A young woman whizzes past me on a bicycle as I walk towards my hotel — which is not unusual, except that I’m alone in a large foreign city, it’s 3am, it’s dark, and the streets are largely deserted.
I’m doing what a wise traveller like myself would normally avoid. However, I, like the bike rider, feel quite safe. The city of Kyoto — Japan’s religious centre — inspires a sense of tranquility you might not expect from an international destination like this.
Once the country’s capital, Kyoto has successfully preserved the charm and rich culture of ancient Japan and the locals could not make you feel more welcome. From the ‘Good Morning’ melody the staff sing to you at the local coffee shop to the exceptional lengths strangers on the street go to to make sure you’re not lost, it’s no wonder Kyoto is a destination many can’t help returning to time and time again.
Enjoy this Kyoto travel guide.
Kyoto for history lovers
A good place to start your Kyoto history lesson is Nijo Castle.
The complex was originally home to the Tokugawa shoguns, who ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868. It’s surrounded by ornate gates, a moat and huge stone walls, all softened by expansive gardens of plum and cherry trees.
Also check out the fabulous Costume Museum, where life-size dolls are dressed in traditional Japanese garments and accessories worn through the ages. The museum gives visitors a sense of what life was like for the nobility in the Heian period.
Japan is known for its creativity and love of cartoons, so try and squeeze in a visit to the Kyoto International Manga Museum. You’ll learn about the history of manga, see rare early examples of this popular art form, and watch artists at work.
Top cultural experiences in Kyoto
Shinto and Buddhism are Japan’s two major religions, and there are more than 400 Shinto shrines and 1,600 Buddhist temples dotted across Kyoto.
With many different eras and styles represented, it can be difficult to decide which ones to see. One of the most popular with visitors is the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is famous for its thousands of orange gates.
I’d definitely recommend Kinkaku-ji Temple (the Golden Pavilion). This temple is adorned in gold leaf and is set over the ‘mirror pond’, so called because of its shimmering reflection of the temple. It’s absolutely beautiful.
Another temple not to miss is Kiyomizu-dera — which means ‘pure water temple’. It’s located by Otowa Waterfall in East Kyoto and is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site.
Fancy yourself a natural with a sword? No? Well at Samurai Kembu Theater you really don’t have to know what you’re doing! After a presentation on Samurai history depicted through poems, plays and dances, you’re able to partake in a ‘Kembu’ lesson — Katana sword and all. Learn the moves of the ‘sword dance’ and finally dress the part in a traditional Samurai costume.
Kyoto is Japan’s 8th or 9th largest city (depending on which list you consult), with a population of around 1.5 million people. For fabulous views of the city, head up to the observation deck at the retro Kyoto Tower. Construction was completed in 1964, and today the tower is endearingly like something straight out of The Jetsons.
Great places to eat in Kyoto
Most regions in Japan have their own version of ramen — the popular noodle soup dish.
To try some of the best ramen in Kyoto, head to Ramen Sen No Kaze. If you’re naturally an indecisive person, be warned, there are myriad choices!
The Nishiki Food Market, sometimes known as the ‘Kitchen of Kyoto’, is where you can pick up your fresh food staples. But if you’re in a hurry to eat, pop into any ‘konbini’ (convenience store). You can pick up onigiri (rice balls), sushi, and instant ramen (no pies or chips sorry!).
Japan’s signature alcohol has its own museum. The Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum gives visitors an insight into the history of sake brewing, including the traditional tools used and the traditional brewing songs sung in the process. And yes, you get to do some sampling.
Where to shop in Kyoto
Kiyomizu-Zaka Street is a beautiful cobbled lane lined with small wooden shopfronts selling traditional Japanese teapots, paper fans, sweets, spices and souvenirs.
Be sure to try the ice cream. The black sesame, cherry blossom and green tea flavours are heavenly. Many vendors offer free cups of green tea. While you’re sipping, keep your eyes open for the genuine geikos often seen here.
For a more sophisticated shopping expedition, head to Downtown Kyoto. Daimaru department store is huge and offers pretty much everything you could possibly want.
By the way, gift wrapping is taken very seriously in this city. To check out some of this beautiful paper-art, pop over to the voucher counter. A voucher is not just a voucher in Kyoto. Each one is exquisitely gift-wrapped.
Ways to relax in Kyoto
In Kyoto, relaxation and cherry blossoms go hand in hand in March and April.
A stroll down Tetsugaku-no-michi Street (Philosopher’s Path) is sure to enchant. This path runs alongside a canal and is shaded by the overhanging branches of cherry trees.
Another cherry blossom viewing hotspot is Maruyama Park. It’s the oldest park in Kyoto and is located right by the Yasaka-jinja Shrine. Marayuma Park is the perfect spot to picnic or relax after a busy day of sightseeing.
It would be unthinkable to leave Kyoto without experiencing an authentic Japanese tea ceremony. The best way to do this is to attend a workshop at Tea Ceremony Room Ju-an. Here you’ll find yourself surrounded by the calming peacefulness of a traditional Japanese garden. Unlike ceremonies performed in local shops, Tea Ceremony Room Ju-an is unique in Kyoto. The ceremony is zen-dedicated and you’ll leave feeling really uplifted. Trust me, it works!
Do you have any tips to add to our Kyoto travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Marianne Diaz is a research scientist by day and a freelance travel writer by night! She has travelled to Sri Lanka to explore her children’s part-heritage, and enjoyed research trips to Japan, and Bloomington, Chicago and Boston in the USA. Marianne’s main travel goal is to get to the Italian Aeolian Islands to check out the other half of her children’s background. She also loves exploring history-laden Australian country towns.