The capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, Kyoto (京都) is endowed with an almost overwhelming legacy of ancient Buddhist temples, majestic palaces and gardens of every size and description, not to mention some of the country’s most important works of art, its richest culture and most refined cuisine. For many people the very name Kyoto conjures up the classic image of Japan: streets of traditional wooden houses, the click-clack of geta (traditional wooden sandals) on the paving stones, geisha passing in a flourish of brightly coloured silks and temple pagodas surrounded by cherry blossom trees.
While you can still find all these things, and much more, first impressions of Kyoto can be disappointing. Decades of haphazard urban development and a conspicuous industrial sector have affected the city, eroding the distinctive characteristics of the townscape. However, current regulations limiting the height of new buildings and banning rooftop advertising indicate that more serious thought is being given to preserving Kyoto’s visual environment. Yet, regardless of all the trappings of the modern world and the economic realities of the lingering recession, Kyoto remains notoriously exclusive, a place where outsiders struggle to peek through the centuries-thick layer of cultural sophistication into the city’s traditional soul.
The vast amount of culture and history to explore in Kyoto is mind-boggling, yet it’s perfectly possible to get a good feel for the city within a couple of days. Top priority should go to the eastern, Higashiyama, district, where the walk north from famous Kiyomizu-dera to Ginkaku-ji takes in a whole raft of fascinating temples, gardens and museums. It’s also worth heading for the northwestern hills to contemplate the superb Zen gardens of Daitoku-ji and Ryōan-ji, before taking in the wildly extravagant Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. The highlight of the central sights is Nijō-jō, a lavishly decorated seventeenth-century palace, while nearby Nijō-jin’ya is an intriguing place riddled with secret passages and hidey-holes. Also worth seeing are the imperial villas of Shūgaku-in Rikyū and Katsura Rikyū, and the sensuous moss gardens of Saihō-ji, in the outer districts. Take time to walk around the city’s old merchant quarters; one of the best is found in the central district, behind the department stores and modern shopping arcades north of Shijō-dōri, and across the river in Gion you’ll find the traditional crafts shops, selling everything from handmade bamboo blinds to geisha hair accessories, and beautiful old ryokan for which the city is justifiably famous.
The spirit of old Kyoto reveals itself in surprising places. The key to enjoying this ancient city is to leave the tourist haunts behind and delve into the quiet backstreets, to explore age-old craft shops and distinctive machiya houses or seek out the peaceful garden of some forgotten temple. However, the city is not all temples and tradition; the recently opened Kyoto International Museum of Manga, alongside the increasing number of innovative designer shops and stylish cafés, are examples of Kyoto’s modern spirit, showing how the city manages to combine its heritage with contemporary culture.
Spring and autumn are undoubtedly the best times to visit Kyoto, though also the busiest; after a chilly winter, the cherry trees put on their finery in early April, while the hot, oppressive summer months (June–Aug) are followed in October by a delightful period of clear, dry weather when the maple trees erupt into fiery reds.
Kyoto became the imperial capital in the late eighth century when Emperor Kammu relocated the court from Nara. His first choice was Nagaoka, southwest of today’s Kyoto, but a few inauspicious events led the emperor to move again in 794 AD. This time he settled on what was to be known as Heian-kyō, “Capital of Peace and Tranquillity”. Like Nara, the city was modelled on the Chinese Tang-dynasty capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an), with a symmetrical north–south axis. By the late ninth century Heian-kyō was overflowing onto the eastern hills and soon had an estimated population of 500,000. In 894, imperial missions to China ceased and earlier borrowings from Chinese culture began to develop into distinct Japanese forms.
The city’s history from this point is something of a rollercoaster ride. In the late twelfth century a fire practically destroyed the whole place, but two centuries later the Ashikaga shoguns built some of the city’s finest monuments, among them the Golden and Silver Pavilions (Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji). Many of the great Zen temples were established at this time and the arts reached new levels of sophistication. Once again, however, almost everything was lost during the Ōnin Wars (1467–78).
Kyoto’s knight in shining armour was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who came to power in 1582 and sponsored a vast rebuilding programme. The Momoyama period, as it’s now known, was a golden era of artistic and architectural ostentation, epitomized by Kyoto’s famous Kanō school of artists, who decorated the temples and palaces with sumptuous gilded screens. Even when Tokugawa Ieyasu moved the seat of government to Edo (now Tokyo) in 1603, Kyoto remained the imperial capital and stood its ground as the nation’s foremost cultural centre.
In 1788 another huge conflagration swept through the city, but worse was to come; in 1869 the new Emperor Meiji moved the court to Tokyo. Kyoto went into shock and the economy foundered – but not for long. In the 1890s a canal was built from Biwa-ko to the city, and Kyoto, like the rest of Japan, embarked on a process of industrialization. However, the city narrowly escaped devastation at the end of World War II, when it was considered a potential target for the atom bomb. Kyoto was famously spared by American Defence Secretary Henry Stimson, who recognized the city’s supreme architectural and historical importance.
