If you think of modern Japan, high rise buildings, vibrant city lights, a 24-hour cornucopia of energy, you're picturing Tokyo. Imagine traditional Japan with elegant shrines and tranquil tea gardens. Delicate cherry blossoms and graceful Geisha shuffling along narrow alleys, that's Kyoto.
Every visitor to Japan should spend some time in Kyoto. Where history walks the streets and the future is bright. You can experience every single trope of Japan in this diverse city that bridges the gap between old and new and stitches them together faultlessly.
Kyoto has a diverse topography. The city occupies the southern end of the prefecture, surrounded by mountainous regions on three sides. The eastern Mt. Hiei and Higashiyama mountain range as well as Lake Biwa, provide exquisite scenery. Whilst the Hozu River carves the sublime valleys of Arashiyama and Saga to the West.
Japanese food is carb-loaded, rice heavy, and astronomically delicious. Each flavour has been perfected over centuries to create staple dishes in Japanese cuisine. Japanese cooking is like no other and makes use of the five fundamental tastes, with emphasis on the umami.
Meals are often made up of many dishes of meat or fish, accompanied miso soup or broth, pickles, and of course, rice. The very word for a meal (Gohan) also means rice. Historical Kyoto is the home of the tea ceremony, so it's the ideal place to try matcha. Take it with or without the ceremony, or try the celebrated green tea ice cream instead.
Kyoto is known as the cultural heart of Japan. Culture radiates from every Shinto shrine, every restaurant, every toilet. It's one of the only places where Geisha and Maiko (apprentice Geisha) still exist and practice their art. The wearing of kimono is an institution in Japan, but nowhere as much as Kyoto. It's common to see kimono worn on the street, not only by tourists in fancy dress. In summer the heavy layered silk swaps for a light cotton yukata. Many Japanese people wear yukata to festivals and activities celebrated across the seasons.
Japan has a large following of Buddhist and Shinto religion that is steeped in tradition. Locals attend shrines, performing washing rituals and providing offerings to the gods in thanks and prayers. Observing the ceremony is a fantastic cultural experience for travellers, and you are welcome to join in the customs.
Shopping in Kyoto
Shopping is always a leisurely affair in Kyoto. Souvenirs and food are cheap. Even large purchases are tax-free for travellers in department stores and shops like Don Quijote. Kyoto also has some of the countries best flea markets. As well as Nishiki Market, an undercover food market selling weird and wonderful delicacies you absolutely must try!
Know Before You Go
One of the delights of Kyoto is the history of the Geisha. Head out at dusk to the Gion district and you may be lucky enough to spot a few of these ethereal women shuffling to an appointment. It's important to remember to give them their space and respect.
To make the most of popular sites, turn up early! Or much later. Kyoto's famed Arashiyama bamboo garden can attract quite the crowd. Arrive as early as 6 am and you could have the tranquil bamboo groves to yourself. Fushimi Inari shrine is open 24 hours and is quite the spectacle (and empty) after dark.
Kyoto is full of charming narrow streets, secret corners, and alleyways that lead to a world of secret wonder. Walking is part of the fun, so wear comfortable shoes and prepare for a lot of foot traffic in this magical city.
Kyoto is one of the oldest cities in Japan, so the transport system is not quite as flawless as Tokyo. Even so, it remains efficient and punctual to the second. Kyoto is well connected using trains, the metro, and plenty of buses and Kyoto station is as much a spectacle as the city itself. You will likely want to buy a JR Pass to get a discounted rate on almost the entire transport network. It's also useful to pick up a Pasmo/ICOCA card for local trains and buses.
Best Time To Visit
Kyoto has four clear cut seasons, which is ideal for sites such as Kinkakuji - The Golden Pavillion. A site to see on any day, but extra stunning when blanketed with fresh snow or standing out against the spring flowers.
Seasons are celebrated with vigour in Kyoto. Most notably cherry blossom season in Spring (roughly between 20 March and 14 April though varies every year). It's undoubtedly busy, but it's a once in a lifetime experience to see Kyoto in full, delicate pink bloom.
Autumn is another fabulous time to witness the changing of the seasons as the various trees burst into colour. The golden hues are particularly resplendent along the river in Arashiyama. Where the maple (Momiji) trees are outstanding.
What To Expect
Planning a trip to Japan? Don't miss Kyoto. Here are a few basic tips to get you started.
Currency - The official currency of Kyoto is the Japanese Yen
Language - The official language is Japanese. Many Japanese people speak basic English, and even if they can't they will do everything in their power to help you.
ATMs - ATM's in Japan are a little few and far between for tourists, but you can always find one in the 7-11 or Lawson. Cash is still widely used in Japan.
Plugs & Sockets - Japan uses the Type A plug with two flat pins. The standard voltage is 100v and some appliances will need a converter.
Safety - Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. If you drop your purse in the street, it's likely to still be there in an hour. Propped up against a fence in full view, or handed into the nearest authority.
Climate - Kyoto has a subtropical climate causing hot and humid summers with frequent rainfall. As Kyoto is a unique geographical basin, the proximity to the mountains gives it an overall frigid climate in the winter.