Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, is a city on the island of Honshu. Although it’s one of Japan’s great tourist destinations, it has managed to preserve much of the atmosphere of the past, having been the only major Japanese city to escape the devastation of WWII. While the rest of Japan has adopted modernity with abandon, the old ways are still clinging on in Kyoto. With its roots as the cultural capital of the country, it's no surprise that many traditional arts and crafts are kept alive by artisans from generation to generation. Wander the streets downtown, through historic Gion and past machiya (traditional Japanese townhouses) in the Nishijin textile district to find ancient specialty shops from tofu sellers, washi (Japanese handmade paper) and tea merchants, to exquisite lacquerware, handcrafted copper chazutsu (tea canisters) and indigo-dyed noren (hanging curtains). Kyoto is famous for its numerous classical Buddhist temples, as well as gardens, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines and traditional wooden houses. Kyoto contains roughly 2,000 temples and shrines. A city of true masterpieces of religious architecture, such as the retina-burning splendor of Kinkaku-ji (the famed Golden Pavilion) and the cavernous expanse of Higashi Hongan-ji. It's where robed monks shuffle between temple buildings, prayer chants resonate through stunning Zen gardens, and the faithful meditate on tatami-mat floors. Even as the modern city buzzes and shifts all around, a waft of burning incense, or the sight of a bright vermillion torii gate marking a shrine entrance, are regular reminders that Kyoto remains the spiritual heart of Japan.
Few cities of this size pack such a punch when it comes to their culinary cred, and at its heart is Nishiki Market ('Kyoto's Kitchen'). Kyoto is crammed with everything from Michelin-starred restaurants, chic cocktail bars, cool cafes and sushi spots to food halls, izakaya (Japanese pub-eateries), craft-beer bars and old-school noodle joints. Splurge on the impossibly refined cuisine known as kaiseki while gazing over your private garden, taste the most delicate tempura in a traditional building, slurp down steaming bowls of ramen elbow-to-elbow with locals, then slip into a sugar coma from a towering matcha (powdered green tea) sundae.
Things to do
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
As far as Shinto shrines go (there are about 400 in Kyoto), this one is pretty special. Perched on a wooded hillside in southern Kyoto, Fushimi Inari is a 1,300-year-old temple dedicated to Inari, the Shinto deity of rice and sake (Japanese rice wine). The shrine complex dates back to the 8th century but most visitors come for the close to 10,000 red and orange lacquered torii gates that line the 2.5-mile-long path up Mount Inari, where the shrine sits. It takes about three hours to make the trek up the mountain but it is definitely worth it!
Recent visitors to Gion are wowed by its quaintness. This neighborhood is known for its charming historic features: historic tea houses, willow-lined roads, kaiseki (Japanese haute-cuisine) restaurants, wooden ryokan (Japanese guest houses) and shops selling local crafts and antiques. But all of those things are secondary to Gion’s real source of fame — the geisha. Visitors to Gion may catch a glimpse of these extravagantly dressed women flitting between tea houses on wooden-sandaled feet.
Every day, hundreds of people visit Ryoanji Temple to see its Zen rock garden — which is probably the most famous of its kind in Japan. Located in Kyoto’s northern outskirts, the temple was built in 1450. Its white pebbles, which surround 15 larger rocks, were laid sometime during the Muromachi period (1392-1573). From any vantage point, at least one of the garden’s 15 rocks is obscured from view. But why? “In Buddhism, the number 15 signifies completion, which is not thought to be possible in this world.” However, visitors are invited to come to their own conclusions about the garden’s deeper meaning. Along with viewing the rock garden, you can explore the temple’s grounds, which include a 1,000-year-old pond fringed with lily pads and tree-lined walking trails. There is also a restaurant on site that serves Yudofu, a tofu dish that is a specialty in Kyoto.
After years of bitter strife, the aging samurai lord Tokugawa Ieyasu finally wrested power from Japan’s many warring clans and unified them at the turn of the 17th century. Upon being proclaimed Shogun (feudal military dictator) of Japan in 1603, Ieyasu constructed a palace that would reflect his supreme power. Nijo Castle in central Kyoto was certainly ostentatious enough to fit the bill. Unlike other noble homes of the day, Tokugawa’s gleaming white structure — decorated with ornate wood carvings — was built for show, not for defense. Even the palace’s moat and inner wall stood not as defensive structures, but rather as examples of the shogun’s exclusivity; only Japan’s highest-ranking officials were allowed into the castle’s inner sanctum.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
Its top two floors swathed in gold leaf, the Golden Pavilion sits pretty in Kyoto’s northern reaches, overlooking the glassy surface of Mirror Lake. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu lived in the gilded structure in the late 14th and early 15th centuries after he passed political power down to his son, Ashikaga Yoshimochi. When his father died, Yoshimochi had the pavilion converted into a Buddhist temple. However, in 1950, an extremist monk set the golden temple aflame, reducing it to smoldering ashes. What now stands is a replica of Kinkaku-ji that was built in 1955. Many people note the gorgeous natural scenery surrounding Kinkaku-ji; the golden temple reflecting in the smooth lake makes for a great photo, no matter the season.