Sadly, Kyoto’s own citizens were not so mindful and post-World War II many of the city’s old buildings were sold for their land value and replaced by concrete structures or car parks. Despite continued modernization, however, a more enthusiastic approach to strengthening the city’s traditional heritage is now being adopted by its residents, not least in efforts towards attracting foreign visitors. In particular, many younger Japanese are becoming interested in not only preserving but also developing this historical legacy, evidenced by the growing number of businesses set in traditional townhouses, or machiya.
Kyoto’s accommodation options range from basic guesthouses, youth hostels and temple lodgings (shukubō) to luxurious international hotels and top-class ryokan. One night in a full-blown Kyoto ryokan, enjoying the world’s most meticulous service, is an experience not to be missed. The ongoing recession has made many establishments that were previously difficult to access more affordable and welcoming to international guests. Recently, a number of old Kyoto houses (machiya) have been developed into guesthouses, offering visitors the chance to experience traditional Kyoto life. It’s essential to make reservations at these places as far in advance as possible, but all accommodation in Kyoto gets pretty busy during spring and autumn, at holiday weekends and around the major festivals; room rates may rise considerably during these times.
Kyoto is famous for its traditional geisha dance shows. Performances of kabuki and nō plays are more sporadic but worth attending if you happen to be in town when they are on.
Geisha (or geiko, as they are known locally) and maiko (trainee geisha) from each of the city’s former pleasure quarters (see Kōdai-ji) have been putting on Odori (dance performances) during spring and autumn since the late nineteenth century, though the music and choreography are much older. By turns demure and coquettish, they glide round the stage in the most gorgeous kimono, straight out of an Edo-period woodblock print of Japan’s seductive “floating world”. If you’re in Kyoto during these seasonal dances, it’s well worth going along. Performances take place several times a day, so it’s usually possible to get hold of tickets; you can buy them from the theatre box offices and major hotels. At all of the Odori, you can also buy tickets that combine the show with a tea ceremony conducted by geisha and maiko, which is well worth the extra cost (¥3800–6000, depending on the district). Make sure you get there early enough to enjoy your bowl of macha (powdered green tea).
The annual dance performances in the geisha districts kick off with the Miyako Odori (April 1–30) performed by the geisha and maiko of Gion. This is the most prestigious and well known of the Odori, mainly because it is the oldest, having started in 1872. The dances are based on a seasonal theme and have lavish sets and costumes. Live musicians playing shamisen, flutes and drums, as well as singers, perform in alcoves at each side of the stage. Miyako Odori is held at Gion Kōbu Kaburenjō.
Also at this time is Kyo Odori, held in the Miyagawa-chō district, south of Gion. This is a smaller, more intimate production than Miyako Odori, though equally as opulent. The ladies of Pontochō stage their Kamo-gawa Odori once a year (May 1–24) in Pontochō Kaburenjō, at the north end of Pontochō-dōri – Jean Cocteau and Charlie Chaplin were both fans.
Autumn brings a whole flurry of activity, though the dances are more like recitals, and not as extravagant as the spring dances. The Onshukai dances are held during the first week in October at the Gion Kaikan theatre, near Yasaka-jinja closely followed by Kotobukikai (around Oct 8–12) in northwest Kyoto’s Kitano Kami-shichiken Kaburenjō and Mizuekai (mid-Oct) at the Miyagawa-chō Kaburenjō. Finally, the Gion Odori, performed by the maiko and geisha of the smaller Gion Higashi district, wraps things up in early November (Nov 1–10, at the Gion Kaikan theatre near Yasaka-jinja.
If your visit doesn’t coincide with any of these, you can see maiko dancing, as well as a sampler of other traditional performance arts, from March to November at Gion Corner, held at Gion Kōbu Kaburenjō. As well as dances by maiko, there are short extracts from court dances, a puppet play (bunraku), kyōgen theatre, and demonstrations of the tea ceremony and flower arranging (ikebana). English-language guided commentary is available to rent at the entrance. Alternatively, the Gion Hatanaka Ryokan holds Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko Evening events which non-guests are welcome to attend. This is a great chance to see maiko performing at close range and take photos.
Colourful and dramatic, kabuki theatre is said to have originated in Kyoto. Unfortunately, performances these days are fairly sporadic, but in December there’s a major kabuki-fest at Gion’s eye-catching Minami-za theatre . During this kaomise, or “face-showing” (Dec 1–25), big-name actors give snippets from their most successful roles.
Kyoto isn’t all about high culture. After you’ve finished tramping the streets, there are plenty of tea houses, coffee shops and cosy bars where you can kick back and quench your thirst. And, if your aching feet can stand it, Kyoto’s late-night scene offers a fair range of clubs, discos and live music venues. It may not compete with the likes of Ōsaka and Tokyo, but you should be able to find somewhere to party until the wee hours. The prime entertainment districts are Kiyamachi and Gion, both of which are stuffed with bars and clubs. But be warned: even fairly innocuous-looking establishments can be astronomically expensive (many have a “seating” fee of over ¥1000), so check first to make sure you know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for. Some of the more upmarket establishments used to require an introduction by a regular customer, before you could even set foot inside, but the ongoing recession has loosened the formalities to some extent.
