Kyoto is probably the prettiest city in all of Japan and, it is also used to be the capital up until 1868. The city is nestled in the mountains in Western Honshu and really made its name under the then Emperor who made Kyoto (Japanese for ‘capital city’) his base to rule over the land. Luckily enough, the city missed out on the appalling World War 2 barrage of bombing attacks which left its temples, shrines and landmarks pretty much intact.
Having noted that, some Japanese today say that modern buildings in glass and steel have actually detracted from its obvious beauty.Bordered on three sides by mountains, Higashiyama, Kitayama and Nishiyama, it also has three rivers running along the basin.
The city is quite large and takes up approximately eighteen percent of the total land in this prefecture.
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Best time to go to Kyoto
Kyoto enjoys very hot and humid summers and cooler winters. July to September can see temperatures reaching the high thirties and other months drop quite significantly during winter. With lows going down to around 1.2C in January, only those that like crisp and chilly days should venture here at that time. June and July sees the heaviest rainfall which explains why it is so humid here in these months. Typhoons tend to make their presence felt during September and October.
Getting Around Kyoto
Transport is available to tourists in a wide array of means. Kyoto Station is the centre that visitors should aim for if they want to explore the city and beyond. Conventional rail lines all culminate here as well as the high speed Tokaido Shinkansen Line. People who have some hours to spare will have fifteen floors of cinemas, hotels, designer stores and many other shops to browse around.
Kyoto Municipal Subway (KMS) has just two lines. The Karasuma Line is green in color with stations clearly marked by numbers after the letter ‘K’. The other line is Tozai Line (TL), colored vermillion for ease of use, and they both connect to the mainline station as mentioned earlier. KMS runs north to south while Tozai Line runs across the city from east to west. Stations serviced by TL are numbered after the letter ‘T’. This should make it extremely simple for strangers to get to where they want to go.
At this main station, also find the high speed train that Japan is famous for which links Kyoto to Yokohama and Tokyo among other places. Expect the trip to or from Tokyo to take around two and a half hours.
Kyoto does not boast an airport of its own, but travelers can fly into Kansai International Airport, or Itami Airport, and get to Kyoto by train in around one hour and twenty minutes. Osaka Airport has buses which carry visitors into Kyoto Station in around an hour. Some will actually go on further to drop passengers at pre-booked hotels beyond the station.
Bus services are in plentiful supply and there are tour buses with many different itineraries. The great thing about this service is that announcements are made in English as well as Japanese, which tends to give tourists a little more confidence when traveling without escorts.
For tourists, it may be a good idea to get a day pass, perhaps with a rail pass included, to allow for easy movement around the city. Tickets and passes are available right outside Kyoto Station. Get hold of one of the Bus Navi leaflets, available from the same venue, to plan the day’s visits.
We have all seen the scores of bicycles that the Japanese seem to favor and these are also a good option to get around for the tourist as well. However, finding bike parks may be a little difficult and those that are parked in the wrong place will be taken away!
Taxis are available and, as in all cities around the world, check out charges before agreeing to step inside for the journey. Hire cars are also there but since there are not many great roads in Kyoto, it may be better to pay someone else to navigate the city.
Major Attractions and Sights in Kyoto
Kyoto has become a World Heritage Site so it attracts upwards of thirty million people every year. It has more than two thousand temples and shrines to view, and the city was built according to traditional feng shui principles.
Some of the more popular sights to see, and there are too many to see in just one vacation for sure, are listed below:
Daitokuji Temple – a delightful gathering of beautiful temples with an amazing Zen garden included. No one quite understands what the garden means, but be prepared to take lots of photographs of the garden set against the autumn foliage and sub temples scattered around the complex.
Jingogi Temple – this is a beautiful old temple that conjures up images of the Willow Pattern on old crockery. Walk from Yamashiro Takao station along a set of winding stairs, take pictures of the quaint bridge and end up at the temple.
No one could ever visit Japan without witnessing a festival of some kind. Festivals are entrenched in Japanese culture so events are going on most of the time. Since Kyoto used to be the capital, expect to find some rather unique festivals in progress and watch the colorful events as they unfold. Every month has something on offer so it doesn’t really matter when visitors arrive. Find some examples here:
April – Japan is famous for its cherry blossoms so, no surprise here, they have a festival to celebrate this beautiful tree. The Cherry Viewing Tea Ceremony literally celebrates the cherry blossoms appearing and is held every year at the Heian Jingu shrine in Kyoto – again, great photo opportunities to be had here. Also, look out for the Kyoto Spring Geiko Dances in the same month and marvel at the performances of the locals. Sometimes visitors are invited to take part.
