Centuries-old traditions and culture thrive as the top tourist draw in Kyoto, Kansai’s “thousand-year city”. We share a guide to the ancient heart of Japan for first-timers
One of the more popular activities for young female tourists in Kyoto is an afternoon playing dress-up as maiko, or geisha-in-training. You can see them walking around the city’s most photogenic quarters in the hesitant steps necessitated by fitted kimonos and geta, or thong sandals traditionally made from wood. Groups of girls, bashful and in character, don full maiko regalia — dangling hair ornaments, colorful paper parasols and little embroidered silk purses — that is rented from shops that specialize in immersive throwback experiences.
The girls parade down the crowded sidewalks of central Kyoto and pose for photos against the towering pagodas of Buddhist temples, or the bright orange torii gates of Shinto shrines. Once in a while you might spot a groom-to-be, or perhaps a dutiful new husband on his honeymoon, sporting a black and grey kimono and — should he have the hair length for it — a samurai top-knot. Instead of a sword, he might wield a selfie stick.
Indeed, entire districts of Japan’s photogenic former capital exude the romance of its courtly past, and are as scenic and well preserved as movie sets. The city may bear all the trappings of modern Japan — from efficient train networks and arcades for the pinball-like game pachinko to complicated toilet systems with self-warming seats, built-in bidets with at least three spray settings and audio privacy features. But it’s the holdovers from as far back as the mid-700s that draw crowds of visitors from around the world to this city of 1,500,000 residents — the epoch that marked the beginning of the Heian period, regarded as the golden age of Japanese culture, which among other things gave rise to the enduring concept of washoku, or cooking and eating according to the season.
Here is the old Japan of imperial courtier and diarist Sei Shonagon, whose observations of court life and the changing of the seasons are recorded in the classic The Pillow Book, completed in the year 1002. Of winter, she wrote: “It is beautiful indeed when snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost…” Also, rather insightfully: “A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as if he knew everything.” This is the old Japan of feudal lords, warriors, court ladies, courtesans and monks; of quiet temples, bustling markets and sweeping gardens that “borrow” from faraway landscapes; the old Japan of formal and complex tea ceremonies by day, and furtive alleys, shadow screens and bright paper lanterns dancing in the wind by night.
The Kyoto city center might be small, but with its long, complex history and remarkably rich culture, it can get a bit overwhelming. Here, we break down a first-time trip to three essential experiences. We’re sure you’ll be returning for more.
Mornings at the temple
Japan’s ancient religion is Shinto and Kyoto has more than 400 Shinto shrines, each conspicuously marked by traditional torii gates, most of which are in the hard-to-miss shade of tangerine. At its core the religion focuses on the way of the Kami, a spiritual force that exists in nature and governs all things. When Buddhism arrived by way of China in the 7th century, the majority of Japan’s ruling class and intellectuals embraced it, especially the contemplative subset known as Zen. Zen Buddhist temples began to emerge, and today there are a staggering 1,600 around Kyoto alone.
If you only have time for a couple of temple visits, make sure to include Kiyomizu-dera (1-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku; +81 75 551 1234; www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/lang/01.html) on your list. It’s a short bus ride from the center of town, followed by a hike up a slope lined with stores selling beautifully packaged sweets, elegant souvenirs such as richly textured wrapping paper, and soft-serve matcha green-tea ice cream in a cone. There’s so much going on along this route that the 20-minute hike feels like a cinematic experience in itself.
Kiyomizu in Japanese means “clear or pure water”, and its namesake Buddhist temple dedicated to the goddess of mercy was founded in the late 8th century, although the present structures were built in the 1600s. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of 19 in Japan, and is noted for the balcony of its main building, which offers breathtaking views — in the spring, entire mountains blush with the pink of cherry blossoms for about a week before settling into lively shades of green for the summer, and turning a fiery red come fall.
If you hear faint shrieking in the distance, follow that sound and it will lead you to the “love stones” — two large stones set 18m apart, where young schoolgirls often test what romantic fortunes await them. The idea is to make a wish while touching one stone and, with eyes closed, then to make your way to the other stone without incident, whereupon your wish will come true. You’re allowed to have a friend tell you how to proceed, and every successful run inspires a lot of exciting shrieking and hugging between wishmaker and coach. Both stones have become smooth from years of touching and fervent wishes.
