Kyoto: The Thousand Year City
Kyoto is the former Imperial capitol of Japan. It is one of Japan’s best-preserved cities, having escaped much of the destruction in World War II, with its 2,000 religious places, as well as palaces, gardens and architecture intact. Like other major cities in Japan, Kyoto is well served by rail, subway and buses.
Japan has a reputation for being extremely expensive but a trip to Kyoto is more affordable than you may think. There are many budget and mid-price options for accommodation and dining as well as many high-end options for those looking for luxury. You can visit Kyoto any time of year but be aware that cherry blossom season (March/April) is the busiest and most crowded, followed by fall foliage season (November/early December). The city is very easy to get around, safe, family friendly and easy to get to. You can confidently add Kyoto to your travel plans.
Here, we’ll walk you through what to see on a visit to the “Thousand Year City”:
There are over 1600 Buddhist temples in Kyoto! Some of them have exquisite gardens, so if you are a garden-lover, you can enjoy both in one visit. Honen-In Temple is a magical place whose grounds can be toured for free year-round. The Main Hall is only open twice a year and you must pay to get in but it’s worth it to see the Black Amida Buddha. The Ginkaku-ji Temple, also known as the “Silver Pavilion” has magnificent gardens. Extremely popular, it’s best to visit in off-peak times for a better experience. Daitoku-ji is one of several temples and sub-temples with exquisite Zen gardens. It is particularly beautiful here in November during peak fall foliage. Be sure to visit the Chion-In Temple, one of the most popular temples in the city. Known as the “Vatican of Pure-Land Buddhism,” this large temple is awe-inspiring and not to be missed.
With over 400 shrines in Kyoto, you would be hard-pressed to visit them all with just a few days in this lovely city. Fushimi-Inari-Taisha is the most important and most impressive shrine in Kyoto, so don’t miss it. Shimogamo-jinja is the second-most beautiful and should be visited as well. Yasaka-jinja Shrine, sponsor of the city’s biggest festival, is one of the most important and rounds out the top-three.
Kyoto is a veritable paradise for garden-lovers. It is the best place in Japan for visiting gardens, many of them on the grounds of the over 1,600 Buddhist Temples. A few of the best Zen, or “dry landscape” gardens can be found at Ryoan-ji Temple. Visit first thing after opening or just before closing to avoid the crowds. The Hojo Garden at Tofuku-ji is not to be missed. This temple is uncrowded for most of the year, except for fall when its maples draw the masses. Kennin-ji Temple is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto with spacious grounds for strolling. The Okochi -Sanso Villa is one of the top sites in Kyoto but doesn’t require reservations like most of the city’s Imperial properties. The gardens are spell-binding and your admission fee includes a treat and a cup of matcha tea in the teahouse after your visit.
Kyoto Imperial Park is home to the Kyoto Imperial Palace and Sento Imperial Palace. Kyoto Imperial Palace was the residence of the Imperial Family until 1868. Sento Imperial Palace was used as a retirement home for former emperors until it burned down in 1854. Omiya Palace, constructed on the grounds, is the home of the prince and princess of Japan when they visit Kyoto. The palace grounds can only be entered on guided tours through the Imperial Household Agency and reservations are necessary. None of the buildings can be entered and tours of the Sento Imperial Palace grounds are in Japanese only.
Kyoto has a wealth of accommodations to suit any budget. Hotel choices range from luxury, mid-range and budget hotels to guesthouses, vacation rentals and ryokans. A ryokan is Japan’s traditional accommodation and they range from budget to ultra-luxurious.
When in Japan, do as the Japanese do. Cuisine in Kyoto is famous throughout Japan, especially its tofu, haute cuisine (kaiseki) and vegetarian Buddhist meals (shojin ryori). You can sample traditional Japanese dishes such as sushi, ramen, tempura, soba, udon, okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza) and unagi (eel). Stop into a traditional sweet shop or tearoom for Japanese sweets and a hot cup of matcha tea.
If there is a performance at the Minamiza Theater, consider grabbing tickets. Kyoto is the birthplace of Kabuki, a stylized drama performance depicting scenes from different plays. Characterized by colorful costumes, makeup, music and intense plots, a chance to observe this piece of Japanese culture shouldn’t be missed.
Kyoto is the hub of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and one of the best places to experience a traditional tea ceremony. Kyoto is also the heart of the Japanese Geisha. These ladies train for five years to become expert entertainers in the traditional Japanese arts. While some tour companies can arrange private geisha entertainment, it’s quite expensive. Gion Hatanaka Ryokan offers an evening meal with geisha entertainment. Alternatively, there are five geisha dances annually. Ryokans and upscale hotels can often arrange tickets.
At the Samurai Kembu Theatre, you can catch a show and a lesson in the Japanese martial art of Kembu, a combination of swordplay and dance.