, the Kurama and Kibune valleys are beautiful places to walk between, via a huge monastery. On the way, you can partake in a very typical Japanese experience – the outdoor bath.

There are two types of baths: onsen, or outdoor, and sento, or indoor. If you’re okay with the concept of public nudity (and you have to be – everyone else will be!), there is nothing more typically Japanese.

Heading north-east, even further out of the city, you can get to Mount Hiei (Hiei-zan), home to yet another mountain-top temple complex including, oddly, a French-style flower garden. It’s accessible by cable-car, and has wonderful views over Lake Biwa, before you stroll down the other side, through a huge cedar forest, to the funicular railway which will carry you back down again.

Still want more? How about Arashiyama, another temple district that is a famous site of outstanding natural beauty. Stroll through the bamboo groves, or visit the Iwatayama monkey park, where the fearless monkeys roam free, getting fed by the tourists.

Gion is one of the few places in Japan where you can see some of the few remaining geishas - Shutterstock Kyoto
Gion is one of the few places in Japan where you can see some of the few remaining geishas – Shutterstock

It is also here that you can get the most spectacular views of the changing colours of the leaves. People come from all around the country to see the gorgeous colours of the foliage, some of which will last right on into December.

After you’ve spent your days wandering and bathing, head into Gion district. This is both a tourist hub and a popular nightlife spot, even among locals. The character of each street varies widely, and there is a wide variety of restaurants, bars, tea houses and clubs. This is also one of the few places in Japan where you are able to see some of the few remaining geishas.

The geishas perform dancing exhibitions, attended by visitors from all over the country. If you want to watch these performances, you can either pay to watch from the cheap seats (sitting on a mat), or pay to take part in a pre-performance tea ceremony and watch from a reserved seat.

The former capital Nara is close to Kyoto and contains a park with freely roaming deers - Shutterstock
The former capital Nara is close to Kyoto and contains a park with freely roaming deers – Shutterstock

Kyoto is also a convenient base for visiting a couple of other places. Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital, and for this reason is home to scores of temples, shrines, and a park with a 15-foot high golden Buddha statue. The park also contains freely roaming deer, and the Kasuga Taisha shinto shrine, which dates back to the year 768.

The other alternative, and something a little more lively, is Osaka, Japan’s second city. Home to 19 million people, great nightlife, and as relaxed as a city of that size can be.

Finally, speaking of nightlife, we can’t fail to mention karaoke. A cliche? Sure, but a fabulously fun one. Private karaoke rooms (known as boxes) can be rented by the hour, with free-flowing beer on tap. Discover your juhachiban (the song you sing best) and away you go!

So, for a fascinating mix of the old and the new, and to explore one of the world’s most culturally rich and vibrant cities, Kyoto is Japan in a nutshell.