It’s worth treating yourself to a meal in a traditional Kyo-ryōri (Kyoto cuisine) restaurant, such as kaiseki (a multi-course banquet of seasonal delicacies), shōjin-ryōri (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) or yūdōfu (simmered tofu). Nishin soba, a big bowl of soba noodles with a part-dried piece of herring on top, and saba-zushi, made with mackerel, are two of the more everyday Kyoto dishes. Reservations are nearly always essential at top-end kaiseki restaurants in the evening; elsewhere it’s not a bad idea to book ahead at weekends and during peak holiday times.
The world of tea tends to have a reputation for rigidity and rules, but fortunately there are now some innovative and modern ways in which to experience this quintessential Japanese drink. Whether you want just a relaxing cuppa or a full-blown tea ceremony, both are easily accessible.
You can start by going straight to the heart of Kyoto tea commerce, at the historic Ippodo on Teramachi, which has been in business since 1717. The shop sells all grades of Japanese green teas, locally grown in Uji. However, just past the counter is the Kaboku Tearoom, a wonderful place to sample different types and grades of green tea. The tearoom has a hushed atmosphere but the staff are friendly and happy to guide you through the extensive menu. If you are keen to experience a tea ceremony, head to Ran Hotei on the Sanjō-Horikawa shopping arcade, a tea salon decorated in the Taisho-Art Deco style. If you book in advance it’s possible to have a 90-minute tea ceremony lesson in the tatami tearoom with the owner, a Canadian-born tea master.
Roaring into the internet age is the Iyemon Salon, on Sanjō-dōri, just west of Karasuma, possibly Kyoto’s trendiest teahouse and a complete contrast to the meditative atmosphere of a tea ceremony. It’s large and bustling, with a free internet café, bookshop, tea counter and a kitchen serving tea-inspired cuisine. Just across the road is Somushi, an artfully rustic Korean tea house that’s an incredibly calm space to try a variety of medicinal teas, such as ginseng and jujube (red dates), as well as healthy vegetarian Korean dishes. In eastern Kyoto, don’t miss Rakushō, a charming old teashop between Kiyomizu-dera and Yasaka-jinja. Enjoy a bowl of macha and warabi mochi (jelly-like cakes rolled in sweet soybean flour while gazing out over the pond of enormous carp. East of the Heian-jingu is the Kyoto Nama Chocolat Organic Tea House, in an elegant old house with a rambling garden. They serve a variety of teas and coffee, as well as their own brand of delectable fresh soft chocolate, which they make on the premises.
It’s possible to learn about various traditional crafts and Kyoto culture at venues around the city. For yūzen dyeing head to the Kodai Yūzen-en gallery (daily 9am–5pm; ¥500), located on Takatsuji-dōri, southwest of the Horikawa Shijō junction. Ask to see their introductory video in English, first and then, if you’re inspired, you can try yūzen hand-dyeing for yourself, on a handkerchief or table centrepiece (from ¥1600). Two blocks west of the Nishijin Textile Centre, on Nakasuji-dōri, you can learn about another hand-dyeing technique at the lovely old Aizen-kōbō workshop run by the Utsuki family (Mon–Fri 10am–5.30pm, Sat & Sun 9am–4pm; free; reservation essential at weekends)). Aizen-kōbō’s owner, Kenichi Utsuki, gives explanations in English of the intricate and time-consuming techniques involved in indigo hand-dyeing. The cloth is dyed with natural indigo and then sun-dried to give it a glorious, rich shade of blue or green. The Kyoto Handicraft Centre offers demonstration classes for beginners in cloisonné (enamel-work) and woodblock printing (¥1890 for 1hr; book at the ground-floor information desk 1–4pm). The Uzuki Cooking School in northeastern Kyoto holds classes in seasonal Kyoto cuisine, mostly on weekday afternoons. The enthusiastic English-speaking instructor, Emi Hirayama, brings you into her own kitchen and takes you through the steps of creating a delicious four-course meal (¥4000/person). Finally, WAK Japan (¥3500–5500/person) offers 55-minute courses with English-speaking female teachers in tea ceremony, kimono, calligraphy, flower arrangement and musical instruments at their machiya school near the Imperial Palace. More expensive “home visit” lessons are also available (from ¥10,500).
Jinrikisha (人力車), which means “man-powered vehicle”, were a common form of transportation in Kyoto from the 1880s until the early twentieth century, when it became more fashionable to use bicycles, automobiles and street trams. A local company is now producing two-seater Meiji-period-style jinrikisha, and has revived this more environmentally friendly form of transportation for tourists. Strapping, sun-tanned lads, and occasionally a few young women, pull jinrikisha around Kyoto’s main tourist areas. It’s a fun way to see the sites and to discover a few hidden spots in any season – they all have hoods to protect passengers from sun and rain. There are jinrikisha stations in front of Heian-jingu, near Nanzen-ji and at Arashiyama on the northwest side of Togetsu-kyo bridge, covering three routes: Kiyomizu-dera to Yasaka-jinja, Heian-jingū to Ginkaku-ji and around Arashiyama. Tours last from ten minutes (¥2000 for one, ¥3000 for two) to an hour (¥9000 for one, ¥15,000 for two), depending on the route and whether you want to stop and take photos. Some of the jinrikisha pullers speak English and will be able to give you a commentary on the sights. Jinrikisha are available every day from 10am until sunset.
