Kyoto is the cultural heart and soul of Japan. A seamless blend of modernity and tradition, there’s always something new to discover here – whether it’s your first visit or your 100th. Kyoto served as the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years, and its rich heritage is apparent all over the city. From the endless shrines and temples with their contemplative Zen gardens, to the narrow streets lined with traditional shops, restaurants, and tea houses, Kyoto seemed a natural fit for the third installation of our Wanderful City Guides. Let’s start exploring!
Our Wanderful Guide: Ashley Owen
TEMPLES AND SHRINES
Temples and shrines are what Kyoto is best known for – and with good reason. It often feels like there’s one around every corner! This can make it difficult to know which are worth visiting, so here are the ones you don’t want to miss:
A dazzling golden temple, Kinkakuji is one of Kyoto’s most famous sights, and when you see it encircled by pine trees with its reflection shimmering in the pond below, it really will take your breath away.
Sister temple to Kinkakuji, this elegant pavilion and its surrounding gardens are the perfect embodiment of wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in simplicity and imperfection.
This vast, mountainside Shinto shrine complex is home to literally thousands of red torii gates, which turn the pathways into stunning vermillion tunnels interspersed with statues of sacred fox guardians.
Famous for its 13-metre-high terrace, this temple offers spectacular views out over the city, as well as a wish-granting waterfall. The pure water is divided into three streams, which you can sip from to receive longevity, love, or academic success – but choose wisely, as you can only drink once!
As to be expected from top attractions, these four spots do get quite busy in peak seasons – visit in the early morning or evening to avoid the crowds.
FOR THE NATURE-LOVERS
As a city surrounded by mountains, it’s not surprising that Kyoto also has plenty to offer in terms of hiking opportunities. So if you’re looking for a break from the tourist groups and urban sprawl, the following trails are ideal – and all easily accessible from the city centre.
One of the most rewarding hikes in the area is Mount Hiei, which is also home to one of Kyoto’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Enryaku-ji Temple. The climb takes about two to three hours, but there are also cable cars on both sides of the mountain in case you’d prefer an easier ascent.
The city’s highest peak is the 924-metre Mount Atago, situated on the opposite side to Hiei. There’s no cable car here, so the only way to make it to the top is on foot. But the reward is oh-so worth it - awe-inspiring views for miles and one of the most serene shrines in the city.
If you prefer your hikes to remain at ground-level, try the Takao-to-Hozukyō trail in the northwest of Kyoto. It takes you along a riverside path past temples, shrines, and an optional detour to an impressive waterfall.
FOR THE FOODIES
Like most – if not all – Japanese cities, Kyoto has a wide range of delectable bites to please any palate. Alongside classics, such as sushi, sashimi, udon, and tempura, Kyoto has a variety of local specialties that you should definitely try out.
The city is a specialist producer of tofu—and you’ll be amazed at the numerous different styles in which it’s served here. One of the best ways to sample it is at a shojin ryori meal. This is a traditional Buddhist cuisine, made with no animal ingredients at all. It’s a multi-course extravaganza with lots of small dishes that taste amazing and are exquisitely presented. The meal is as much a work of art as it is food!
Kyoto is also famous for kyo-wagashi (Kyoto sweets), intricately designed confections often modelled after seasonal flowers. Made with ingredients such as anko (sweet red bean paste), mochi (sticky rice cake), and kinako (roasted soy bean flour), they are intended to offset the bitterness of the matcha tea they are traditionally consumed with.
To get a real feel for the foodie vibe in Kyoto, pay a visit to Nishiki Market. Also known as Kyoto’s Kitchen, this narrow, bustling lane is packed with traders selling all manner of fresh culinary delights – all locally produced, of course, and with plenty of free samples.
Tea is an important part of Japanese culture, and nowhere is this clearer than in Kyoto. The tea ceremony dates back hundreds of years and can still be enjoyed today by both locals and tourists. Opt for some top-quality matcha (powdered green tea) and authentic Japanese sweets.
Alternatively, if you prefer your drinks with a bit of a kick, Kyoto’s Fushimi district is one of the leading areas for sake brewing in the country thanks to its pure water. There are almost 40 sake breweries here, many of which offer tours and tastings to the public. One of the best to check out is Gekkeikan, which also has a sake museum on site.
And if craft beer is more your style, you’re in luck. There are enough taprooms and breweries in the city to satisfy even the thirstiest of punters, including Kyoto Beer Lab, Beer Komachi, Kyoto Brewing Company, and Kizakura Kappa Country.
In addition to the tea ceremony, there are a number of other cultural experiences you can take part in here. These include renting kimonos (traditional Japanese clothes), attending a calligraphy class, or learning the art of ikebana (flower arranging).
Several of the city’s temples, such as Shunkoin, offer Zen meditation classes in English. These serve as a gentle introduction to the world of mindfulness and Zen philosophy with advanced courses often available for more experienced practitioners.
For a chance to spot a geisha (or ‘geiko’ in the Kyoto dialect), head to Gion. Transport yourself back centuries as this traditional part of town is a maze of cobblestone alleyways lined with machiya townhouses. If you’re lucky, you might spot a geiko or maiko (apprentice geiko) on their way to work in the early evening – feel free to take a photograph, but remember to be respectful if you do.
WHEN TO VISIT
Kyoto is a wonderful city to visit at any time of year, but is particularly beautiful during the spring sakura (cherry blossom) season, when the cherry trees bloom and turn the entire country into a sea of delicate pink flowers. They only last for a few weeks, and it is this transient nature that makes them so highly revered in Japan.
One of the best spots to appreciate the cherry blossoms in Kyoto is the Philosopher’s Path, a pleasant walk that runs alongside a canal in the east of the city. The name comes from a famous Japanese philosopher from Kyoto University, who would often take contemplative walks along this route.
Arashiyama, in the west of Kyoto, is also breathtakingly beautiful during the sakura season, as the surrounding mountainside turns into a collage of different shades of pink. This district is well worth a visit a any time of year, however, and is most famous for its ethereal bamboo grove.
Autumn is another great season to visit Kyoto - the leaves of the momiji (maple) trees change colour to vibrant reds and blazing oranges. In Japan, enjoying the fall foliage is almost as special as witnessing the cherry blossoms bloom earlier in the year. Arashiyama is equally stunning in autumn as in the spring, but there are also several temples which offer prime leaf-viewing locations. For the best of the best, head to Tofukuji, Eikando, or Kodaiji.
There’s so much to enjoy in this most picturesque of cities, and this guide only just scratches the surface – I hope you have as much fun exploring Kyoto as I did!
Ashley is a freelance writer from the UK living in Nara, Japan. Read more from her here. All photos are hers, except the opening image.