Kyoto, meaning Capital, was founded by Korean immigrants before becoming the capital of Japan in 794. In the 8th century, due to the growing influence and ambition of the Nara Buddhist leaders, which threatened the stability of the regime, Emperor Kammu decided to move the capital from Nara to Nagaoka, and then from Nagaoka to Kyoto. The city remained Japan’s main administrative centre for over 1,000 years until 1868, when Tokyo became the government seat.
Built on the model of Xi’an (historically Chang’an), China’s capital during Tang dynasty, Kyoto lies in a mountainous area surrounded by three small mountains at 1000 meters above sea level, and three rivers that serve as natural guardians. Most of the temples were built during the Kamakura Shogunate (1192-1333), named after the city of Kamakura, where the first shogun Minamoto Yoritomo set up his military headquarters. New religious orientations, including Zen Buddhism, have also emerged.
Being one of the few Japanese cities that were not bombed by American airstrike during the Second World War, Kyoto combines tradition with modern life and urbanisation with ancient architecture and beauty of nature. Unfortunately, natural phenomena such as earthquakes and fires, along with the conflicts that led to the wars, have affected the city, so most of its historic buildings date back no earlier than the 17th century.
However, a visit to Kyoto will give you the opportunity to choose between 2,000 places of worship (1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto Shrines), palaces, bamboo forests, gardens and parks with cherry blossoms in spring or multicolored trees during fall – probably two of the most suitable seasons to enjoy the wonders of nature in Japan.
How to prepare for a trip to Japan
Sakura (cherry blossoms) is so popular in Japan that if you wish to visit the country in that period, you can follow the cherry blooming forecast on media and weather services long before the season starts. But as both tourists and locals travel across the country to enjoy the flowering season, it is advisable to make your reservations much in advance.
For example, for my trip to Japan in April 2016, I booked the flight tickets and the hotel as early as August 2015. However, I hardly found a ryokan (Japanese-style hotel) in Kyoto at JPY 12,900 ($115) per night for a double room. There are many non-stop or connecting flights to Japan from almost all the major European cities, especially to Tokyo or Osaka, it all depends on the budget or the comfort you want.
And since you probably want to see more of Japan than just one city, the best choice is to buy a Japan Rail Pass before your departure – note that you cannot buy one in Japan, as it is specially designed for tourists. The JR Pass can be used on many of the Japanese trains, including the bullet train, as well as on some metro lines in Tokyo.
What not to miss in Kyoto
Kyoto was a wonderful surprise, as it exceeds all expectations. Although I have heard and read many things about the city of the Golden Temple, the harmony between old and new, between city life and nature is so well balanced, as you rarely find elsewhere. Therefore, for a first-time visitor to Japan, I recommend a stay of at least 5-6 days in Kyoto.
What I find not to be missed, after spending five days in the ancient capital of Japan are the two temples, named after some of the most precious metals in the world – the Golden and Silver Temple. But Kyoto is certainly a city with many places to discover.
If you want to make your travel across the city easier, it is best to visit the points of interest according to the area they are located, taking the bus. The tickets can be purchased directly from the driver with JPY 500 ($4.5) for a one-day ticket. You can also take the metro, but the buses are very convenient, especially because they give you the opportunity to see more of the city.
On the eastern part of Kyoto is the famous Buddhist temple and UNESCO world heritage site Kiyomizu-dera. During the cherry blossom season, you can even enjoy its view at night, as the hilltop temple more than 1000 years old remains open until 9 PM.
From Kiyomizu-dera to Maruyama Park, we walked the narrow streets of Higashiyama Ward, a well-preserved historic district with wooden houses and shops where you can buy traditional crafts and Japanese sweets – which, by the way, are the best I ever tasted. The whole area is rich in temples and shrines, so you can easily spend a whole day here.
If you cross Maruyama Park to the north, you can see the steep stairs of Chion-in Temple, the real-life location of Emperor Meiji’s palace in Tokyo in The Last Samurai movie. At the edge of the park is the famous Yasaka Shrine, a Shinto shrine founded in 656. From here, we stepped into the popular Gion district, also known as the Geisha district.
In the expensive teahouses and restaurants lined along Hanami-koji Street and Shirakawa Canal, one might catch a glimpse of a Geiko (dialect for geisha) or Maiko (geiko apprentices) entertaining the guests. Usually, geishas can be seen in the evening rushing from one place to another to meet their host engagements. You can even meet one in person if you are ready to pay a large amount of money. Or you can attend a show with music, drama plays and dances performed by maiko for a more affordable price at Gion Corner, at the end of Hanami-koji Street.
