Kyoto is old Japan writ large: atmospheric temples, sublime gardens and traditional teahouses.
Japan's Spiritual Heart
This is a city of some 2000 temples and shrines: a city of true masterpieces of religious architecture, such as the retina-burning splendor of Kinkaku-ji (the famed Golden Pavilion) and the cavernous expanse of Higashi Hongan-ji. It's where robed monks shuffle between temple buildings, prayer chants resonate through stunning Zen gardens, and the faithful meditate on tatami-mat floors. Even as the modern city buzzes and shifts all around, a waft of burning incense, or the sight of a bright vermillion torii gate marking a shrine entrance, are regular reminders that Kyoto remains the spiritual heart of Japan.
A Trip for the Tastebuds
Few cities of this size pack such a punch when it comes to their culinary cred, and at its heart is Nishiki Market ('Kyoto's kitchen'). Kyoto is crammed with everything from Michelin-starred restaurants, chic cocktail bars, cool cafes and sushi spots to food halls, izakaya (Japanese pub-eateries), craft-beer bars and old-school noodle joints. Splurge on the impossibly refined cuisine known as kaiseki while gazing over your private garden, taste the most delicate tempura in a traditional building, slurp down steaming bowls of ramen elbow-to-elbow with locals, then slip into a sugar coma from a towering matcha (powdered green tea) sundae.
A City of Artisans
While the rest of Japan has adopted modernity with abandon, the old ways are still clinging on in Kyoto. With its roots as the cultural capital of the country, it's no surprise that many traditional arts and crafts are kept alive by artisans from generation to generation. Wander the streets downtown, through historic Gion and past machiya (traditional Japanese townhouses) in the Nishijin textile district to find ancient speciality shops from tofu sellers, washi (Japanese handmade paper) and tea merchants, to exquisite lacquerware, handcrafted copper chazutsu (tea canisters) and indigo-dyed noren (hanging curtains).
If you don't know your matcha (powdered green tea) from your manga (Japanese comic), have never slept on a futon or had a bath with naked strangers, then it doesn't matter as this is the place to immerse yourself in the intricacies of Japanese culture. Whether you watch matcha being whisked in a traditional tea ceremony, spend the night in a ryokan, get your gear off and soak in an onsen, join a raucous hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) party or discover the art of Japanese cooking – you'll come away one step closer to understanding the unique Japanese way of life.
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The covered Nishiki Market (Nishiki-kōji Ichiba) is one of Kyoto ’s real highlights, especially if you have an interest in cooking and dining. Commonly known as Kyoto no daidokoro (Kyoto’s kitchen) by locals, this is the place to see the weird and wonderful foods that go into Kyoto cuisine – and where most of Kyoto’s high-end restaurateurs and well-to-do do their food shopping. Take a stroll down its length and you'll wander past stalls selling everything from barrels of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and cute Japanese sweets to wasabi salt and fresh sashimi skewers. The market is quite narrow and can get elbow-to-elbow busy, so try visiting early or later in the afternoon if you prefer a bit of space, but keep in mind many of the stalls close by 5pm. Free samples are on offer in many places, but refrain from eating while walking as it is considered impolite. Some stores also don't appreciate visitors taking photos, so it's a good idea to ask politely before snapping away. Nishiki Market in Kyoto can get elbow-to-elbow busy ©Sinseeho/Shutterstock History The pedestrian-only, covered Nishiki Market is right in the centre of town, one block north of Shijō-dōri, running from Teramachi shōtengai (market streets) to Takakura-dōri (ending almost behind Daimaru department store). It’s said that there were stores here as early as the 14th century, and it’s known for sure that the street was a wholesale fish market in the Edo period (1603–1868). After the end of Edo, as Japan entered the modern era, the market became a retail market, which it remains today. The emphasis is on locally produced Japanese food items like tsukemono, tea, beans, rice, seaweed and fish. In recent years the market has been evolving from a strictly local food market into a tourist attraction, and you’ll now find several souvenir shops selling Kyoto-style souvenirs mixed in among the food stalls. Vegetables for sale in Nishiki Market ©Greg Elms/Lonely Planet What to eat There's all manner of delicacies on offer here, with stalls selling soymilk donuts, hand-baked bean crackers, eel rolls and takotamago (small octopus head stuffed with a quail egg on a stick). Just follow your nose and dive right in. If you're scared to commit to a purchase, free samples are often available. But it's not just food stalls worth visiting here: Aritsugu turns out some of the most exquisite chef knives on earth. Take time to pick the perfect one for your needs, then watch as the craftsmen carefully put a final edge on the knife with the giant round sharpening stone.
