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Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, and it’s this rich history that visitors flock to the city to experience. From the countless Buddhist temples standing proud over half a millennium after being built, to the stunning cherry blossom trees that light the sky with impossible colours, and the numerous gardens, wooden huts, and untouched palaces that flank the city – immersing yourself in the wonders of Kyoto is like stepping back in time.
See: Maruyama Park is the best place to see the beautiful cherry blossom trees that dot the city. A large weeping cherry blossom in the centre of the park is illuminated by lights every evening.
Eat: Kyoto’s Kitchen is a bright, somewhat-hidden street in Central Kyoto, filled with restaurants serving delicious food for those on a budget.
Drink: Experience traditional tea ceremony at one of the many tea houses dotted throughout Kyoto.
History: Nishi Honganji, a Buddhist temple built over 400 years ago, will help you put your spiritual malaise in perspective.
Relax: Sit centimetres from a flowing stream while enjoying the unique social experience that is ‘Kawayuka’.
Shopping: The Toji Temple flea markets are held every month, without fail, on the 21st.
Art & Culture: The Kyoto National Museum preserves countless rare and cultural significant pieces of local and historical artwork.
For an easy one-stop introduction to the region’s impressive history, you could do a lot worse than stopping in at the Kyoto National Museum, which presents numerous exhibitions of art and history throughout the year, or by visiting the recently-opened Kyoto Railway Museum – for a more transport-based history lesson.
For those wishing to interact with the area’s past in a more direct way, there are an embarrassment of temples, castles, and streets that hark from a distant era, such as the Kyoto Imperial Palace — which housed the Imperial Family until 1868 — or the Nijo Castle: built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period, which spanned two-and-a-half centuries. If you are lucky enough to check out the castle during March and April you will be greeted by a rush of beautiful cherry blossoms which dot the castle grounds and bloom in brilliant colours during this period.
Offering a true traditional experience, the famous geisha district, Gion, is a tourist favourite. A number of old style Japanese machiya houses and ochaya tea houses remain throughout the neighbourhood, and geisha girls can still be seen wandering the streets in full traditional clothing.
For history that still thrives, be sure to visit Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji, two Buddhist temples built in 1591 and 1601 respectfully, both of which are still used to this day by two different factions of one of Japan’s largest Buddhist sects.
Located on the western outskirts of the city, Arashiyama is a must do for any Kyoto visit. Particularly popular during the cherry blossom season in late March/early April and autumn colour season in mid to late November, the district offers a variety of experiences all year round. During the summer months, traditional cormorant fishing is practiced on the Hozu River for tourists to watch, and in December thousands of lanterns illuminate the streets and bamboo groves during Hanatoro.
Other highlights include UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tenryuji Temple and its surrounding gardens; Arashiyama’s famous bamboo groves;
and Iwatayama Monkey Park, an open area with over a hundred Japanese macaque monkeys roaming freely, located in the mountains, providing stunning views of the city below.
As is often the case with thriving cities with a historical bend, the shopping in Kyoto blends high end fashion with quirky craft; home-spun wares with technology seemingly beamed in from the future. The main shopping district is along Shijo Street in Central Kyoto, and is a perfect example of the above blend of low and high end wares – including a Louis Vuitton outlet and the Takashimaya department store.
For more high-end retail the Porta underground mall is near Kyoto Station, as is The Cube shopping centre – but those looking for a more rustic shopping experience should head to the eastern Higashiyama District, which finds a variety of vendors selling hand-crafted wares, colourful local clothing, delicious food, and world-famous Kiyomizu-yaki pottery.
One of the most interesting culinary traditions in Kyoto has little to do with the actual food and a lot to do with the setting. ‘Kawayuka’ is the pastime of eating meals on platforms built just above fast flowing water. Originating as a way to cool down during the summer months, the experience is also a calming one. The most popular place in Kyoto to experience this sensory rush is at any number of restaurants along the Kamogawa River.
In terms of local cuisine, Shojin Ryori is your best bet for a delicious meal draped in history – the Buddhist monks invented the tofu-based series of dishes based on their belief that taking the life of an animal should be strictly prohibited. When in Kyoto…
Posted by Nathan Jolly | Images from ShutterStock
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