A Guide to Kyoto, Japan's Capital of Culture and Cuisine

Category: Japan, Travel Tips & Guides, Culture and Heritage

Whereas Tokyo is the epitome of Japan's modernity, there is another side to the country. The traditional architecture, customs, and lifestyle are alive and well. Unlike most cities, including Tokyo, the former Japanese capital, Kyoto (京都) was spared most of the destruction of World War II, despite being the original first choice for the 1945 atomic bombings which ended the war. The city was saved by the then US Secretary for War, Henry L. Stimson, who had honeymooned there before the war and felt the valuable culture should be preserved, so instead nominated Hiroshima. Because of this decision, Kyoto has more pre-war buildings and sights than any other Japanese city, which has made it a very popular tourist destination — for several very good reasons. Today, we are going in search of those. We don't have far to go.

Kyoto lies 587 km / 365 miles south-west of Tokyo and is easily accessible from the capital by shinkansen (新幹線), Japan's famous bullet trains. The journey takes two hours and 18 minutes. Alternatively, you can start your visit to Japan by arriving at Kansai International Airport (関西国際空港; IATA Code: KIX). From there you can take the Haruka Express to Kyoto Station and be there in one hour and 13 minutes. Once we are settled in, we'll take a trip back in time.

 

GION (祇園)

The recently restored streets of Gion district are a good place to start your time in Kyoko. The district emerged in the 16th century AD and retains many of its original features. It's a fascinating place to just wander in, exploring the old streets and lanes with their traditional architecture. In the 17th century, Gion became an important hanamachi (花街) which means "geisha district". All around the area are ochaya (お茶屋, literally "tea houses") where patrons are entertained by the geisha. The most famous and exclusive is the more than 300-year-old Ichiriki Chaya (一力茶屋), situated on the corner of Shijō Street and Hanami Lane. Admission here is by invitation only and a night's entertainment is said to cost up to ¥800,000 (Japanese yen), the equivalent of $7,336 USD (November 2019 rates: 1 USD to JPY = 108.43). Contrary to popular opinion, geisha do not normally offer sexual services beyond light flirting. They are entertainers who dance, sing, play traditional Japanese instruments and converse with their clients.

A Japanese geishaA Japanese geisha

The number of geisha operating in Japan has declined dramatically over the years, but in the evening it is still possible to see geisha here, dressed in their traditional costumes as they go to their appointments with clients in the tea houses. The Gion Kobu (祇園甲部) area around Hanamikoji street is the best place to see them. Gion Kobu geisha also give public dance performances throughout each April. Note that some streets in Gion are non-smoking, even in the open. If you are a smoker, watch out for any signs or you could be fined.

 

NIJO CASTLE (二条城)

Seventeen sites in Kyoto have been declared a joint UNESCO World Heritage Site as the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities)". Thirteen are Buddhist temples, three are Shinto shrines and the last is Nijo Castle. Originally built in the early 17th century as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa shōguns, parts of the castle have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years.

The 27.5 hectare / 68 acre site is surrounded by an outer wall and moat and there is yet another moat and wall-protected compound inside. Between the walls lie the gardens and the Ninomaru Palace (二の丸御殿) and its attending lesser buildings. The Ninomaru is a beautiful 3,300 m2 / 36,000 ft2 construction consisting of five buildings, mostly built using Hinoki cypress and decorated with gold leaf and wooden carvings. Surrounding the Nonomaru palace are the castle's main gardens. While great to visit at any time of year, it is in spring that it's at its best, when the cherry and plum trees are in blossom. Inside the second set of walls is the Honmaru Palace (本丸御殿). Smaller at 1,600 m² / 17,000 ft², this palace is where the Emperor Hirohito's enthronement banquet was held in 1928.

The castle is open to the public every day from 8.45 am to 5 pm (last admittance 4 pm. Entrance: Adults: ¥620 (including entrance to Ninomaru Palace: ¥1,030); Junior High and High School Students: ¥350; Elementary School Students: ¥200. Address: 541 Nijo-jo-cho, Horikawa-nishi-iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto City. Tel: 075-841-0096.

 

KIYOMIZU-DERA (清水寺)

Kiyomizu-dera, one of Kyoto's 17 UNESCO sites, is a Buddhist temple founded in 778, although the current buildings date from the year 1633. Built on a hillside in the east of the city, the temple offers good views from its veranda, but it is the buildings themselves that are most impressive. Not a single nail was used in its construction; instead the builders relied on well-formed mortise and tenon joints to hold the wooden parts together.

