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Kyoto, Japan

Great Destination:

Value for Money:

Total Stars:

Personality Types that Like it Best

Did You Know … ?

  • Nintendo is headquartered in Kyoto.
  • Kyoto was on the first list of targets for America’s atomic bombs in 1945.
  • Japan boasts more than 100 types of native cherry blossoms.
  • Nijo Castle’s security system relied on floorboards that were built to squeak under foot.
  • Kyoto and Tokyo are written with the same five letters.

A capital past

Kyoto rates well with North American visitors because it embodies so much of what Westerners find appealing about Japanese culture and traditions.

It was Japan’s capital for more than 1,000 years (794 to 1868) and, as a result, is home to literally thousands of temples and shrines, including 16 that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The 17th century Nijo Castle is on the list, too.

In explaining the significance of Kyoto’s heritage sites, UNESCO cites the city’s key role in the development of Japan’s wooden architecture and in the evolution of the country’s traditions, particularly the gardens.

Among the protected sites, the iconic Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), originally a 14th century residence and later a Zen temple, is the most memorable. The three-story structure, adorned in gold leaf and neatly reflected in an adjacent pond, presents an almost fairytale-perfect appearance. Visitors cannot enter, but the photos are spectacular.

Other favorites with international tourists are the Kiyomizu Temple for the Kyoto views it offers from its mountainside perch and Nijo Castle for its imposing structure, decorative detail, gardens and groves of plum and cherry trees.

The city offers options to pursue a number of other quintessentially Japanese experiences. Tourists can attend demonstrations of the tea ceremony or flower arranging. Traditional entertainment includes kyogen farces, which are an old type of theater, and geisha performances.

Visitors also may don a kimono or samurai wear, dip in an outdoor hot spring, try their hand at flower arranging, test their calligraphy skills or join a Zen meditation session. To round out this focus on Japanese culture, Kyoto is the place to stay in a ryokan, one of the country’s old-style inns.

Clearly, Kyoto is a good place to recapture attractive aspects of Japan’s past. Nevertheless, it is a modern metropolis, too. As with other Japanese cities, it offers 21st century shopping malls, entertainment opportunities and modern high-rises (which are sometimes controversial here).

Finally, Kyoto is one of the country’s top destinations for admiring cherry blossoms in the spring. With a well-timed trip, the blossoming trees can be a nice addition to a Kyoto itinerary.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Return home with an unusual skill. There are several places in Kyoto where you can get direction and try your hand at Japanese calligraphy.
  • Do your Kyoto sightseeing by bicycle.
  • There are many places to admire cherry blossoms in the spring, but to make blossom viewing a party, head to Maruyama Park, where revelers eat, drink sake and beer, and sing.
  • Join a Zen meditation session at Daisen-in Temple.
  • Take a swordsmanship workshop for a few pointers in how the samurai conducted themselves. You test your skills, too, while decked out in, or burdened by, samurai wear.
  • Or sightsee on foot while wearing a rented kimono (this applies to men or women).

Things to do for Centrics

  • Schedule your visit for May for a chance at witnessing one of these events: a parade of people dressed in costumes from the Heian period (8th to 12th centuries) or Mibu Kyogen, a pantomime performance dating to the Kamakura period (12th to 14th centuries).
  • Come to Kyoto on a high-speed train — and get a good look at the city’s controversial modern rail station.
  • Taste wagashi, the Japanese confectionary often served during the tea ceremony. Ingredients include beans, grains, nuts and seeds. You can take a cooking lesson to learn how to make the sweets.
  • In the Higashiyama area of Kyoto, shop for vintage kimonos and earthenware in the narrow back streets. Also, buy Japanese-style sneakers made from used kimono textiles.
  • In Japan’s most traditional city, stay in a traditional inn, a ryokan.
  • Also, in this most traditional of Japanese cities, take lessons in the tea ceremony or flower arranging.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Visit and photograph some of Kyoto’s prettiest and best-preserved temples and shrines.
  • At cherry blossom time (late March/early April), stroll Philosopher’s Walk, which is a footpath alongside a canal that is lined with cherry trees.
  • Include Kiyomizu and Nanzenji temples on your sightseeing rounds, both for their appeal and for the views they offer of Kyoto.
  • In the city known for its rock gardens, see the garden at Ryoanji Temple.
  • Shop for modern versions of old craft items —porcelain, lacquerware, swords, kimonos and more — at the Kyoto Handicraft Center.
  • In April, see the geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) perform traditional dances presented annually celebrating the cherry blossoms and the old capital itself.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Kyoto Convention and Visitors Bureau at http://kyoto.travel and select your language if necessary.