The Kyoto Rundown
Tokyo may be the dominant metropolis and cultural nerve center of Japan but Kyoto trumps the national capital in one category: UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The ancient Kansai city has seventeen UNESCO landmarks, to be exact, under the auspicious umbrella of one remarkable World Heritage inscription. Tokyo, on the other hand, has nil. Kyoto is also home to one in five National Treasures of Japan, while Tokyo, aside from National Museum objects, has two in all.
The point, of course, is not to denigrate Tokyo but, indeed, to glorify Kyoto. The charm of the former Imperial capital of Japan is hardly latent. Tens of millions of visitors converge on central Honshu throughout the year to see the cherry blossoms, take in venerable summer temple festivals, photograph pristine autumnal landscapes and time travel to the Heian period. From Shogunate palaces to Buddhist temples, Zen gardens to Shinto shrines, some of which date back more than 1,200 years, Kyoto features a monumental array of eye candy.
Kyoto is not without modern points of interest as well. The International Manga Museum, National Museum, Botanical Garden and MoMAK, or National Museum of Modern Art, all unfurl fabulous collections. The local arts and crafts scene is no less vibrant and for gourmets with deep pockets, Kyoto has more restaurants with Michelin stars than any other city in the world - outside of Tokyo that is.
Kyoto’s Top 10
10. Kamigamo Shrine is a major Shinto sanctuary that dates back to the 7th century.
5. Nijō Castle is a vast Shogunate complex that dates back to the early 17th century.
9. Tō-ji is a Buddhist temple built in 796.
4. Tenryū-ji is a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple that is primary among Kyoto’s “Five Mountains”.
8. Kyoto National Museum is a first-rate repository of ancient artefacts.
3. National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, by Pritzker Prize alum Fumihiko Maki, devotes ample space to Kansai talent from the Kyoto school.
7. Ujigami Shrine is a thousand-year-old Shinto shrine in the city of Uji, Kyoto Prefecture.
2. Shimogamo Shrine is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan.
6. Saihō-ji is a Zen temple whose moss garden is one of the premier symbols of Kyoto.
1. Arashiyama is a district and mountain across the Katsura River that is home to Iwatayama Monkey Park and the bucolic village of Kiyotaki.
- Kasuga Taisha Shrine – Built around 768 AD, this Shinto temple houses approximately 3,000 bronze and stone lanterns.
- Nijo-jo – A large, stunning 17th-century castle.
- Temple of the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) – First constructed in 1480s, it showcases a cherry-tree lined path next to a canal.
- Imperial Palace (Kyoto Gosho) – Once the home of the emperor and his family.
- Kawayuka – Restaurants along the historic Kamo River offer multi-cuisine dining.
Kyoto Art & Culture
- Ryotei Dining – A type of traditional gourmet once reserved for wealthy patrons.
- Shozan-kaku – Provides a traditional experience to observe the cherry blossoms of Mt Utano.
- Gion District – Bask in traditional Japanese culture and arts.
- Tempura Yoshikawa – Dine with a background of tranquil landscape gardens and incredible architecture.
- Okazaki Park – A noh theatre, several teahouses, stunning gardens and art museums nestled around an old castle.
- Nishiki-Koji Dori – One of Japan’s beloved treasures, a 400-year old shopping avenue.
- Kiyomizudera – The temple for lovers offers quaint shops with tourists in mind.
- Arashiyama Station – A wonderful place to pick up traditional souvenirs from fans to sweets.
- Gion – From tacky to unique shops, including both traditional and modern wares, Gion offers a piece of the Orient.
- Teramach Street – The anime and manga destination offers any collectable you can imagine.
Gay & Lesbian Kyoto
- Aoi Koen – A small park on the north side of Kyoto is a well-known afternoon meeting location.
- Colori – A popular Italian cuisine cafe on Senbon-dori boasts a rainbow flag and an open reputation.
- Kyoto Sauna Verde – A bath with a reputation to be welcoming and relaxing.
- Kiyamachi Street – Contains several gay-friendly bars, including Apple and Azure.
- Cine Friends Nishijin – A Japanese gay-porn theater northeast of Senbon-Nakadachiuri.
- Cherry Blossom Viewing – During the cherry blossom season in early April, Kyoto’s traditional majestic willows are paled by cascades of stunning pink flowers.
- Nara Deer Park – Home to more than a thousand Sika deer that roam freely.
- Shrines – More than 2,000 shrines and temples are considered by many travellers to be one of the most essential experiences in all of Japan.
- Golden Pavilion – Kinkakuji is an ancient gold-leafed Buddhist temple to inspires awe.
- Ryoanji – One of the most famous Zen karesansui, or dry landscape rock and gravel gardens, in the world.
- Lake Biwa – A great location for camping, fishing and hiking.