Kyoto’s main shopping district is focused around the junction of Shijō-dōri and Kawaramachi-dōri, and spreads north of Shijō along the Teramachi and Shinkyōgoku covered arcades. You’ll find the big-name department stores, notably Takashimaya, Hankyū and Daimaru, all on Shijō. Souvenir shops, smart boutiques and even a few traditional craft shops are mostly situated on Sanjō-dōri, just west of the river. In recent years, two trendy shopping complexes have opened on Karasuma-dōri. Shinpuhkan, just south of Ōike, consists of four levels of boutiques, restaurants and variety goods shops, built around an inner courtyard. Cocon Karasuma, south of Shijō, has designer furniture and contemporary Japanese craft shops, as well as restaurants and cafés. The station area is home to the huge Isetan department store and a revamped underground shopping mall, Porta, under the northern bus terminal.
East Kyoto is best known for its wealth of shops around Kiyomizu-dera, which sell the local pottery, while nearby Sannen-zaka hosts a lovely parade of traditional craft shops. Further north, Gion’s Shinmonzen-dōri specializes in antiques – prices are predictably high, but it’s a good area to browse.
In the southwest corner of Kyoto are two magnificent gardens, though in both cases admission is by appointment only. The more accessible garden belongs to Katsura Rikyū (桂離宮), a former imperial palace; applications to visit should be made through the Imperial Household Agency.
Katsura palace, unfortunately not open to the public, was built in the early seventeenth century as a residence for the imperial Prince Toshihito, and then expanded by his son, Toshitada, in the 1650s. Toshihito was a highly cultured man, who filled his villa and garden with references to The Tale of Genji and other literary classics, while also creating what is considered to be Japan’s first stroll-garden. As the name suggests, these gardens were to be enjoyed on foot – rather than from a boat or from a fixed viewpoint – and designed to look “natural”. In fact they were planned in minute detail so that scenes unfold in a particular order as the viewer progresses. Focused on a large, indented lake, the Katsura garden is famed for its variety of footpaths and stone pavings, and for its stone lanterns, all of which helped create the desired mood of relaxation. Several tea pavilions occupy prime spots around the lake, the most attractive of which is Shokin-tei, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the garden is the sheer ingenuity of the designer – Toshihito managed to wrestle a splendidly harmonious, seemingly spacious garden out of an unexciting bit of floodplain.
Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha and similar books have sparked a curiosity in the Western world about the centuries-old institution of the geisha. Often mistakenly considered to be high-class prostitutes, geisha (which means “practitioner of the arts”) are in fact refined women who entertain affluent men with their various accomplishments, such as singing, dancing, conversation and playing a traditional instrument such as a shamisen (three-string banjo). English conversation skills are also becoming important, as a result of the international attention generated by the Hollywood film of Memoirs of a Geisha, which has brought overseas visitors into the teahouses of the hanamachi (“flower towns”), where geisha live and work.
It takes five years for an apprentice geisha – known as maiko – to master her art, training with the same focus and dedication of an Olympic athlete in the various arts and living according to a strict code of dress and deportment, almost like living dolls. The world of the geisha is shrinking, however: from a pre-World War II peak of eighty thousand there are now reckoned to be no more than a few thousand geisha left, the majority concentrated in Kyoto, the centre of the tradition. Though few fifteen-year-olds are tempted to sign up as apprentices, the internet is beginning to change this – some geisha houses have established websites to recruit apprentices, with successful results. Geisha have also started blogging; one Kyoto maiko has even translated her musings on life in a hanamachi into English.
It’s also becoming more common to be able to meet and talk with geisha and maiko in person. Many hotels and ryokan now offer exclusive dinner shows (see Major Kyoto festivals and annual events), where it is possible to experience a little of the elegant yet fun entertainment that has until recently been the exclusive playground of wealthy male customers. Don’t be fooled by daylight groups of “geisha” in Kyoto tourist spots: they are likely to be visitors who have paid for the chance to don the distinctive white make-up, lacquered hairdos and fabulously expensive kimono that constitute the epitome of geisha beauty.
Kyoto’s traditional townhouses, machiya, were built in a unique architectural style and remain an enduring symbol of the city’s cultural heritage. These long, wooden houses are made up of a succession of rooms, connected by a single corridor, sometimes stretching as far back as 100m from the front. Their design is a result of the taxes that were levied on buildings during the Edo period according to the size of their street frontage. Machiya were generally built by merchants, encompassing a front shop space, living quarters in the middle and a warehouse at the rear. A courtyard garden was also included to aid the flow of light and air through the centre. Their long, thin shape lead to their colloquial name, unagi no nedoko, or “bedroom of eels”.