Kiyomizu-deraKiyomizu-dera

The temple complex holds a number of shrines, the most popular being the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the Ōkuninushi, a Shinto god of love and "good matches" as well as other duties.

Beneath the main hall is the Otowa waterfall (Kiyomizu means "clear water") where you can join other visitors to try to catch some water to drink. Believers claim that doing this will allow your wishes to be granted.

Kiyomizu-dera is currently undergoing restoration to its roof and is covered in scaffolding, but the work is expected to be completed by March 2020 in good time for the Tokyo Olympics which will start on July 24th. The main hall is still open to visitors during the restoration.

The temple is open to visitors daily from 6 am to 6 pm (later on some holidays) and admission is ¥400.

 

SANJŪSANGEN-DŌ (三十三間堂)

Sanjūsangen-dō is another interesting and important Kyoto Buddhist temple, best known for its extremely long main hall, built in 1266. The hall contains 1001 life-size statues of the god Kannon which are considered official Japanese treasures.

On the second Sunday of each year, a ceremony is held here known as the Rite of the Willow. Believers line up to be touched on the head by a willow branch to prevent headaches. At the same time there is a modern re-enactment of an ancient tradition of archer being held here. During this "Festival of the Great Target", up to 2,000 archers from all over Japan take part.

Open: 8 am to 5 pm (9 am to 4 pm from November 16th until March). Admission: Adults: ¥600; Junior High School, High School: ¥400; Primary School: ¥300

 

KINKAKU-JI (金閣寺)

Kinkaku-ji is the popular name for a Zen Buddhist temple, officially called Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺) and one of the most popular visitor attractions in Kyoto. It is also one of the 17 UNESCO sites. Originally a shōgun's private residence, in 1408 it was converted to a temple. It was destroyed by fire in the later 15th century, but rebuilt. In 1950, it was burned down again by a mentally disturbed novice monk, who then tried to commit suicide, but survived and was imprisoned. The present building dates from 1955.

Kinkaku-ji Kinkaku-ji (photo credit: Gene Tobia)

The three-story, 12.5 meter / 40 foot pavilion is believed to be a close replica of the original, but more ornately decorated with gold leaf than the old version. The name kinkaku refers to this gold and means "Golden Pavilion".

Open 9 am to 5 pm daily. Admission: ¥400.

 

FUSHIMI INARI-TAISHA (伏見稲荷大社)

Shinto (神道), Japan's unique religion, is based on worship of the ancestors and many spirits or "kami", believed to exist in both animate and inanimate objects as well as in abstract concepts. The kami, Inari Ōkami (稲荷大神) is the spirit of rice, agriculture and business and Fushimi Inari-Taisha is the most important shrine to this spirit god. Although there has been a shrine here since the 8th century AD, the shrine you see today was built in 1499. It is located at the foot of a mountain to the south of Kyoto and is surrounded by paths leading up to the peak passing many other smaller shrines.

Fushimi Inari TaishaFushimi Inari Taisha

The main shrine is behind a beautiful ornamented gate and behind the shrine are paths leading up the mountain to an inner shrine. En route you will pass a row of around 1,000 "tori" which are symbolic gates between our world and a more spiritual place. These have been donated by successful business people since the early 17th century, in thanks for their prosperity.

Open 24 hours a day, every day. Entrance is free.

 

KATSURA IMPERIAL VILLA (桂離宮)

Katsura Imperial Villa was first built in the 17th century and is said to be one of the best showcases of Japanese architecture and the traditional Japanese gardens to be the finest in Japan. They are certainly impressive. There are three main buildings comprising the villa. The Old Shoin, the Middle Shoin, and the New Palace. "Shoin" means drawing room or study, but is actually more than that. They are reception rooms or halls and are architecturally important. The Old Shoin has a platform specifically for watching the moon. The Middle Shoin was also the residence of a prince and has more private rooms, including a washroom. The New Palace was also built as a residence and includes an imperial bedroom as well as a separate dressing room for the emperor's consort. Only the exterior of the buildings can only be viewed, so the gardens are the main attraction here. Exquisitely laid out in classical style around a man-made pond in the center, these are beloved by nature lovers and garden enthusiasts across Japan and beyond.

Only pre-booked guided tours of the gardens (available in English) are permitted and cost ¥1,000 per person. Your travel guide or hotel should be able to assist with booking a tour.

 

KYOTO CUISINE

Kyoto is renowned throughout Japan for its wonderful cuisine, considered by many to be the best in the country. It has over 100 Michelin starred restaurants, including seven with three stars. At the risk of over-simplifying, let me say the cuisine falls into three main categories: Kaiseki (懐石); Shojin (しょうじんりょうり) and Obanzai (おばんざい).