May brings another festival. This one is the Hollyhock Festival (Aoi Matsuri) and visitors get a chance to see history unfolding in the form of displays of court life during ancient times. Expect to find this flower adorning every float and shop etc along the route.
In August, the Daimonji Gozan Okuribi (bonfire) takes place. This wonderful Buddhist ceremony has fire and ancient Chinese characters filling the sky as it commemorates the end of Obon – the festival of the dead.
This city has an abundance of amusement parks which is great for a family holiday. Indeed, some of them have been places in premier position in all of Japan. Kids will always want to get away from just sightseeing so this is a great way to let them let off steam. There are some cool historical vehicles available for tourists to see the city at a quieter pace, and this gives the family a chance to ‘feel’ the vibe of the city from a different aspect.
Kyoto itself is also a lovely place to explore. When tired of traveling too far, tourists can get on a bus tour and let the scenery pass by the window. This is a very beautiful city so hopping on and off a bus is probably the best way to experience local life.
There are superb buildings to marvel at, monuments and, of course, yet more religious venues seemingly on every corner. For quieter days, take a picnic to one of the many parks and just people watch or stroll among the botanical gardens to see some beautiful floral displays. In fact, with the mountains as a backdrop, the rivers flowing through the basin and the sea not so far away, Kyoto sightseeing is a pleasure no matter where the tourist finds himself. Try going at different times of year to get the full beauty of the ever changing foliage of the lush plants and trees.
Kyoto has its fair share of souvenir shops, designer outlets and boutiques for shopaholics. Many tourists love to hunt for a little piece of traditional Japanese pottery or artifacts and each piece is a permanent reminder of a great holiday. To get off the beaten track, so to speak, try out the local market at Musugata Shotengai – north east of the Imperial Palace. Shop for dried foods or just take a pastry or two, and go eat it on the banks of the Kamo River about two minutes away. This is real local shopping so expect to see some wondrous sights here!
Eating Out in Kyoto
The culinary skills in Japan are second to none and Kyoto is no different. Rich foods and flavors abound and people can try anything from traditional food to American style dishes. It is always good to ‘go local’ so a platter of sushi must be on the menu for sure. Some restaurants specialize in home-made style food – called obanzai – so try to figure out what the locals eat. Local sweets are a delight on the palate (wagashi), or try out tsukemono (seasoned vegetables) for something a little different.
Of course, fine dining has to be available here and there are many different venues which serve up world class dishes. Indian, French, Chinese and Thai are also popular choices so it really depends on personal taste which ones go down best.
Nightlife in Kyoto
One thing that should be said about Kyoto is that the nightlife is absolutely stupendous. Nightclubs and discos are here along with theaters and restaurants so whether visitors want to boogie the night away or just relax over a good bottle of wine, everything is on offer.
For those who want to mingle with the locals, look for Pontocho which is a ‘food’ street housing eateries, bars and entertainment spots. It overlooks a river and visitors may be lucky enough to see a maiko (a geisha in training) dressed in full regalia. Or try Gion which is another place that locals tend to frequent. There is currently an upsurge in interest for the old traditional ways of the geisha which sees locals and visitors alike coming here to get a taste of local culture.
Anything of local interest
There are certain things peculiar to Kyoto and Japan in general which are very interesting to visitors- for example, the Ryokan. This is a form of accommodation that doubles up as a living room, bedroom and even dining room all in one. The whole thing is made of wood, visitors must remove shoes before entering and, depending on the time of day, the furniture will be arranged to suit. For example, in the evening an attendant will enter and lay out a futon for sleeping on. Food is also served in this room so expect a visitor several times a day depending on what has been booked.
One thing that must not be missed while in Japan is the chance to visit a Public Baths for a deep, hot and luxurious soak. There are rules here and they go something like this:-
When walking into the bathing area, go naked! Before entering the public bath, shampoo and wash off any grime of the day. Enter the bath and soak until relaxation is achieved. Exit the bath, dry off and put on the robe provided – this is called the yugata. Or, for those who are nervous, just follow what the locals do to avoid embarrassment.
Another ritual which must be observed when visiting a Buddhist temple is as follows: Worshippers must wash in a ritual way before entering the temple. There should be a temple well or basin that has water and the correct way to wash the hands is to first hold the scoop (a bamboo cup on a long bamboo cane) in the right hand, scoop water and wash the left hand. Do the same for the right hand and, when finished, return the scoop handle to the starting position for the next person. Again, if in doubt, follow the locals so that a faux pas does not accidentally occur.