Further north of Maruyama Park along the eastern mountains of Kyoto is the Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion). The 15th-century Zen temple, set on a hill with its fairytale garden and a sculpted mound of sand, offers a magical atmosphere away from the crowds of tourists and the hot streets. It is so peaceful and beautiful in its simplicity that you may feel the desire to lie down on the soft moss and to never wake up.
From the temple, we headed down a narrow street filled with shops and restaurants until we reached the so-called Philosopher’s Walk – a 2 km path lined with cherry trees along the Shishigatani Canal. In spring, the canal is covered with cherry blossoms petals, turning into a pink carpet. Although the footway is crowded with tourists and probably you will not be able to hear your philosophical thoughts, it is a must-see place.
In the centre of Kyoto is the former residence of the Imperial Family – Kyoto Imperial Palace and Sento Imperial Palace – located in the Kyoto Gyoen National Garden, a large park that stretches over 89,000 m2. The Imperial Palace had to be reconstructed in 1855, following a fire that burned it to the ground. In 1868, when the Tokugawa Shogunate lost power, and Imperial rule was restored, the capital, along with Emperor Meiji, moved to Tokyo.
Until recently, Kyoto Imperial Palace was accessible only by guided tours with prior reservation, but the rule was removed since August 2016. You can visit the Palace and gardens free of charge and without a guide, but the buildings cannot be entered.
Sento Imperial Palace is adjacent to the Kyoto Imperial Palace and was later built in 1630 as a retirement palace for emperors. Today, Sento Palace is used as the lodging place of the Imperial Family when visiting Kyoto, so you still need to make advance reservations for a guided tour before entering the premises. Bookings can be made at the Imperial Household Agency’s Office in Kyoto Imperial Park.
After about 30 minutes walk from Kyoto Imperial Palace, crossing the Imperial Park and then Marutamachi Street, we reached the Nijo Castle. The castle is a fortified citadel with two palaces, Ninomaru and Honmaru, and beautiful gardens surrounded by stone walls. UNESCO has designated it as a world heritage site among sixteen other historic monuments of ancient Kyoto.
Nijo Castle was built in 1603, after Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu seized complete power and ordered its construction. It remained the residence of the Tokugawa shoguns until 1868, when it became an Imperial property under the Meiji Restoration.
The famous Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), located in northern Kyoto, was initially a residential villa purchased by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu at the end of the 14th century. After his death in 1408, the building was transformed by his son into a Zen Buddhist temple, according to the wishes expressed by Yoshimitsu.
The Golden Pavilion, a historic monument itself, was built on three levels, the last two being gold-plated. At the top of the building, a golden Phoenix carved in bronze guards the temple, scrutinizing the horizon like a bird of prey. Kinkaku-ji inspired the construction of the Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion), built several decades later by Shogun Yoshimitsu’s grandson.
Although the buildings around the temple have often been affected by fire throughout history, the Golden Pavilion has remained untouched until the 20th century. In 1950, a troubled Buddhist student set the temple on fire, declaring at the trial that the reason for such an act was his hatred of beauty. The temple was restored in 1955 based on its initial structure.
When I visited the Golden Pavilion its grace struck me. Not even the crowds of tourists could overshadow its elegance. Just like the character in Yukio Mishima’s book The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, I could only envy its presence in the world, but not in a destructive and egocentric way but in complete admiration of its eternal beauty.
Going westwards from Kinkaku-ji Temple, we reached the impressive mountainous district of Arashiyama, a landmark of Kyoto and a very attractive place for visitors during the cherry blossoms and autumn coloured trees’ season.
You can easily spend a whole day here by taking a boat tour on the Oi River, or strolling through the beautiful riverside park, visiting temples and hiking uphill. Once here, you should not miss a walk through a cool bamboo forest on a hot day. A 15-minute footpath crosses the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, giving the observer the impression that he stands in an enormous green temple.
If you are in Kyoto with your children (but not only then), you must climb Mount Arashiyama to see Iwatayama Monkey Park. The entrance to the park is on the left bank of the river. From here, you have to follow a 20-minute trail up the mountain. On the top plateau, you can enjoy the view of Kyoto surrounded by friendly macaque monkeys.
As a bonus to this trip to Kyoto is, of course, a visit to Nara, located less than an hour by train from Kyoto. We took the bullet train and visited the main attractions in Nara: the famous Tōdai-ji Temple (Great Eastern Temple) and Nara Park.
Tōdai-ji Temple, constructed in 752, houses an impressive 15 meters statue of Buddha, made all of bronze. But the most delightful surprise was the encounter with the “guards” of the temple, the hundreds of deer that wander freely through the vast Nara Park and demand food from visitors.
If you manage to get to Kyoto, it would be a pity not to visit Nara, the ancient capital of Japan (710-784). Certainly the deer will welcome you and lead you triumphantly in their world at the gates of the temple.