Fushimi Inari-taisha (68 Yabunouchi-cho, Fukakusa, Fushimi-ku; +81 75 641 7331) on the other hand, is a five-minute train ride from Kyoto station and involves a lengthier hike through more than 1,000 of the orange torii. Don’t worry — it’s a gentle ascent, nothing too steep, but you’ll need about two hours to get to the top of Mount Inari, a sacred site traditionally worshipped by merchants seeking more favorable fortunes. Temples and shrines are perhaps the top attractions in Kyoto, so there will be crowds; it’s best to plan your visit early in the morning so as to avoid the peak swell.
Afternoons around the city
A city that’s compact in its sensibilities and has many little turns that spring wonderful surprises, Kyoto is most efficiently explored on foot. Start out at the 400-year-old Nishiki Market (Nishikikoji-dori, Nakagyo-ku; +81 75 211 3882), a narrow street lined with 100-plus stalls selling everything from fresh fruit, seafood and skewered and grilled sticky rice snacks to colorful candy, specialty sake and tea of varying grades, as well as other dry or pickled delights.
Random factoid: among Nishiki’s more famous yet unlikely guests was the late David Bowie, and displayed on a wall at one of the intersections there’s a snapshot taken during the rock star’s visit. Keep your eyes peeled for Kidoairaku Pottery Shop, run by a young husband-and-wife team of artisans, which sells beautifully handcrafted wares with quirky, modern designs. If you bring home one souvenir from the market, make it a special little keepsake from this store.
Nishiki Market stretches across several blocks, and in typical Japanese fashion is fastidiously kept. Tempting as it might be to hold up, say, an oversized turnip, don’t touch the fresh merchandise or you’ll upset the local vendors. One end of the market spills into Teramachi-dori, a shopping arcade that bustles with boutiques, pachinko parlors and restaurants. If you’re curious and patient, you’ll find a number of surprises: a coffee shop deep within a clothing store, an opening in the wall that leads to an entire restaurant specializing in tempura.
If you’d like to get around more quickly and see more things, do as the locals do: get around on two wheels. Ask your hotel front desk to rent a bicycle for you (the price will depend on the kind of bike and the duration of the rental), after which it will be delivered right to your hotel. Pedal your way along the banks of the scenic Kamo River, or around the city towards the Imperial Palace (3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo-ku; +81 75 211 1215).
Evenings at Ponto-cho and Gion
When night falls, two of the most atmospheric quarters on either side of the Kamo River are Gion, east of the river, and Ponto-cho, a tight alley on the west side. Both areas are best known for the traditional architecture that recall machiya, or traditional wooden house, and are populated by restaurants, traditional teahouses, and geisha houses.
While Gion is more closely associated with maiko and geisha (as well as being the setting for the Hollywood movie Memoirs of a Geisha), Ponto-cho is better known for its restaurants, which run the whole gamut of culinary preferences. Here you’ll find anything from high-end establishments that serve some of the best seafood in the country (with romantic balconies that look out into the Kamo River), and restaurants offering specialty beef from nearby Kobe, to little ramen bars that serve large bowls of satisfying pork stew at affordable prices. A marker at one end of the strip suggests that the name Ponto-cho may have come from the English word “point” or the Portuguese ponto, which means the same thing. It could have been either one — the street dates back to the 1600s, when Japan was trading heavily with Europe and especially with the Portuguese, who are often credited as having introduced a battered, deep-fried dish that the Japanese then made their own: tempura.
In both districts, where large, dangling paper lanterns light the way by night, narrow shopfronts make an establishment look deceptively small. This is thanks to a tax system that collects revenue based on the width of a property along the main road — a system inspired perhaps by the Dutch, who also sailed this way around the 1600s. It doesn’t help that some restaurants are rendered even more secretive by layers of narrow pathways, traditional screens and curtains. But don’t be fooled — as with the rest of the city, there are interesting surprises everywhere, and the curious traveler is amply rewarded.
- You can take a shuttle bus or train (70 minutes) to Kyoto station straight from Osaka‘s Kansai International Airport.
- Book a hotel somewhere central, and as close to the Kamo River and entertainment hub Sanjo Dori as you can, so you’re within walking distance of restaurants, nightspots, shopping areas and many attractions. Check out Royal Park Hotel The Kyoto (rph-the.co.jp).
- Many local restaurants, especially izakayas and yakitoris, allow smoking indoors, and the locals do like to light up.
This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Smile magazine.