The vast archipelago of Japan comprises 6,852 islands, of which Honshu – home to the city of Kyoto – is the largest. Separated from the rest of Asia by a vast expanse of water, Japan has developed a unique and fascinating culture – much of which is played out in Kyoto, Japan’s original capital.
The city offers an immensely different vibe to fast-paced Tokyo, and once visitors emerge from the concrete jungle that dominates the city centre they have the precious opportunity to savour a glimpse of Old Japan. Sublime gardens, serene palaces and richly-hued shrines and temples form some of the city’s most popular attractions. While the region’s spectacular cherry blossom is world famous, the months from February through November offer a panoply of vivid colours, from the crisp new greens of April to the sumptuous red foliage of autumn. Kyoto is also a fantastic destination to chomp your way through the entire spectrum of Japanese cuisine at traditional wooden eateries overlooking placid private gardens.
Widely acknowledged as the cultural hub of Japan, Kyoto offers an extraordinary array of attractions for visitors – so many that it’s probably wise to plan an itinerary in advance of your trip. Nestled in Central Kyoto is Nijo Castle, one of the city’s most prized cultural gems. Originally created by the Tokugawa shoguns (the former military government), many of the structures within the regal grounds date back hundreds of years. The floors within the Ninomaru Palace inside the castle complex are particularly famous, as they were designed to make bird-like chirping noises to give advance warning of someone approaching. If it’s temples you’re after, Kyoto is home to plenty. To-ji temple boasts the tallest pagoda in Japan, and there is also a plethora of revered Buddhist sculptures on display here. In the spring, this temple is a fine place to marvel at the blooming cherry blossom.
A Long, Hot Soak
Public baths have been part of Japanese culture since the 13th century, and are known locally as sento. Kyoto is home to no less than 140 sento that are regularly frequented by visitors in search of a peaceful oasis tucked away from the bustle of the city. In ancient Japanese society, bath houses were the one place where social status was irrelevant, and the richest citizens would sit next to common folk as they bathed. Built in 1923, Funaoka Onsen (which translates to Funaoka “hot spring”) is the oldest bath house in Kyoto, and remains a popular attraction with visitors and locals alike. Steaming hot water baths, herbal medicinal baths and jet baths are just few of the offerings you can expect to find in a traditional sento.
Food, Glorious Food
Known to locals as “The Pantry of Kyoto”, Nishiki Market is one of Kyoto’s unmissable attractions. This is the ideal destination for foodies on a quest to sample the weird and wonderful dishes of the region, including seasonal favourites like roasted chestnuts or velvety matsutake mushrooms. The market boasts a vibrant array of fresh food stalls, and visitors can expect to graze their way from stall to stall, sampling sumptuous snacks as they go. Nishiki Market is also one of the chief stops on the Kyoto culinary walking tour, which offers a marvellous chance for visitors to learn about the fresh produce that goes into the delightful Japanese dishes we know and love.
The Cherry on Kyoto’s Cake
While Kyoto’s abundance of intriguing cultural gems entices plenty of visitors each year, it is the city’s magnificent cherry blossom that puts it well and truly on most travellers’ radars. The eastern side of the city is one of the best places to enjoy this sweet springtime treasure, and a stroll along the Philosopher’s Path from Nanzen-ji to Ginkaku-ji offers a golden opportunity to enjoy the blooms, as well as the scattering of shrines and temples along the way. In the Arashiyama district of the city, large swathes of mountainside are dusted with rosy blossoms, and the “Romantic Train” that travels through the region offers the ideal opportunity to capture photographs. In the evening, the area is pleasantly illuminated and a wealth of food vendors set up for visitors to feast. For visitors travelling to Kyoto between mid-February and mid-March, plum blossom viewing is also a popular activity.
A Souvenir to Remember
If tacky magnets and gaudy souvenir t-shirts aren’t your thing, Kyoto is the perfect place to splurge on a selection of more traditional mementos. The streets surrounding Arashiyama station are home to a wealth of authentic souvenir boutiques, selling traditional sweets and Japanese fans. If you find yourself within the vicinity of Kyoto’s Teramachi shopping arcade, make sure you head to Kyokyo-do to peruse the selection of incense, shodo (calligraphy) and tea ceremony goods on offer. This boutique is one of the best one-stop-shops for authentic Japanese souvenirs, however, Wagami no Mise is a short distance from the Shijo-Karasuma crossing, and also sells an incredible variety of Japanese washi (handmade papers).
- For travellers harbouring a guilty sweet tooth, Kyoto is something of a foodie haven. Well known for its matcha (green tea), visitors can sample an array of sweet treats that incorporate the fresh flavour of this brew. Alternatively, crunchy cinnamon-flavoured yatsuhashi biscuits are a must-try snack for sugar fiends. Raw yatsuhashi nibbles are also available, and are traditionally comprised from a sweet blend of cinnamon and bean paste. These days, raw yatsuhashi comes in an array of quirky flavours, including chocolate, banana and even cherry blossom.
- For those that prefer savoury dishes to sweet treats, don’t leave Kyoto before tasting hamo – a succulent white fish served with ume as sushi. Suppon, a pricy dish made of turtle meat, is also a local speciality.
- As beautiful as Kyoto’s cherry blossom season is, these sweet flowers are fleeting, and are usually only blooming in the first two weeks in April – depending on the weather. However, there are plenty of other highlights to be enjoyed in Kyoto’s cultural calendar, including Gion Matsuri, which takes place in July. The event originated as a purification ritual to satisfy the gods thought to be responsible for earthquakes, fires and floods. Today, the month-long festivities culminate in two colourful parades in which the streets are closed to traffic and many women don elegant summer kimonos.
- If you can’t get enough of Japan’s palaces, Himeji Castle outside Kyoto is well worth a day trip. Known as “The White Heron” this grand, fort-like structure comprises no fewer than 83 structures and a labyrinthine maze of pathways designed to keep intruders out.
- For a relaxing day outside the city, head to Kinosaki Onsen (hot springs). Situated on the coast of the East Sea of Japan, this pleasant town is one of the top hot springs destinations in the Kansai region of Honshu and will offer a pleasant change of pace from the city.