Machiya were built almost entirely out of wood, which means that because of fire and earthquakes few that remain today are more than a century old. Some of the best examples are protected by law, but this has not stopped others being demolished at an alarming rate (some figures estimate by more than ten percent a year) since the end of World War II as land values increased and modern development was encouraged. However, you can still walk along Sannen-zaka, Shinbashi or through the Nishijin weaving district in Western Kyoto and find some almost complete rows of these beautiful old houses, each dark facade showing subtle variations on the same overall design. Note the distinctive gutter-guards made of curved bamboo, and the narrow-slatted ground-floor windows, which keep out both the summer heat and prying eyes.
Encouragingly, though they are still being demolished, many machiya now seem to be experiencing a period of revitalization, having been remodelled as restaurants, guesthouses, boutiques and galleries, particularly in the central area north of Shijō and west of Kawaramachi.
Thanks to its central role in Japanese history, Kyoto is home to a number of important festivals; the major celebrations are listed below. The cherry-blossom season hits Kyoto in early April – famous viewing spots include the Imperial Park, Yasaka-jinja and Arashiyama – while early November brings dramatic autumn colours. Many temples hold special openings in October and November to air their inner rooms during the fine, dry weather. This is a marvellous opportunity to see paintings, statues and other treasures not normally on public display; details are available in the free Kyoto Visitors’ Guide. Kyoto gets pretty busy during major festivals and national holidays, especially Golden Week (April 29–May 5).
Annual bean-throwing festival celebrated at shrines throughout the city. At Yasaka-jinja, “ogres” scatter beans and pray for good harvests, while Heian-jingū hosts performances of traditional kyōgen theatre on Feb 3.
Performances of traditional geisha dances in Gion.
Performances by the geisha and maiko of the Miyagawachō district.
The “Hollyhock Festival” dates back to the days when this plant was believed to ward off earthquakes and thunder. Now it’s an occasion for a gorgeous, yet slow, procession of people dressed in Heian-period costume (794–1185). They accompany the imperial messenger and an ox cart decked in hollyhock leaves from the Imperial Palace to the Shimo-gamo and Kami-gamo shrines, in north Kyoto.
Performances of traditional dances by geisha in Pontochō.
Nō plays performed by torchlight at Heian-jingū.
One of Kyoto’s great festivals dates back to Heian times, when ceremonies were held to drive away epidemics of the plague. The festivities focus on Yasaka-jinja and culminate on July 17 (though there are related events throughout the whole of the month), with a grand parade through central Kyoto of tall, pointy yama-boko floats, richly decorated with local Nishijin silk. Night festivals are held three days prior to the parade, when the floats are lit with lanterns. Some can be viewed inside for a few hundred yen.
Five huge bonfires etch kanji characters on five hills around Kyoto; the most famous is the character for dai (big) on Daimonji-yama, northeast of the city. The practice originated from lighting fires after Obon.
This “Festival of the Ages” was introduced in 1895 to mark Kyoto’s 1100th anniversary. More than two thousand people, wearing costumes representing all the intervening historical periods, parade from the Imperial Palace to Heian-jingū.
After the Jidai parade, hop on a train north to see Kurama‘s more boisterous Fire Festival. Villagers light bonfires outside their houses and local lads carry giant, flaming torches (the biggest weighing up to 100kg) to the shrine. Events climax around 8pm with a mad dash up the steps with a mikoshi, after which there’s heavy-duty drinking, drumming and chanting till dawn. To get there, take the Eizan line from Kyoto’s Demachiyanagi Station (30min); it’s best to arrive early and leave around 10pm unless you want to see it through.
Grand kabuki festival.
The best place to see in the New Year is at Gion’s Yasaka-jinja. Apart from the normal festivities (see Festival fun), locals come here to light a flame from the sacred fire, with which to rekindle their hearths back home. As well as general good luck, this supposedly prevents illness in the coming year.
The excellent Kyoto International Manga Museum is the world’s first museum entirely devoted to Japanese comics. A joint project between Kyoto City and Seika University, it’s housed in an old elementary school, which has been remodelled to accommodate the huge, all-encompassing collection of manga, as well as provide plenty of space for art workshops (held at weekends) to teach the techniques of manga, as well as international conferences to discuss research. The great thing about the museum is that most of the manga can be taken outside and read on the lawn, and there is also a small international section with some English-language manga.
At Kyoto station don’t miss Tezuka Osamu World which continuously shows anime by comic-book genius Tezuka, plus that of other artists, in their smallish but comfortable theatre. If you don’t have time to visit the museum devoted to Tezuka at Takarazuka, near Ōsaka, this is a good place to see some of his work. The shop next door is filled with a surprisingly tasteful array of AstroBoy and other Tezuka-associated character goods.
