The Savvy & Fine Guide to the Best of KYOTO
Kyoto is a city of two thousand temples, shogun castles, creaky teahouses, beautiful Zen gardens, kimono-clad women walking on the mysterious streets of Gion...and glorious food. In this ancient capital of Japan, you will find reminders of its past around every corner. It is a city that shows Japanese culture and traditions at its best.
There is so much to see and experience in Kyoto and this guide will point you to the top places to see when in this fascinating city.
Nijo Castle, one of Kyoto’s most popular and impressive sights, was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace for a while before being donated to the city and opened up to the public as a historic site.
The castle is known for its lovely gardens as well as groves of plum and cherry trees. Nijo Castle has also been used as a film location for several Japanese and foreign productions, including Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai.
KYOTO IMPERIAL PALACE
The Imperial Palace served as the official residence of the Emperor of Japan from the 12th century until 1868 when the emperor and capital were moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. The real draw here is, however, the lush park filled with flowering trees, grassed areas, and carp ponds.
The gold-plated pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, rising over its reflecting pool has become a symbol of Kyoto. Kinkaku-ji was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and was built to echo the extravagant Kitayama culture that developed in the wealthy aristocratic circles of Kyoto during Yoshimitsu's times. According to his will it became a Zen temple after his death in 1408.
One of the most impressive sights in Kyoto, Fushimi-Inari Shrine is famous for its magical, seemingly unending path of over 5,000 vibrant orange torii gates that wind through the hills behind the shrine. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, and also features dozens of fox statues across the shrine grounds. Foxes are thought to be Inari's messengers.
MARUYAMA PARK CHERRY BLOSSOMS
When the cherry trees are in full bloom, the Maruyama Park becomes Kyoto's most popular spot for cherry blossom viewing. There are almost 700 various kinds of cherry trees but the centerpiece of the park is the tall 90-year-old weeping cherry tree that is lit at night.
Gion is Kyoto's famous entertainment and geisha quarter on the bank of the Kamo-gawa river. Here is one of Kyoto's most beautiful streets, Shimbashi, lined with 17th-century traditional teahouses, many of which are establishments of geisha entertainment.
You may get a glimpse of a geisha here, even though many who look like them, are tourists who pay for get made up as geisha. In fact in Kyoto, they are not called geisha, rather, they are called maiko, the trainee, and a fully fledged geiko. You can spot the difference by their clothing and hair. Maiko wear elaborate long-sleeve kimono, while geiko wear a simpler kimono with shorter sleeves. Geiko wear wigs with minimal ornamentation, while maiko wear their own hair in an elaborate style and many bright hair ornaments.
The Philosopher's Path follows a canal which is lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Lining the path are boutique shops, restaurants and ice cream stands.
TRADITIONAL JAPANESE ARTS
Gion Corner is a great place to get a quick introduction to Japanese traditional arts, offering a one-hour show that includes a bit of ta ceremony, ikebana, comic plays, puppet theatre and maiko dance.
KYOTO NISHIKI MARKET
Nishiki market, or commonly known as Kyoto's Kitchen covers five blocks of downtown Kyoto packed with pickles, vegetables, tofu doughnuts, seafood, and trinkets.
Kyoto has a buzzing food scene and you can find every possible Japanese food you crave. For melt-in-your-mouth tempura, head to Michelin-starred Tenyu. It is a small place and you sit around the bar with the chef performing with an elegance and finesse, preparing tempura right in front of you. The sizzling sound of vegetables and seafood being cooked, the chef’s attention focused on the client and in sync with his cooking and the customers' pace of eating - absolute perfection.