Different kinds of Japanese delicaciesDifferent kinds of Japanese delicacies

Kaiseki is Japanese fine dining, usually comprising a fixed menu of small dishes of perfectly cooked, subtly flavored and immaculately plated food, made using the best and freshest local ingredients. Although available throughout Japan, Kyoto kaiseki is considered to be superior to any other as it is based on the foods of the Emperors and other aristocracy who ruled here for over 1,000 years. That is not, however, to say that it is stuck in the past. Like all the best cuisines it is constantly evolving.

By their very nature, kaiseki meals are never cheap. The average is around ¥10,000 per head, but can reach ¥40,000 or more. That said, cheaper versions can be had for as little as ¥6,000 or ¥7,000. Lunches are usually cheaper than dinner. Best places to find kaiseki are in Gion and Pontocho districts, both of which have restaurants of different levels and affordability.

Shojin cuisine is the food of Japan's Buddhist monks and strict followers, so is not only completely vegetarian, but also excludes strongly flavored ingredients such as garlic and onions. Tofu in various forms and other soybean products such as natto (fermented soybeans) are the main source of protein and are accompanied by seasonal vegetables and rice. This may sound somewhat dull, but they are imaginative and have raised their cuisine to something special. The best place to try shojin is in one of the restaurants attached to Kyoto's 1,600 Buddhist temples.

Obanzai is food prepared in the traditional Kyoto home-cooking style. It uses mostly fresh, locally grown vegetables and pickles, so it varies with the seasons depending on what is available. Seafood is the most common protein. Although it can be seen as simple cooking, skilled cooks can elevate the dishes more than one might expect and bring out the flavor of these otherwise simple ingredients. Despite being described as "home cooking", in fact comfortable and friendly obanzai restaurants can be found all over the city and meals are seldom more than ¥3,000.

All Japan's famous dishes such as sushi, ramen, terriyaki, yakitori, udon, shabu-shabu, etc can be found here, too as can western and other non-Japanese food. Kyoto menus are often bilingual and/or have pictures of the dishes, so don't worry if your Japanese is a yet-to-be acquired skill. I don't speak Japanese and never went hungry!

If you are interested in how the average Kyoto resident goes about feeding themselves, a visit to Nishiki Market (錦市場) is a must. Centuries old, the market, nicknamed "Kyoto's Kitchen", is on a long narrow street of over 100 shops selling the best of Kyoto's many culinary delights. Fresh and dried seafood is a specialty, alongside sparklingly fresh vegetables, tofu, pickles, seasonings and other unidentifiable frying objects are all to be found, alongside cookware and Japan's famous kitchen knives. Little English is spoken here and few signs are in English. If you are not with a guide, just point.

There are a number of stalls selling food to be eaten right there and then. Few have seating, but remember that in Japan walking along eating food is considered very bad manners. Stand still, eat, then leave is the protocol. The best time to get to the market is early morning, when it will already be packed with locals and visitors alike.

Little known secret. Want to know where the Kyoto people go for cheap, but great food? Kyoto station has a huge shopping mall above it, with many small eateries and a great "Ramen Street". There are even small restaurants where you order your ramen at vending machines outside, then go in to get your meal. The machines have English instructions and there is a member of staff on hand to help you out if you get lost in confusion.

Before leaving Kyoto, I want to take you back to where we started - in Gion, the geisha district. Gion Matsuri (祇園祭) is an annual month-long festival held every year in July with the peak of celebrations taking place on July 17th and July 24th. At night the whole district is pedestrianized, and night stalls appear selling Kyoto delights such as barbecued chicken skewers (yakatori), fish-shaped cakes with sweet stuffings (taiyaki), diced octopus with pickled ginger and green onion in a ball of wheaten batter (takoyaki) and Japanese savory pancakes (okonomyaki) as well as Japanese sweets. The festival culminates in a huge parade of floats. It has been held annually since the year 970 AD with only a very few exceptions.

There are a number of opportunities for Kyoto food tours guided by English speaking locals, or you can even take a class at one of the Kyoto cookery schools where you can learn to choose ingredients and make the local food for yourself.

I have merely skimmed over Kyoto's innumerable attractions. Kyoto is a wonderful city which should not be missed by anyone on a Japan trip. While Japan has many other wonderful destinations, this one is very special in so many ways. Visits to Kyoto can be included in any Odynovo custom-made, no-obligation itinerary; just tell us where you want to go or ask for our recommendations and advice. With Odynovo, you decide what your trip shall be; we merely help make your dream trip come true!

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