One kilometre southwest of the Imperial Park, the swaggering opulence of Nijō-jō (二条城) provides a complete contrast to imperial understatement. Built as the Kyoto residence of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1603–16), the castle’s double moats, massive walls and watchtowers demonstrate the supreme confidence of his new, Tokyo-based military government. Inside, the finest artists of the day filled the palace with sumptuous gilded screens and carvings, the epitome of Momoyama style, leaving the increasingly impoverished emperor in no doubt as to where power really lay. The castle took 23 years to complete, paid for by local daimyō, but Nijō-jō was never used in defence and was rarely visited by a shogun after the mid-1600s.
The main entrance to Nijō-jō is the East Gate on Horikawa-dōri, near the Nijō-jō-mae subway station and bus stop. After entering here head to the Ninomaru Palace, whose five buildings face onto a lake-garden and run in a staggered line connected by covered corridors. Each room is lavishly decorated with screen paintings by the brilliant Kanō school of artists, notably Kanō Tanyū and Naonobu.
Ieyasu built Nijō-jō in the grounds of the original Heian-era Imperial Palace, of which only a tiny fragment today remains – a pond-garden, Shinsen-en – trapped between two roads immediately south of the castle walls. Walk through the garden, continuing south down Ōmiya-dōri, to find the mysterious Nijō-jin’ya (二条陣屋) behind a fence on the right-hand side. It was built in the early seventeenth century as an inn for feudal lords who came to pay homage to the emperor. As these were days of intrigue and high skulduggery, it is riddled with trap doors, false walls and ceilings, “nightingale” floors (floors that squeak when trodden on), escape hatches, disguised staircases and confusing dead ends to trap intruders. Since this is a private house, tours are strictly by appointment only and must be booked by phone, in Japanese, a day before; they also ask that non-Japanese-speakers bring an interpreter.
While Kinkaku-ji is all about displays of wealth and power, the dry garden of Ryōan-ji (龍安寺) hides infinite truths within its riddle of rocks and sand. Thought to date back to the late fifteenth century, and said by some to be the work of Sōami, the most famous artist, landscape gardener and tea ceremony master of the time, it was largely unknown until the 1930s. Now it’s probably Japan’s most famous garden, which means you’re unlikely to be able to appreciate the Zen experience thanks to intrusive loud-speaker announcements and almost constant crowds, though very early morning tends to be better.
The garden consists of a long, walled rectangle of off-white gravel, in which fifteen stones of various sizes are arranged in five groups, some rising up from the raked sand and others almost completely lost. In fact, the stones are placed so that wherever you stand one of them is always hidden from view. The only colour is provided by electric-green patches of moss around some stones, making this the simplest and most abstract of all Japan’s Zen gardens. It’s thought that the layout is a kōan, or riddle, set by Zen masters to test their students, and there’s endless debate about its “meaning”. Popular theories range from tigers crossing a river to islands floating in a sea of infinity. Fortunately, it’s possible to enjoy the garden’s perfect harmony and in-built tension without worrying too much about the meaning. Walk round the veranda of the main hall and you’ll find a stone water basin inscribed with a helpful thought from the Zen tradition: “I learn only to be contented”.
Leaving the main hall, it’s definitely worth strolling round Ryōan-ji’s refreshingly quiet lake-garden. This dates back to the twelfth century, when a noble of the Fujiwara clan built his villa here, before the estate was donated to the Rinzai Buddhist sect in the fifteenth century.
Three kilometres northwest of Katsura Rikyū, in a narrow, tree-filled valley, you’ll find the voluptuous and tranquil moss gardens of Saihō-ji (西芳寺), also known as Koke-dera (苔寺; the “Moss Temple”). If you’ve got time to spare after the major sights, this temple is well worth visiting, though you have to make an application. All visitors are required to attend a short Zen service during which you’ll chant a sutra, trace the sutra’s characters in sumi-e ink and finally write your name, address and “wish” before placing the paper in front of the altar. After that you’re free to explore the garden at your leisure.
Like Kōryū-ji, the temple apparently started life in the seventh century as another of Prince Shōtoku’s villas. Soon after, Jōdo Buddhists adopted the site for one of their “paradise gardens”, after which the gifted Zen monk, Musō Kokushi, was invited to take over the temple in 1338. The present layout dates mostly from his time, though the lakeside pavilion – the inspiration for Kinkaku-ji – and nearly all Saihō-ji’s other buildings burnt down during the Ōnin Wars (1467–77). In fact, given the temple’s history of fire, flooding and periods of neglect, it seems unlikely that today’s garden bears much resemblance to Musō’s. Saihō-ji was in complete ruins by the eighteenth century and some sources even attribute the famous mosses to accident, arguing that they spread naturally as the garden reverted to damp, shady woodland.
Whatever their origin, the swathes of soft, dappled moss – some 120 varieties in all – are a magical sight, especially after the rains of May and June, when the greens take on an extra intensity.
In the far northeast of Kyoto, the foothills of Hiei-zan provide a superb setting for Shūgaku-in Rikyū (修学院離宮), one of Japan’s finest examples of garden design using “borrowed scenery”; a technique which incorporates the existing landscape to give the impression of a much larger space.
