THE most evocative of Japanese cities, Kyoto conjures up images of sweeping pagoda roofs, Zen Buddhist monks in divine contemplation and serene geishas gazing from behind decorated fans. The ancient Japanese capital – it ruled from the 9th to the 19th Century – draws huge numbers of foreign travellers every year, eager to experience Kyoto’s exotic delights.
Every visitor should include a stay in a ryokan. One of the finest is the elegant Hiiragiya Ryokan, Anekouji agaru, Fuyamachi. Hiiragiya’s 33 tatami-mat rooms, complete with paper latticework, lacquered furnishings and comfy futons, are set amid serene Japanese gardens in an original 19th Century wooden building. There are en-suite facilities, a communal same-sex ofuro (hot bath) and the per-person rate, 32,000-90,000 Yen (US$410-1,150), includes two kaiseki meals (Japanese haute-cuisine). The excellent and cheaper Motonago Ryokan, 511 Washio-cho, Kodaiji-michi, has 11 Japanese style rooms with similar frills (two kaiseki meals, ofuro,) 15,000-19,000 Yen per person. For Western-style accommodation, Kyoto’s top ranked hotel, the Westin Miyako, Sanjo, Keage, has double rooms from 17,500 Yen.
Kyoto is famed for its kyo-ryori kaiseki dining. Nishisaka, Gion Hanami Komichi, serves superb kyo-ryori – several courses of soup, tempura, fish and tofu, beautifully presented on lacquered decorative plates, 4,000-9,000 Yen (US$50-115).
Another version of kaiseki is shojin-ryori (temple food). You’ll find the best in the calming environs of Chosho-in, a sub-temple of the great Zen Buddhist Nanzen-ji temple. Meditate on carp filled ponds and classic Japanese gardens as kimono-clad waitresses serve an elaborate set lunch of tofu, fu (wheat gluten) and mushrooms, 3,000 Yen (11am-4pm daily). The Ponto-cho entertainment district is where you’ll find dozens of cheap noodleries and izakayas (pubs with food). There are two kaiten (conveyor-belt) sushi bars at the junction of Kawaramachi-dori and Sanjo-dori.
Kyoto is the crucible of many of Japan’s traditional arts – there’s no better place to sample the refined culture of Kabuki and the geisha.
The Gion district is the home of Minami-za, Japan’s oldest Kabuki theatre. The annual Kao-mise festival (1-25 December) is held here and attracts the best Kabuki actors from around Japan. Other performances are held throughout the year – contact the JNTO (see below) for details.
The atmospheric back streets of Gion are where you’re likely to see geishas and maikos (apprentice geishas) hurrying on their way to an evening assignment. Kyoto Sights and Nights arrange private engagements with geishas or maikos (15,000 Yen per person+) and organise geisha walking tours around Gion (3,000 Yen). They also provide tickets for the Odori (public geisha performances) that happen every autumn and spring.
The main shopping precinct, including several department stores, is found at the junction of Shijo-dori and Kawarmachi-dori. There’s dozens of craft shops just west of the river on nearby Sanjo-dori. In east Kyoto local pottery and antiques are for sale in the lanes leading up to Kiyomizu-dera temple. Kyoto specialities are lacquer-ware, silk brocades, roughcast pottery, hair ornaments and bamboo utensils.
Start in Kyoto’s heart at the Imperial Park (daily, dawn-dusk, free) where there’s perfect expansive lawns and the austere Imperial Palace (tours only, 10am & 2pm, Mon-Fri, free, bring ID to apply for permission before entry, a 60 min process). Nearby is the more impressive Nijo-jo castle (daily 9am-5pm, 600 Yen), the opulent home of Shogun Ieyasu.
Head east for the celebrated sand gardens of the Silver Pavilion (daily, 9am-4.30pm, 500Yen) then follow the Path of Philosophy to the Zen gardens of Nanzen-ji temple (daily, 8.40am-4.30am, 500 Yen). Take the tracks at the back of Nanzen-ji into tranquil forests filled with Shinto and Buddhist shrines.
Further south is the awe-inspiring Sanjusangen-do (daily, from Apr to Oct 8am-5pm, from Nov to Mar 9am -4pm, 600 Yen) filled with 1001 gilded statues of the 1000-armed Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon. The Kyoto National Museum (Tues-Sun, 9.30am-4pm, admission fees are vary depending on the exhibition), with its excellent displays of ancient Kyoto arts, is next door.
The shimmering Golden Temple (daily, 9am-5pm, 400 Yen ) is found in the northwest of Kyoto. The nearby Daitoku-ji temple complex houses the famous Zen stone gardens of Daisen-in (daily, 9am-4.30pm, 400 Yen).
The entertainment districts of Gion and Pontocho are stuffed with bars and clubs. However, in traditional izakayas, foreigners are often greeted with suspicion and may not get served.
The less traditional haunts are far more welcoming. Just north of Sanjo-dori, near the Kamo-gawa River, is the pan-Asian themed Katsuryoku-ya isakaya – great place for nibbles and a beer. An alternative is 1950s inspired Kentos, Hitosujime nishi-iru, and for British beer there’s the Pig and Whistle, 115 Ohasi-cho.
Walking is recommended with longer distances easily covered by three subway systems and an extensive bus network. A two-day bus and subway pass (futsuka josha-ken – not valid on private lines) costs 2,000 Yen .
Kyoto Tourist information has a website and two offices in the main railway station, one on the 9th floor (Wed to Mon, 10am-6pm) and another on the 2nd floor (daily, 8.30am-7pm). For info on visiting Japan try the Japanese National Tourist Organisation’s (JNTO) website.