Kyoto is the cultural capital of Japan and is home to hundreds of shrines, several imperial buildings, traditional teahouses and the majority of the remaining geisha training houses. It’s also a great base for day trips around Japan, due to several rail lines converging at the futuristic Kyoto station.
A Very Quick History of Kyoto
The Kyoto basin was settled fairly early in Japan’s history. Around 794, the Emperor to relocated to Kyoto, which was now declared the capital of Japan.
As well as being home to the Emperor, military clans (known as shogunates) made the city their base. Regular wars between the shoguns ravaged the city. Although Kyoto remained the Imperial capital, the dominance of the Tokyo based Tokugawa shogunate meant that from 1603 Tokyo was the de facto seat of power.
In 1868 the shogun system was dismantled, and Emperor Meiji moved the Imperial court to Tokyo. This signaled the end of any claim Kyoto had for being the capital of Japan. However Tokyo was never officially declared the capital, so there is some controversy that Kyoto remains the legal capital.
Kyoto was considered as an atomic bomb target during World War II but managed to escape serious attack, so the city has a large number of traditional wooden buildings (such as machiya townhouses) from the pre-war era.
In recent years Kyoto has enacted several local laws to protect its cultural status, while also stepping out on to the world stage; in 1997 the city hosted the conference on greenhouse gas emissions which resulted in the Kyoto Protocol.
Kyoto does not have its own airport, but can be easily reached by rail from Kansai International Airport. Flights here are mainly from neighbouring Asian countries, although there are a few routes from Europe or North America. If traveling from elsewhere in Japan, domestic flights land at Kansai and at Osaka airport, which is about an hour away from Kyoto by bus.
Kyoto is about 2.5 hours away from Tokyo on the superfast shinkansen bullet trains, and is a railway hub with trains heading to all major destinations both east and west of the city. This makes it an ideal base for short excursions or day trips around the country.
Where to Stay
Kyoto is fairly compact, and most sites can be reached on foot from the city centre. There are also local subways and buses that make getting around the city very easy. The city is also very friendly for cyclists, with dedicated bike lanes and a distinct lack of hills.
The northern part of the city centre contains the Imperial Palace and surrounding gardens, as well as the Botanical Gardens and a few major shrines. It’s also home to several universities making this a great area for cost conscious travellers, as many shops, bars and restaurants are aimed at those on a student budget.
The southern part of the city centre is more shopping and entertainment focused. The extensive Nishiki food market and the Teramachi arcade are great places to pick up souvenirs, and geisha and maiko can often be spotted on the atmospheric Pontocho.
The enormous Kyoto Station was opened in 1997, and is the main attraction in this area, alongside Kyoto Tower. There’s not much else to see or do, but it’s a convenient location if you plan to take several day trips from Kyoto and don’t want to spend time getting to and from the station each day. Subways and buses will take you to all other areas in Kyoto.
Gion and Southern Higashiyama
The Gion entertainment district is the place to be if you like nightlife, while Southern Higashiyama is quieter and more traditional. It’s a short walk to central Kyoto and also easy to get to the station from here. There are several exceptional shrines, temples and museums in this area and plenty of traditional buildings to admire.
Northern Higashiyama reaches up the slopes of the mountains surrounding Kyoto, making it exceptionally scenic. There are several temples, gardens and parks in this area, and the pace of life is more relaxed than other parts of the city. It’s slightly isolated from the rest of the city, but a great area for those looking for a more tranquil experience.
Must See Kyoto
This tiny pedestrian street running alongside the Kamo-gawa river is perhaps the most atmospheric spot in Kyoto. It comes alive after dark as the restaurants and bars lining it light their lanterns, and geisha glide from one appointment to the next. Many of the establishments are invitation only, making this a great place to watch the comings and goings of the Kyoto elite.
This shrine was originally dedicated to the gods of rice and sake, and is now a popular place to pray for business success. The paths around the wooded hills surrounding the shrine are lined with thousands of red torii gates, guarded by stone foxes (thought to be the messenger of the god of rice). Exploring the 4km of paths can take up several hours but the effort is worth it – this is easily one of the most unique and atmospheric shrines in Kyoto.
Situated up a hillside with stunning views over the city, this large temple complex is one of the most popular in Kyoto. There are several temples, where visitors can pray for love, health, fertility and success. The main hall and veranda are held up on 139 wooden pillars, none of which are secured with nails. The approach to the temple is through some of the most attractive neighbourhoods of Kyoto, with winding streets lined with traditional wooden buildings.
Visit early or late in the day to beat the crowds at Kinkaku-ji, one of Japan’s most famous buildings. The temple building is coated with gold leaf, and sits alongside a pond which is particularly photogenic. There are surrounding gardens but these aren’t particularly memorable.
This is also another popular tourist to-do, so again it’s worth visiting early or late to get the most out of the experience. The main feature of this Zen temple is a garden featuring 15 rocks carefully placed in a raked gravel sea. The gardens surrounding the stone garden are very attractive, with the Kyoyo-chi pond being particularly peaceful.