Emperor Go-mizuno’o, who reigned between 1611 and 1629, built Shūgaku-in Rikyū in the late 1650s as a pleasure garden rather than a residence. Just 15 years old when he ascended the throne, the artistic and highly cultured Go-mizuno’o fiercely resented the new shogunate’s constant meddling in imperial affairs – not least being forced to marry the shogun’s daughter. After Go-mizuno’o abdicated in 1630, however, the shogun encouraged him to establish an imperial villa. He eventually settled on the site of a ruined temple, Shūgaku-in, and set about designing a series of gardens, which survived more than a century of neglect before the government rescued them in the 1820s. Though some of the original pavilions have been lost, Go-mizuno’o’s overall design remains – a delightfully naturalistic garden that blends seamlessly into the wooded hills.
In fact, Shūgaku-in Rikyū is made up of three separate gardens, each in their own enclosure among the terraced rice-fields. Of these, the top lake-garden is the star attraction. Climbing up the path towards the upper villa, you pass between tall, clipped hedges before suddenly emerging at the compound’s highest point. An airy pavilion, Rin-un-Tei, occupies the little promontory, with views over the lake, the forested, rolling hills in the middle distance and the mountains beyond. Walking back down through the garden, the grand vistas continue with every twist and turn of the path, passing the intricate Chitose bridge, intimate tea-ceremony pavilions and rustic boathouses.
If you’re in Kyoto towards the end of the month, don’t miss the two big flea markets. On the 21st, Kōbō-san (in honour of the founder) is held at Tō-ji temple, and on the 25th, Tenjin-san (in honour of the enshrined deity) is held at Kitano Tenmangū, a large shrine in northwest Kyoto (entrance on Imadegawa-dōri). Both kick off before 7am and it’s worth getting there early if you’re looking for special treasures. There’s a fantastic carnival atmosphere at these markets, where stalls sell everything from used kimono to dried fruit and manga. Tō-ji has an antiques market on the first Sunday of every month.
A monthly market is also held at Chion-ji on the 15th of every month (16th if raining), which focuses more on crafts and other handmade goods. Chion-ji sits on the corner of Imadegawa-dōri and Higashiōji-dōri, close to Kyoto University.
At Tōei Uzumasa Eiga-mura (東映太秦映画村), one of Japan’s major film companies opens its sets to the public. At the entrance is Padios, an amusement arcade aimed at children, with 3D roller-coaster rides, games and souvenir shops. The studios behind, where directors such as Kurosawa Akira filmed their classics, hold more general appeal and are worth a visit. One of the indoor studios is usually in action, nowadays mostly making historical TV dramas but also the occasional film (most recently, the 2009 historical drama Hiten no Shiro – “The Castle of Heavenly Flames”) while the outdoor sets – an Edo-period street, thatched farms, Meiji-era Western-style buildings and so on – are enlivened by roaming geisha, battling samurai and a superbly cheesy “special effects” zone. On the way out, don’t miss the Movie Museum, where Japanese film buffs can take a nostalgic romp through the archives.
There’s so much to see in Kyoto itself that most people don’t explore the surrounding area. First priority should probably go to Arashiyama, to the west side of Kyoto, which is famous for its gardens and temples, as well as the Hozu-gawa gorge boat ride and the monkey park. Uji, to the south of Kyoto, is another quiet pocket of history and home to the magnificent Byōdō-in, whose graceful Phoenix Hall is a masterpiece of Japanese architecture, as well as the tea fields which support Kyoto’s cultural traditions. In the northeast of Kyoto is Hiei-zan, atop a mountain overlooking the city, where age-old cedars shelter the venerable temples of Enryaku-ji. Below Hiei-zan, Ōhara contains a scattering of beguiling temples in an attractive valley.
Slightly further afield, but definitely worth the effort, are Amanohashidate, the “Bridge to Heaven”, on the northern coast of Kyoto prefecture and one of the trio of top scenic views in Japan; the attractive castle town of Hikone on Biwa-ko, Japan’s largest lake; and the architecturally stunning Miho Museum, nestled in the Shigaraki mountains.
At the northern tip of Kyoto-fu (Kyoto prefecture), the stubby peninsula of Tango-hantō (丹後半島) leans protectively over Wakasa Bay, shielding the sand spit of Amanohashidate (天橋立), the “Bridge to Heaven”. As one of the trio of top scenic views in Japan (the other two are Matsushima and Miyajima), Amanohashidate has a lot to live up to. The “bridge” is actually a 3.6km ribbon of white sand and pine trees slinking its way between the touristy villages of Monju and Fuchū across the bay.
On Mount Nariai above Fuchū, the splendidly atmospheric Nariai-ji is one of the 33 temples on the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage route, while closer to the summit there is a fantastic view of the bay and coast as far away as the Noto-hantō, some 500km northeast. East along the Tango-hantō lies the picturesque fishing hamlet of Ine, while across the bay in Monju is another attractive wooden temple, Chion-ji, standing on the brink of the sandbar – a lovely area for a quiet stroll or cycle ride, or simply lazing on the beach.