The thick green bamboo stalks seem to continue endlessly in every direction and there’s a strange quality to the light at this famous bamboo grove, which has become one of Kyoto's must-visit sights. It's most atmospheric on the approach to Ōkōchi Sansō villa and you’ll be unable to resist trying to take a few photos, but you might be disappointed with the results: photos just can’t capture the magic of the place. The grove runs from outside the north gate of Tenryū-ji to just below Ōkōchi Sansō, on the western edge of Kyoto. There is no entrance fee to enter. Visit early in the morning or on a week day to avoid crowds.
A buzzing hive of activity perched on a hill overlooking the basin of Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto's most popular and most enjoyable temples. It may not be a tranquil refuge, but it represents the favoured expression of faith in Japan. The excellent website is a great first port of call for information on the temple, plus a how-to guide to praying here. Note that the Main Hall is undergoing renovations and may be covered, but is still accessible. This ancient temple was first built in 798, but the present buildings are reconstructions dating from 1633. As an affiliate of the Hossō school of Buddhism, which originated in Nara, it has successfully survived the many intrigues of local Kyoto schools of Buddhism through the centuries and is now one of the most famous landmarks of the city (for which reason it can get very crowded during spring and autumn). The Hondō (Main Hall) has a huge verandah that is supported by pillars and juts out over the hillside. Just below this hall is the waterfall Otowa-no-taki, where visitors drink sacred waters believed to bestow health and longevity. Dotted around the precincts are other halls and shrines. At Jishu-jinja, the shrine up the steps above the main hall, visitors try to ensure success in love by closing their eyes and walking about 18m between a pair of stones – if you miss the stone, your desire for love won't be fulfilled! Note that you can ask someone to guide you, but if you do, you'll need someone's assistance to find your true love. Before you enter the actual temple precincts, check out the Tainai-meguri, the entrance to which is just to the left (north) of the pagoda that is located in front of the main entrance to the temple (¥100 donation; open 9am to 4pm). We won't tell you too much about it as it will ruin the experience. Suffice to say that by entering the Tainai-meguri, you are symbolically entering the womb of a female bodhisattva. When you get to the rock in the darkness, spin it in either direction to make a wish. The steep approach to the temple is known as Chawan-zaka (Teapot Lane) and is lined with shops selling Kyoto handicrafts, local snacks and souvenirs. Check the website for the scheduling of special night-time illuminations of the temple held in spring and autumn.
With seemingly endless arcades of vermilion torii (shrine gates) spread across a thickly wooded mountain, this vast shrine complex is a world unto its own. It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive and memorable sights in Kyoto. The entire complex, consisting of five shrines, sprawls across the wooded slopes of Inari-san. A pathway wanders 4km up the mountain and is lined with dozens of atmospheric sub-shrines. Fushimi Inari was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake by the Hata family in the 8th century. As the role of agriculture diminished, deities were enrolled to ensure prosperity in business. Nowadays, the shrine is one of Japan’s most popular, and is the head shrine for some 40,000 Inari shrines scattered the length and breadth of the country. As you explore the shrine, you will come across hundreds of stone foxes. The fox is considered the messenger of Inari, the god of cereals, and the stone foxes, too, are often referred to as Inari. The key often seen in the fox’s mouth is for the rice granary. On an incidental note, the Japanese traditionally see the fox as a sacred, somewhat mysterious figure capable of ‘possessing’ humans – the favoured point of entry is under the fingernails. The walk around the upper precincts of the shrine is a pleasant day hike. It also makes for a very eerie stroll in the late afternoon and early evening, when the various graveyards and miniature shrines along the path take on a mysterious air. It’s best to go with a friend at this time. On 8 April there’s a Sangyō-sai festival with offerings and dances to ensure prosperity for national industry. During the first few days in January, thousands of believers visit this shrine as their hatsu-mōde (first shrine visit of the new year) to pray for good fortune. For info on the shrine's many schedules, see www.inari.jp/en/rite.
