Kyoto – a city of contrasts. It has the hustle and bustle of a big city, but the charm that reflects a place that has retained its roots. You’re as likely to see women strolling the streets in traditional dress as you are young teenagers wearing the latest fashions and participating in cosplay. The sharp edges of the futuristic Kyoto Station sit side by side with castles and shrines that are hundreds and even thousands of years old.
Kyoto is easy to get around by bus, train or bicycle, and you can easily see the main sights in two days. But Kyoto deserves at least three or four days of your time – or even more if you have it.
So, however long you decide to stay, what are the top five things you should see and do?
Markets in foreign countries always offer a unique insight into a country, and the Nishiki Market is full of colourful fruits, unrecognisable foods and all sorts of interesting knick knacks. Stretching for several blocks, it’s a great place to sample fascinating foods and just generally be confused by all that’s on offer.
Get out of town
I know you’re here to see Kyoto, but only a few train stops from Kyoto station can take you into an entirely different world. Head to Arashiyama and visit the surreal Bamboo Forest, or go to Nara, the first capital of Japan to experience old Japan in its true form – just watch out for the deer which roam freely and will try to grab food straight from your hands. Both Arashiyama and Nara can easily be done in a day trip.
Commonly known as the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, for me, is one of the most stunning buildings in Japan. Yes, it’s touristy and you should aim to get there as early as possible to avoid the rush of tour buses, but the World Cultural Heritage site is worth it. Originally built in 1397, it was burned down in 1950 and was completely rebuilt – almost to the original detail – in 1955. It’s surrounded by lovely gardens which are a relaxing place to escape the summer heat.
Stroll down Gion, Hanami-koji in particular, in the early evening and you’re likely to see geisha or maiko (geisha-in-training) wandering the streets, beautifully dressed. But be quick – they’re usually on their way to an appointment so you may only catch a glimpse. If you miss seeing them, you can pay to be made up like one. The buildings on Hanami-koji date back to the 17th century but don’t expect to be welcomed in to the restaurants and tea houses – while a touristy area, most of these restaurants have long-established traditions open to locals only.
Speaking of food, there’s no place in Kyoto – or Japan as a whole for that matter – that serves bad food. In Kyoto you can try as many noodles, kara age, tonkatsu, yakitori and tempura as your belly will hold. Pontocho-dori, a small alley running alongside the Kano river and only a couple kilometres north of the train station, is a great place to eat at an izakaya, a small Japanese pub serving tapas-style foods in a cosy setting.