Protecting Kyoto’s northeastern flank (traditionally considered the source of evil spirits threatening the capital), the sacred mountain of Hiei-zan (比叡山) is the home of Tendai Buddhism, the headquarters of which are housed in an atmospheric collection of buildings, Enryaku-ji. Also on top of the mountain is the kitsch Garden Museum Hiei, an outdoor museum devoted to re-creating garden scenes from famous paintings by Monet and Renoir. Away from the commercialization, Enryaku-ji is still a pleasant place to meander along ancient paths through cedar forests. Though there are several ways of getting to Enryaku-ji, the easiest route is by bus from Kyoto, wriggling up the mountainside and then following a ridge road north. On a clear day you’ll be rewarded with huge views west over Biwa-ko, Japan’s largest lake and the second-oldest freshwater lake in the world after Lake Baikal in Siberia.
Followers of the Buddhist Tendai sect believe that the route to enlightenment lies through chanting, esoteric ritual and extreme physical endurance. The most rigorous of these practices is the “thousand-day ascetic mountain pilgrimage”, in which marathon monks, as they’re popularly known, are required to walk 40,000km through the mountains and streets of Kyoto in a thousand days – the equivalent of nearly a thousand marathons. The thousand days are split into hundred-day periods over seven years; during each period the monk has to go out every day in all weathers, regardless of his physical condition. He must adhere to a strict vegetarian diet and, at one point during the seven years, go on a week-long fast with no food, water or sleep, just for good measure.
Not surprisingly, many monks don’t make it – in the old days they were expected to commit ritual suicide if they had to give up. Those that do finish (nowadays, about one person every five years) are rewarded with enlightenment and become “living Buddhas”. Apparently, the advice of modern marathon monks is much sought after by national baseball coaches and others involved in endurance training.
The I.M. Pei-designed Miho Museum (ミホミュージアム) is one of the architectural highlights of the Kansai region, although it’s only open for a few months every year – exact dates vary; check the website for details. Located in a rural, mountainous part of Shiga Prefecture, which is best known for its Shigaraki pottery, the museum provides an unlikely setting for an incredible collection of artworks belonging to Koyama Mihoko and her daughter Hiroko. Koyama is the head of one of Japan’s so-called “new religions”, Shinki Shumeikai, founded in 1970, which has an estimated 300,000 followers worldwide, hundreds of whom live and work here at the museum. The central tenet of Shinki Shumeikai’s philosophy is that spiritual fulfilment lies in art and nature, hence the setting.
From the entrance and restaurant (serving excellent, if pricey, organic vegetarian cuisine), access to the museum proper is on an electric shuttle bus through a tunnel that opens onto a beautiful valley spanned by a 120m-high bridge; alternatively, you can walk – it takes about fifteen minutes on foot. Opposite is a series of tetrahedrons, which is all that can be seen of the museum, as most of it is actually built inside the mountainside due to planning restrictions. Inside, a continually shifting pattern of light and shadow is created by the innovative use of skylights, pyramid-shaped wall lights and ever-so-slightly uneven corridors which look out – through windows fitted with aluminium screens – onto bamboo gardens and tranquil green landscapes.
The museum has two wings. The north wing houses Japanese art, including priceless porcelain, scrolls, screens and Buddhist relics; the south wing has antiquities from the rest of the world, including jewellery, frescoes, textiles and statues produced by a range of civilizations, from ancient Egyptian to classical Chinese. Among the numerous treasures are a three-thousand-year-old silver-and-gold cult figure of a falcon-headed deity from Egypt’s 19th dynasty, a limestone Assyrian relief unearthed in Nimrud and the splendid Sanguszko Carpet from Iran. Each artwork is labelled in English and Japanese and there are explanatory leaflets in some of the galleries, but the overall effect is one of art that is meant to be experienced for its intrinsic beauty rather than its historical or cultural import.
There are tours available to the museum but it is better (and very much cheaper) to get there by yourself. From JR Kyoto Station, take a local train on the JR Biwako line (for Nagahama or Maibara) two stops to JR Ishiyama Station (every 10–15min; 13min; ¥230). Buses (50min; ¥800), run by the Teisan Bus Company, leave for the museum from outside Ishiyama Station’s south exit. On weekdays, buses leave at ten minutes past the hour between 9.10am and 1.10pm. If you miss the last bus, you’ll have to take a taxi, which is quite expensive (¥6000). On Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays, the weekday timetable is supplemented by buses at 9.50am and 2.55pm.
Though only a short bus ride north from Kyoto, the collection of temples that make up ŌHARA (大原) is almost in a different world. All are sub-temples of Enryaku-ji, but the atmosphere here is quite different: instead of stately cedar forests, these little temples are surrounded by maples and flower-filled gardens, fed by tumbling streams. The sights are divided into two sections: the easterly Sanzen-in and the melancholy Jakkō-in across the rice fields.