One of the world's superstar destinations, nearly all visits to Japan include a foray into this complicated city, and for many it’s the highlight of their trip. Home to seventeen UNESCO sites, Kyoto is the pinnacle of Japanese culture and history and is, frankly, priceless. There are times when it’s exceptionally busy, but navigate around the crowds and you’ll easily find the heart and essence of the city. Not all of Kyoto is as pristine as its reputation suggests, but if you give it your time and attention it’ll deliver some of the most magical experiences in Japan.
Obviously there's a lot more, this is just to get you started...
Among Japanese castles, this is one of the best. A visit here really is time well spent. Built to impress at the inception of the glorious Edo period, it was the Kyoto residence of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and is not shy in its opulence, which can feel like a stark contrast to the more austere beauty that usually persists in Japanese craftsmanship. The working nightingale floor that makes sounds to warn of intruders inside the palace adds to the atmosphere of intrigue, and brings to life the insecurity of feudal Japan.
The Kamo River that runs through central Kyoto doesn’t feel like an urban river, thanks to its wide banks, sandy spits and grassy islands. Nature has done well here and a cycle, walk or run along the paths is blissful. Outside of the sometimes overwhelming history and noisy shopping of the city, the riverbank gives you a chance to reflect, and perhaps get some steps in before dinner. It's good to break the cycle of going from one historical site to another, slow down a little and join in with the locals. In the warmer months, several riverside restaurants extend their outside terraces towards the water and are among Kyoto’s finest dining establishments.
We might feel a little hazukashi (embarrassed) to be recommending a department store, but it’s one of Kyoto’s main modern attractions (think Harrods or Fortnums). Daimaru is one of Japan’s most refined department store chains, and their story started in Kyoto. It’s old fashioned, with excruciating formality and attention from the staff, but somehow very Kyoto-esque. Perhaps it’s the refined, understated elegance, a nod to the past and something nostalgic for all that is still thriving in Kyoto? People often talk about the basement food levels in Japanese department stores, and Daimaru has a phenomenal one - visit when hungry!
Kyoto is very much ‘in amongst it’, being a part of the Keihanshin (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe) metropolitan area, but there are some less well-known areas nearby that should be on your radar. The fishing village of Ine is truly charming. The traditional funaya (boat houses) are available as accommodation, or you may prefer to borrow a free bicycle and cycle along the shoreline. An hour north brings you to the rural temple town of Ohara, famous for the Saizenin Temple which is both beautiful and tranquil, and (as you might imagine) much less busy than central Kyoto.