Kyoto is a must-visit destination for most people traveling to Japan. As one of the most historical cities in the country, Kyoto induces curiosity in people who wish to explore the authentic allure of the Japanese culture.
Kyoto was initially known as the country’s capital from 794 until 1868—when the capital was relocated to Tokyo. Since then, time has bestowed the city with unparalleled stories featuring historic relics, temples, and Shinto shrines that remain intact today. The whole of Kyoto is known as the Japan’s cultural center, with Kiyomizu Temple, Nijō Castle and Kinkaku-ji being among the most famous tourist spots here. Apart from being home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, the charisma that Kyoto exudes is irresistible to visitors. Walking through Gion and meeting geikos all dolled up, roaming Hanamikoji Street to feel the vibe of the Edo period still alive, or putting on kimono and enjoying a classic Kyoto Kaiseki-Ryōri meal will all take you back to the ancient times.
Even though Kyoto is not large, it has a rich and diverse landscape of mountains and waters. The Katsura River goes through Arashiyama and meets the Kamogawa at the south, and Lake Biwa of Shiga Prefecture borders Kyoto at its east. To this day, we can still see the spectacular Roman-style aqueduct of Lake Biwa around Nanzen-ji.
When it comes to food, Kyoto cuisine places emphasis on seasonal ingredients and artistic presentations, adding another dimension to the city’s elegant charm. Kaiseki-Ryōri, tofu dishes, and Kyoto pickles are among the local specialties. In Kyoto, you can taste the delicious wild mountain veggies and tofu, sip Sake made with Fushimi water, dine at the 3-Michelin starred Kyoto Kitcho in Arashiyama, or enjoy an affordable bowl of unagi rice at Hirokawa. Simply put, Kyoto offers an amazing experience to food lovers.
When in Kyoto, you can fully immerse yourself in the city where historic times and modern civilization co-exist.
Holy encounters at temples and Shinto shrines
The elegant and serene temples of Kyoto are among the best in all of Japan, each with its own story to tell. Tōfuku-ji is the largest and most historical temple of Kyoto, Tō-ji is what’s left of Heian-kyō, and Ninna-ji is known for the most exquisite paintings on its sliding doors. The renowned Yukio Mishima wrote about Kinkaku-ji in his novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The famous Japanese expression “tojump off the Kiyomizu-dera stage” references the wooden stage of Kiyomizu-dera.
Shinto shrines in Kyoto are first-rate attractions on their own. They are often laid out in a creative manner, and gods are worshipped in all kinds of ways. Some of Kyoto’s Shinto shrines also host gardens and bazaars, and revive historic games and traditions. People often visit Shinto shrines to ask for specific blessings, such as visiting Tenman-gū to ask the god of scholars for admission to a dream school, visiting Okazaki shrine to pray for a baby, or visiting Kurumazaki shrine to help them improve their craft. You can visit a Shinto shrine at any time, put in a 5 yen coin, then press your palms together and make a wish.
Authentic Kaiseki-ryōri meal to kick off your trip
One does not get to fully appreciate Kyoto without a proper Kaiseki-ryōri meal. Many Michelin-starred Kaiseki-ryōri restaurants are located here, though they maintain a relatively low profile. Chihana, is hidden deep in a busy shopping area in Gion, and one must pass dark alleys to get here. Meanwhile, Kikunoi and Hyotei are located in secluded areas. Almost all these restaurants are strictly by reservation only, however, and it can take anywhere from several months to half a year to book a table.
The concept of Shun, which means “the best season,” is fundamental for Kaiseki-ryōri. It’s all about creating dishes using the freshest ingredients of the season, such as bamboo shoots and clams in spring, sweetfish and peaches in summer, matsutake mushrooms and sardines in autumn, and oysters and radish in winter.
Kaiseki-ryōri is the ultimate Japanese dining experience. By now, Kaiseki-ryōri has greatly deviated from its originally impoverished connotations back when monks had to hold warmed stones against their bellies to fend off hunger. Generations of Ryōri-jin—people who prepare meals—elaborated the tradition, injecting their own forms of craftsmanship. Instead of being chefs, a professional title that sounded cold and emotionless, Ryōri-jin became more like food artists, magically transforming the simple activity of eating into a beautiful event. To appreciate the great feast and amount of preparation put into a meal, press your palms together and say “Gochisousama” to your Ryōri-jin. This means “Thank you for the wonderful meal.”
Kyoto’s three main Matsuri (Festivals) and city parades
Matsuri in Japanese means “festival.” Aoi Matsuri or Hollyhock Festival, Gion Matsuri or Gion Festival, and Jidai Matsuri or Festival of the Ages are three of the biggest annual Matsuri of Kyoto. Today, they have turned into major cosplay events. Gion Matsuri, held on July 17th, is the most popular of the festivals. It dates back to the Heian Period at the end of the 9th century, during a time of plague. In order to exorcise the demon to which the plague was attributed to, people carried the god statue in Yasaka Shrine on the streets, paraded it around the city of Kyoto, and prayed for recovery. To this day, people still destroy the beautifully made Yamahoko after the Matsuri, believing it gathers the bad luck of the entire city and that destroying it will make the bad fortune go away.
The fervor for these festivals is one of things that make Kyoto so enchanting. If you wish to experience a city festival in Japan, visit the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto!
Travel back in time in kimono and geta
Kyoto is probably the only city where one can dress up in kimono and still blend in perfectly. This is not only true in the historic Machiya lanes, ryōtei, and hotels, but also in Kyoto’s modern subways, department stores, and buses!
If you’ve always wanted to try wearing a kimono for the day, doing so in Kyoto is ideal. The Gion and Kiyomizu Temple area host millions of kimono rentals every year, covering various price points and styles. Many places even offer the complete Oiran and Maiko cosplay experience. For an unforgettable vacation, put on Komon or Furisode in the springtime and roam under sakura blossoms, dress up in yukata for the Gion Matsuri in summer, or appreciate the autumn red maple leaves in Nanzan-ji wearing geta.
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Article by Angel Natalia
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