- Soccer – Kyoto Sanga F.C. is an amateur football club that won the Emperor’s cup in 2002.
- Baseball – The nearby Hanshin Tigers franchise offers pro ball, but the city has several baseball fields for amateur teams.
- Crow Sumo Wrestling – Though sumo is more popular in other cities, young boys compete in crow sumo wrestling at the Kamigamo Shrine in early September.
- Equestrian Festival – The fukakusa festival in early May offers two sessions of acrobatic equestrian sports and a warrior parade.
Kyoto’s 1.5 million people live in 11 wards (ku) and countless sub-districts. Kyoto Prefecture, in turn, covers 2.6 million people, numerous towns and villages and a total area of 1,781 square miles.
Fushimi-ku is a major center of sake production and includes points of interest like Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine and Fushimi Castle.
Higashiyama-ku’s Gion enclave was once the most exclusive geiko, or geisha, district in Japan. Today the area is a prominent restaurant and entertainment strip. Other points of interest in the ward include Yasaka Shrine, Kiyomizu-dera temple and Kyoto National Museum.
Kamigyō-ku is home to Kyoto Imperial Palace, Kitano Tenmangu Shinto shrine and the Seimei Shrine.
Kita-ku is a prominent university ward with a population of 125,000.
Minami-ku is a blue-collar ward with a large Korean population.
Nakagyō-ku is a major festival, leisure and entertainment ward, with many monuments and temples of note.
Nishikyō-ku is home to Katsura Imperial Villa, Saihō Zen Temple and Matsunoo-taisha Shinto shrine.
Sakyo-ku includes the the main campus of Kyoto University and points of interest like Ginkaku Temple, Nanzen Temple, Kamigano Shrine and Heian Shrine.
Shimogyō-ku is home to Shijō Kawaramachi, the premier commercial intersection in Kyoto. The ward also includes Kyoto Station and Kyoto Tower.
Ukyō-ku is home to Iwatayama Monkey Park, Tenryū Temple, Ōkōchi Mountain Villa, the village of Kiyotaki and Matsuo Shrine.
Yamashina-ku contains ancient Imperial tombs and Lake Biwa Canal.
Kyoto Eat & Drink
Kyoto restaurants get a bad rap, in no small part because of Osaka’s “eat till you dop” ethos. As of 2011, however, the city had 100 restaurants with Michelin stars to Osaka’s 90, Paris’ 64 and New York’s 57. While the upscale end of the culinary spectrum (multi-course kaiseki restaurants) may not be affordable to all, without a doubt, Kyoto has chefs who brandish serious skills.
Tsuruya (Okazaki Higashi-Tennocho 30, Sakyo-ku) is a first-class garden restaurant close to Heian Shrine.
Kikunoi (459 Shimokawara-cho, Yasakatoriimae-sagaru, Shimokawara-dori, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi) is a ryotei temple of multi-course kaiseki cuisine.
Tankuma Kitamise Honten (355 Kamiyacho, Nakagyo-ku) rolls out a multi-course menu that alters with the seasons.
Mizai (Maruyama Machi 620-1, Hairu, Yasaka Torii Mae Higashi, Higashiyama-ku) serves ethereal, artful plates in Maruyama Park.
Hyotei (35 Kusagawa-cho, Nanzenji, Sakyo-ku) is a delightful, reverent culinary journey back in time.
Chihana (584 Minamigawa, Gionmachi, Higashiyama-ku) serves elegant kaiseki cuisine, with the same family of chefs at the helm since 1946.
Ryozanpaku (5 Izumidono-cho Yoshida, Sakyo-ku) is one of the best kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto.
Kitcho Arashiyama (58, Susukinobaba-cho, Saga Tenryuji, Ukyo-ku) is a teahouse-like restaurant set in a lush, verdant backdrop.
Nakamura (Oike-sagaru Tominokoji Nakagyo-ku) is a Kyoto institution and has a history that dates back to 1827.
Kyoto is all about heritage and tradition, of course, and the city plays it up for the domestic tourists and curious international observers who come for bona fide cultural immersion. As such, a number of festivals stand out.
Setsubun (Bean-Throwing Ceremony) takes place at Yoshida Shrine in February and marks the arrival of spring. The festival is a major event at Shinto and Buddhist temples throughout Japan, with many inherent rituals.
Cherry Blossom Season starts in early April but bad weather can delay it by a week or two.
Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival, May 15) features a long procession of participants in Heian Period costumes between Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine.
Gion Matsuri takes place throughout the entire month of July and is one of the top festivals in Japan. Downtown Kyoto is pedestrian-only for the occasion and food stalls, special performances and parades fill the streets.
Daimonji or Gozan no Okuribi is the culmination of Obon in Kyoto, the Japanese Buddhist festival that honors the spirits of ancestors. Huge, symbolic bonfires are lit on August 16 for the occasion and people gather by the Kamo River for a good view.
Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages, October 22) is one of Kyoto’s Big Three Matsuri (along with Aoi and Gion) and features lavish costumes, parades, historical re-enactments and temple rites.
When To Go
Kyoto has a humid subtropical climate with four seasons. Two of those seasons, spring and autumn, lure significant hordes of tourists. Simply put, the city and peripheral environs of Kyoto are gorgeous in the months of March, April, May and September, October and November and the weather is pleasant. Spring temperatures run from 37°F (3°C) to 75°F (24°C) and autumn features a high of 82°F (28°C) in September and low of 44°F (7°C) in November. To be more specific, however, the cherry blossoms bloom in April and the fall foliage is most spectacular from late October to late November.
Summer is not an inherently bad time to be in Kyoto but it is hot. Temperatures typically range from 64°F (18°C) to 91°F (33°C) and nightime lows in June and July rarely dip below 72°F (22°C). Kyoto gets over 62 in (1,575 mm) of rain a year, much of it in June, July and September.
What To Miss
Kyoto is easy to love, which in a sense, is precisely the problem. The city welcomes close to 50 million domestic and international visitors a year (the vast majority in the former category). The figure is borderline absurd and untenable for any city, let alone one with 1.5 million people and a UNESCO World Heritage ensemble of historic monuments to preserve. Even though less than one third of all visitors come by car, traffic and pedestrian congestion can be a distraction from the inherent serenity of the old city. The result is that Kyoto sometimes has the aura of a theme park.
Alas, some commendable strides have been made in recent years to develop ecotourism and curtail unsustainable environmental practices that not only desecrate the heritage legacy of the city but quality of life for locals (and visitors). Steps have been made, too, to curb the advance of tacky souvenir shops and lax tourist restaurants. Although the infamous culinary gap between Kyoto and Osaka is more germane at the budget end of the scale, the city has a bad reputation to remedy. Kyoto may have 100 restaurants with one or more Michelin stars (2011 Michelin Guide for Kyoto Osaka Kobe) but it needs to promote and disseminate quality in order to cater to all. On the whole, time will tell if the city is able to strike a balance between mass tourism and heritage conservation.
There is no shortage of ways to get to Kyoto from the likes of Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima and metro Tokyo. Bus, rapid rail, bullet train (shinkansen) all ferry domestic and international tourists alike. One cannot fly in to Kyoto directly, however. Osaka Itami International Airport is the primary domestic gateway to Kansai and the Keihanshin area and, as such, welcomes over 19 million passengers a year. The best way to get to Kyoto from Itami Airport is by limousine bus. The trip takes one hour.
The “international” in Osaka Itami International is a misnomer; the hub went completely domestic in 1994 when then newly-built Kansai International Airport took over the international end of the business. The latter, some 40 km away from Itami, competes for domestic passengers as well, with regular flights from Tokyo-Haneda. Major destinations on Kansai International’s roster include Beijing-Capital, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Manila, New York-JFK, Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Rome-Fiumicino, Seoul-Incheon, Shanghai-Pudong and Singapore. The most efficient way to get to Kyoto from the airport is to purchase a one-day JR West Kansai Area Pass and take the Haruka Limited Express. The ride is about 77 minutes and trains depart every 30-60 minutes.
Kyoto’s attractions sprawl over a very large area and so public transport is essential in the city. The system in place is a good one, especially for tourists, with a reliable municipal bus network, commuter rail network and small subway. Most signs have English translations and the city offers various tourist transit cards for easy get-on and get-off travel. Visitors can also arrange English-language taxi tours of the city. Lastly, Kyoto is a terrific city to navigate by bike. It is fairly simple to arrange a rental for a day or two.
Arguably Japan's most beautiful city, Kyoto is home to over 1.5 million fortunate people. A lynchpin in the giant Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto megalopolis, the ancient Imperial capital of Japan is rife with venerable attractions. The Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto in fact, comprise one of the most important sites in Asia. With over 17 locations in and around Kyoto, from Shogunate palaces to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, some of which date back some 1500 years, Kyoto the city is a virtual candy store for tourists.
Lest we forget however, while Kyoto has a firm respect for the past, the city is supremely modern as well. Attractions of note include the International Manga Museum, National Museum, Botanical Garden and MOMAK, or National Museum of Modern Art. Of course, no trip to Kyoto would be close to complete without a methodical food tour of the city and a thorough exploration of traditional Japanese arts and crafts.
Attractions & Activities
Restaurants & Nightlife
The ubiquitous sight of cherry blossoms draws many visitors to Kyoto in springtime, when the weather is particularly pleasant.
- Winter (December to February) -1-11°C
- Spring (March to May) 2-24°C
- Summer (June to September) 17-28°C
- Fall (October to November) 5-22°C
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