Japan - Getting to know Kyoto

Kyoto plays a time-honoured counterpoint to Tokyo’s unrelenting megalopolis, having been capital of Japan from 794 to 1896, and the site of bitter samurai battles with rival clans during the 15th century. This is a city of ancient Shinto shrines and immaculate Zen temples, professional geisha and Noh theatre, and the evocative wooden architecture of ‘old’ Japan.

Japan Kyoto Travel Guide

Of Kyoto’s 1,600 temples and shrines, the oldest was established in the 6th century AD, before the freewheeling Emperor Kanmu relocated to the fertile valley with his household - and all the attendant drama of imperial Japan.

For miles around the central imperial estate, you can find soaring pagodas (one, at Toji temple, is the tallest wooden structure in Japan), the superbly decorated shogunate Nijo Castle, and markets selling well-made traditional crafts and decent antiques.

The city’s Kongo Nogakudo theatre is the oldest known Noh stage in Japan; its present-day performers are renowned for their agility. Genuine geiko geisha pluck shamisen in teahouses and exclusive restaurants, entertaining well-heeled clients with customary arts, and only demonstrate their highly valued skills in public at specially staged dances during spring and autumn. 

Outside these performances, you’re most likely to glimpse geisha as they dash from one teahouse to the next; they are not by any means tourist attractions, and paparazzi style mobbing is greatly discouraged. 

What to do in Kyoto

  • Attend your own private tea ceremony, and learn about the ancient and spiritual art of making a proper brew.
  • Have dinner with a maiko - an apprentice geisha, who will offer insight onto one of Japan’s most famous traditions.
  • Wander the dozens of temples and shrines that represent Kyoto’s deeply spiritual side.
  • Nishiki food market near the Kamogawa River (which runs through the heart of Kyoto) is an excellent place to see, sniff and sample traditional Kyoto foods, whilst some of the city’s best nightlife can be found on Kiyamachi, which runs along the canal for more than half a mile and is lined with great spots for drinks and dinner.

Getting off the trail in Kyoto

  • Kyoto is flanked by mountains - immediately to the east sits Daimonji Yama, a gentle peak with excellent trails and delicate cedars that turn a blazing russet in autumn. It only takes two hours to reach the summit, and the hiker is rewarded with wonderful views over the city, showing off its arcane geomantic layout, sakura-lined canals, and patchwork of elegant temple gardens.
  • Many of the city’s most striking shrines lie in the mountain foothills - Fushimi Inari Taisha is a particularly famous example, thanks to the thousands of torii gates that lead up to its sacred peak. It’s very popular, and should be reached early to avoid bustle.
  • A few miles beyond Daimonji Yama lies Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake and one of the region’s most beautiful areas. Biwa is a protected waterbird habitat, with 50,000 birds arriving each year, and its shore is dotted with beaches and shrines (and nice hotels). There are hot springs in the surrounding villages and it’s a great area for biking along lovely riverside paths that connect the temples, as well as boating on the lake.

It’s not all old and high-minded - Kyoto City is mostly modern and has plenty of nightlife - but it is much (much) smaller than Tokyo, and has preserved a lot more green space. Its citizens stay in touch with nature and the shifting seasons, which define Kyoto’s famous cuisine, and the city’s year-round schedule of festivals and rites.