A collection of soaring buildings, spacious courtyards and gardens, Chion-in serves as the headquarters of the Jōdo sect, the largest school of Buddhism in Japan. It's the most popular pilgrimage temple in Kyoto and it's always a hive of activity. For visitors with a taste for the grand, this temple is sure to satisfy. Chion-in was established in 1234 on the site where Hōnen, one of the most famous figures in Japanese Buddhism, taught his brand of Buddhism (Jōdo – or Pure Land – Buddhism) and eventually fasted to death. The oldest of the present buildings date to the 17th century. The two-storey San-mon temple gate is the largest in Japan. The immense Miei-dō Hall (Main Hall) contains an image of Hōnen. It's connected to another hall, the Dai Hōjō, by a 'nightingale' floor (that sings and squeaks at every move, making it difficult for intruders to move about quietly). Miei-dō Hall is currently under restoration and closed to the public. It's expected to be finished by 2020. Up a flight of steps southeast of the main hall is the temple's giant bell, which was cast in 1633 and weighs 70 tonnes. It is the largest bell in Japan. The bell is rung by the temple's monks 108 times on New Year's Eve each year. The temple has two gardens – the Hōjō garden designed around a pond in the chisen kaiyūshiki style, and the Yuzen-en featuring a karesansui (dry landscape garden).
Gion is the famous entertainment and geisha quarter on the eastern bank of the Kamo-gawa. While Gion’s true origins were in teahouses catering to weary visitors to the nearby shrine Yasaka-jinja, by the mid-18th century the area was Kyoto’s largest pleasure district. The best way to experience Gion today is with an evening stroll around the atmospheric streets lined with 17th-century traditional restaurants and teahouses lit up with lanterns. Start off on the main street Hanami-kōji, which runs north–south and bisects Shijō-dōri. At the southern section of Hanami-kōji, many of the restaurants and teahouses are exclusive establishments for geisha entertainment. At the south end you reach Gion Corner and Gion Kōbu Kaburen-jō Theatre (祇園甲部歌舞練場). If you walk from Shijō-dōri along the northern section of Hanami-kōji and take your third left, you will find yourself on Shimbashi (sometimes called Shirakawa Minami-dōri), which is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets, especially in the evening and during cherry-blossom season. A bit further north lie Shinmonzen-dōri and Furumonzen-dōri, running east–west. Wander in either direction along these streets, which are packed with old houses, art galleries and shops specialising in antiques – but don’t expect flea-market prices.
For anyone with the slightest fondness for Japanese gardens, don't miss this network of lanes dotted with atmospheric Zen temples. Daitoku-ji, the main temple here, serves as headquarters for the Rinzai Daitoku-ji school of Zen Buddhism. It's not usually open to the public but there are several subtemples with superb carefully raked karen-sensui (dry landscape) gardens well worth making the trip out for. Highlights include Daisen-in, Kōtō-in, Ryōgen-in and Zuihō-in. Daitoku-ji is on the eastern side of the grounds. It was founded in 1319, burnt down in the next century and rebuilt in the 16th century. The San-mon gate (1589) has a self-carved statue of its erector, the famous tea master Sen no Rikyū, on its 2nd storey. The Karasuma subway line to Kitaōji Station is the fastest way to get here. From Kitaōji Station, walk west along Kitaōji-dōri for about 15 minutes. You’ll see the temple complex on your right. The main entrance is a bit north of Kitaōji. If you enter from the main gate, which is on the east side of the complex, you'll soon find Daitoku-ji on your right. Alternatively, take bus 205 or 206 from Kyoto Station to the Daitokuji-mae bus stop.
Home to a sumptuous garden and elegant structures, Ginkaku-ji is one of Kyoto's premier sites. The temple started its life in 1482 as a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who desired a place to retreat from the turmoil of a civil war. While the name Ginkaku-ji literally translates as 'Silver Pavilion', the shogun's ambition to cover the building with silver was never realised. After Ashikaga's death, the villa was converted into a temple. Walkways lead through the gardens, which include meticulously raked cones of white sand (said to be symbolic of a mountain and a lake), tall pines and a pond in front of the temple. A path also leads up the mountainside through the trees. Note that Ginkaku-ji is one of the city's most popular sites, and it is almost always crowded, especially during spring and autumn. We strongly recommend visiting right after it opens or just before it closes.
This is one of the most rewarding temples in Kyoto, with its expansive grounds and numerous subtemples. At its entrance stands the massive San-mon. Steps lead up to the 2nd storey, which has a great view over the city. Beyond the gate is the main hall of the temple, above which you will find the Hōjō, where the Leaping Tiger Garden is a classic Zen garden well worth a look. Nanzen-ji began as a retirement villa for Emperor Kameyama but was dedicated as a Zen temple on his death in 1291. Civil war in the 15th century destroyed most of the temple; the present buildings date from the 17th century. It operates now as headquarters for the Rinzai school of Zen. While you're in the Hōjō, you can enjoy a cup of matcha (powdered green tea) and a sweet while gazing at a small waterfall (¥500; ask at the reception desk of the Hōjō).