Kyoto is centre stage for Japan’s traditional culture, and where much of Japanese history was played out.
The Japanese refer to Kyoto as ‘the heart of Japan,’ a sentiment evident by the high school students on a pilgrimage to learn about the city that was the nation’s capital for over a thousand years.
Needless to say, it should rank near the top of any Japan itinerary. Here’s how to make the most of your Kyoto adventure.
1. Settle into a Ryokan
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, where a room features a futon on top of the straw-matted flooring and communal baths. Following your bath all eating and interaction with the owner and other guests are done wearing the provided slippers and yukata dressing robe.
Food served in a ryokan will be traditional Japanese kaiseki cuisine: a meal of small, varied dishes, and depending on the time of year will feature seasonal or regional specialities.
It may be around this time you realise you’re adapting to the Kyoto way. Tip-toeing around in your robe, aware of the other guests’ needs to share facilities, respecting the ryokan owner, and harmonising your whole being to the daily house routine.
2.Tune into tradition in Kyoto
You can’t go wrong by wandering the myriad streets. It’s during such unscheduled walks that you’re likely to pass Kyoto’s artisans, and family businesses that have passed their trades through generations.
Look out for what may be a kimono fabric maker riding by on his bike, an elderly lady who has been making tofu the way her grandmother showed her, or the young men keeping the rickshaw tradition alive by pulling giggling tourists between sights.
3. Discover the entertainment districts
There are five traditional entertainment districts in Kyoto. The most famous is the Gion district, although Pontocho and Kamishichiken districts are also good for teahouses, theatres and restaurants where geisha entertain. The streets here are lined with wooden two-storey buildings with reed screens in the windows to ensure the privacy of guests, and have remained this way since the 16th century.
4. Relax in the temples and shrines
Most temples you’ll discover are purposely designed to draw the attention to the seasons, from the bright reds of the maple leaves in autumn to the delicate cherry blossoms in spring.
Nothing exemplifies this more than Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion), a three-storey building of which the upper two are completely covered in gleaming gold leaf (right).
In north-west Kyoto, you can contemplate nature at Ryoan-ji (The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon), Japan’s – if not the world’s – most famous Zen garden.
5. Taste the flavours of Kyoto
Okononiyaki: A pan-fried dish particularly popular in the west of Japan. Meaning “to one’s liking”, simply choose your favourite ingredients from octopus, pork, potatoes,
Kimichi or vegetables: throw some noodles into the batter, and cook on the grill in front of you. A must try!
Tako-yaki: A great street-side snack popular in eastern Japan, these octopus balls are baked in a soft batter, topped with a dipping sauce, bonito flakes and mayonnaise, then eaten with a cocktail stick.
Ramen: Japan’s premier fast food has regional differences notable to the soup: toppings, noodle thickness and hardness, even the water. Kyoto’s noodles have a strong soup, thick ‘soft’ noodles, and pork slices.
Dango: A traditional savoury snack of four or five small, coloured dumplings made from rice flour and toasted on a skewer with soy sauce. Kids and the older generations love them.
Yatsuhashi: A soft rice flour parcel folded to resemble triangular ravioli, filled with sweet flavours such as mango, blueberry, or the acquired taste of azuki bean paste. A popular confectionary for tourists to take back home for colleagues or friends.
6. Meet the Geishas
Even in the city’s five geisha districts, the Gion district has long retained the highest reputation for geisha.
Wander among the tea shops here in early evening and you are likely to catch a geisha or maiko (geisha in training) walking between engagements, but getting more than a glimpse will be unlikely: Gion’s geisha tend to entertain only politicians and businessmen, through personal introductions.
For a more tourist-friendly look at the world of geisha, head to Gion Corner, an art centre at Hanami-koji, where there are daily performances of a tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging), kyogen (traditional comic plays) and dances by maiko.
7. Unwind in the onsens
Japan is home to thousands of onsens (natural hot springs).
Not only is onsen water believed to have healing powers thanks to its mineral content, the Japanese talk of the virtues of “naked communion” for breaking down barriers and getting to know each other.
Take off all your clothes before entering the onsen area, then sit on a small bucket to wash and rinse your body entirely.
Entering without cleansing first would be a huge faux pas. Once clean you can soak in the onsen, moving between the various baths.
What you need to know for your trip to Kyoto, Japan
When to go: Temperatures are most comfortable in spring (March to May) and autumn (late September to November). Summer (June to August) can be hot and humid, while winter can be too cold for some.
Getting there: There are regular flights from London direct to Tokyo and Osaka. Kyoto is well connected to both cities’ airports by shinkansen (bullet train) and bus services.
Getting around: Kyoto’s comprehensive bus network is a quick and cost effective way to get around the city as well as the subway, which has two lines running north to south and east to west.
Currency: Japanese Yen. 1 GBP = 139 JPY.
Going out: A beer costs 500-1000 JPY.
Accomodation: Hostels start from 3000 JPY per night and ryokan from 7000 JPY per night.