Kyoto: the name itself means “capital”, and for thousands of years Kyoto truly was Japan’s capital city. In 1869, the Emperor and legislator moved to Tokyo as part of the Meiji Restoration, but Kyoto retains the quiet dignity of an imperial jewel.
With close on 1.5 million residents and as many as 57 million tourists a year, Kyoto isn’t all quiet. The tourist spots especially can be overwhelmingly bustling, which is why the residents have kept a quiet tradition of secret areas old and new. To help you make the most of your Kyoto experience, here are seven insider tips we’ve uncovered.
Spotting a Geisha at Gion
Kyoto’s famous cultural district, Gion is where you can still find traditional geishas. Contrary to popular belief, geishas are not prostitutes and are regarded as highly skilled entertainers specializing in Japanese arts. These ladies undergo rigorous training for years and their service to grace your high-end dinner commands a high price tag. For those who want to meet a geisha without breaking the bank, it’s best to try your luck in spotting them while they’re on the way to work. You’ll have the best chances of seeing a geisha at 6pm at Hanamikoji Street in Gion.
Cherry-Tree-Lined Pedestrian Path at Philosopher’s Walk
The Philosopher’s Walk sits just above the city, alongside the Lake Biwa Canal below the Higashiyama Mountains. The path is particularly beautiful during springtime with blooming cherry blossom trees. You’ll get a true sense of serenity every step of the way and you’ll understand how the walk got its name. Ginkaku-ji, “Temple of the Silver Pavilion”, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and sits at one end of the short path.
Sightseeing in Arashiyama
The Arashiyama Bamboo Groves is situated on Kyoto’s outskirts, so you may want to set half a day aside for making a visit. It is well-worth the time: not only is the scenery evocative of classic movies set in Japan (and especially Japanese movies), but there are a host of temples, gardens, restaurants, shops scattered through the picturesque area.
Kenninji – The Oldest Zen Temple
On the topic of temples, it would be a sin not to visit Kyoto’s oldest zen temple. Named after the tea ceremony’s founder, you’ll find many tea plants in the zen gardens. Art galleries provide a space for quiet contemplation, and the ceiling mural of two great dragons added in 2002 by Koizumi Junsaku illustrates the art of communication from the heart magnificently.
Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka
Kyoto isn’t all temples, shrines, and cocktail bars, however. You’ll certainly want to do some shopping during your stay, and where better than Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka streets? The shopping district leads to and from Kiyomizu-dera, with traditional wooden tea houses and shops lining both gently sloping roads.
Toei Kyoto Studio Park
We mentioned Japanese films earlier, and Toei Kyoto Studio Park is where all the magic happens. About 200 jidaigeki films (period pieces) are shot here every year, and you can easily rub shoulders with the strolling samurai and ninjas. There’s also the Optical Illusion Maze, Haunted House, Ninja Mystery House, and an anime museum to be found—think Disney World for Japanese culture!
Where to Stay In Kyoto?
This is a question open to much debate. Being a city of nearly 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, you can well imagine that Kyoto is best explored on foot (although you’ll also find cycling through the city a favorite local activity). If you want to stick to the top recommendations for tourists, then Downtown Kawaramachi is the best place to stay in Kyoto.
The Royal Park Hotel Kyoto is our top recommendation, as it’s situated close to the Kamogawa River, Gion district (see below), and there are many varieties of shops and restaurants to choose from.
If you want to get away from the more popular tourist accommodations and get to the heart of Kyoto, then the following three options will tickle your fancy.
Hoshinoya: a traditional Japanese hotel situated a short distance out of the city, Hoshinoya is a picture of tranquility with Zen gardens in place of a TV. It’s only accessible by boat, but if you want to get away from the city bustle this is the place to stay.
Tawaraya: with the most comfortable sleeping futons in the world and the truest sense of omotenashi (hospitality), one of Kyoto’s oldest ryokan also boasts an incredible library. The staff is so intuitive, you’ll get the sense they know exactly what you want before you do!
Zen Buddhist Temples: no matter where you stay for the majority of your trip, you may want to consider spending at least one night in one of five Zen Buddhist temples that the Nippon Foundation have renovated the monks’ quarters of. These particular spots are closed to the public, but the head monk grants personal access to guests.
There’s so much that we haven’t had the space to showcase properly—such as the Nishiki Market, the Sodoh, and Gonbei, all three of which you’ll want to visit for a meal. But one of Kyoto’s greatest charms is the journey of discovery it opens itself up to.
Whether it’s your first time or your fiftieth, Kyoto is an experience that you’ll never forget—we guarantee it!
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