Discover the cultural and historic side of Japan by visiting the ancient capital
Kyoto, a former capital for over 1,000 years, is the cultural heart of Japan with more than a thousand ancient temples, a mysterious geisha district and breathtaking sceneries. With a small population of just 1.5 million people, the locals are relaxed and courteous, streets are spick and span while service in the hospitality industry is delivered with finesse, often ending with deep reverent bows to customers.
Kyoto allures travellers with its ancient temples, as well as a mysterious geisha district
Kyoto is also known for its unique kyo-kaiseki culinary experience, the traditional multi-course dinner made with seasonal local ingredients and served painstakingly in beautiful small dishes. Public baths, or onsens, are dotted all over the city, even within capsule hotels and Japanese-style inns called ryokans although not all establishments use real geothermal hot spring waters. In Kyoto, you get to experience the real Japan.
WHAT TO SEE
Most visitors would not have time to visit the thousands of temples scattered across the city. However, there are a few that really stand out. Kiyomizu-dera temple is perhaps the most popular with its beautiful veranda that is built on the side of a mountain and its ideal location for watching sunsets.
Kinkaku-ji temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is another iconic landmark. Adorned with gold leaves, the temple casts a beautiful reflection on the pond in front of it, creating a breathtaking view especially when the flowers are in full bloom. Fushimi Inari Taisha, or Shrine of Foxes, is famous for its thousands of red torii gates. It is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, responsible for prosperity, business and harvests.
When you are done with temples, spend at least half a day exploring the Gion district and the adjacent Pontocho Alley. Considered the most captivating and atmospheric part of the city, the area comes alive at night when the traditional shops, restaurants and teahouses open for business.
If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a maiko or geisha scurrying to perform at some secret rendezvous. Don’t forget to check out the small but famous Tatsumi bridge at Gion.
Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka are two old streets with steep cobbled walkways lined with shophouses which form a vital part of the cultural heritage of Kyoto. The shops have now been refurbished into tea houses, cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops but the old-world feel remains despite the throngs of tourists. Also within the area is the Yasaka pagoda which you should not miss.
The banks of the Kamogawa river is a popular meeting place for locals after work. You will see groups of young people having picnics or young couples taking a leisurely stroll.
For foodies, the Nishiki Market is worth exploring for its vast variety of traditional Japanese foods and fresh local produce. The market is located indoors and stretches across 400 metres from Teramachi to Takakura, with many restaurants and stalls selling Kyoto-style sushi, ramen, udon, tonkatsu, tempura and okonomiyaki, among others. Kaiseki Mizuki restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto is another popular place for kaiseki lunch.