Kyoto National Museum
The Kyoto National Museum is one of the major art museums in Japan. Located in Kyoto’s Higashiyama ward, the museum focuses on pre-modern Japanese and Asian art. The museum was originally built to house and display art treasures privately owned by temples and shrines, as well as items donated by the Imperial Household Ministry. The museum focuses on mainly pre-modern Japanese works (it is said to have the largest collection of Heian period artifacts) and Asian art. The museum is also well known for its collections of rare and ancient Chinese and Japanese sutras. The museum is divided into three parts; fine arts, handicrafts, and archaeology.
A Kaiseki restaurant that dates back to the Edo period (17th to 19th century), Nakamura is run by the 6th generation of owner-chefs. This three-Michelin-star restaurant serves Kaiseki courses in a traditional setting, in rooms laid with tatami mats, where guests sit on cushions on the floor and eat at low tables. Nakamura uses only the freshest local ingredients, to ensure that the taste is at its most flavorful. It has a menu that changes with the seasons, using ingredients available at different times of the year for their dishes.
A three-Michelin-star establishment, Hyotei has been situated on the grounds of the Nanzenji Temple since the 17th century. It is a family-run establishment, and the current owner-chef is the 14th generation to serve at the Kaiseki restaurant. Kaiseki is a type of Japanese cuisine created in Kyoto, with a philosophy of the balance of taste, texture, appearance, and color. Hyotei uses local ingredients and adds almost no seasoning to them, in order to bring out their delicate flavors. The signature egg dishes, as well as kaiseki cuisine, asagayu rice porridge and box lunches address contemporary needs but preserve Hyotei’s legacy and never compromise on culinary traditions. They offer the finest of Kyoto cuisine while remaining true to their traditions and preserving the philosophy of the tea ceremony.
Yonemura is a fusion restaurant that mixes local ingredients and Japanese cooking styles with western ones. The restaurant is located in Gion, the district where geishas are trained and one of the most popular destinations for international tourists in Kyoto.
Dress code: Business casual
Address: 481-1 Kiyoicho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0821, Japan
Hours: Lunch 12: 00-11: 00 (LO) Dinner 5: 30-9: 00 (LO) Closed Friday and Tuesday.
If you’re craving something more familiar to a western palette, visit Motoï, a one-Michelin-star French restaurant located in a former private residence. Looking at the traditional Japanese building, with its wooden-panelled walls and oriental tiled roof, you would never know that it houses an elegant, modern French restaurant. Motoï mixes French cuisine with Japanese ingredients, to give a local twist to French cuisine.
Summer in Japan lasts from about June to mid-September, depending on the location. Summers are hot and humid, with temperatures ranging from approximately 21-32°C (70-90 °F). Mid-June starts the rainy season and lasts for about six weeks. July and August are typically the hottest and most humid times of year, and can be uncomfortable for sightseeing if you are averse to humidity. August is the season for summer festivals. Spring (March – May) sees a lot of the country ablaze with beautiful white and pink cherry blossom, celebrated with an increasingly popular festival. Temperatures during these months begin to rise and it is before the hot rainy season. Autumn is from September to November and is characterized by light breezes and cooler temperatures of around 7-10°C (46-50°F). It’s during autumn that many exhibitions, music concerts and sports tournaments are held in Japan. Early autumn brings the typhoon season which amounts in heavy rainfall. Japan’s weather in winter, from December to February, is quite dry and sunny along the Pacific coast and the temperatures rarely drop below 0°C (32°F). The temperatures drop as you move north, with the Central and Northern regions experiencing snowfall. Southern Japan is relatively temperate and experiences a mild winter. The mountains are covered in snow and it is a good time for skiing.
There are some cultural taboos that are important to know as a foreigner before traveling to Japan or any Asian country. It’s best to know ahead of time what is expected of you before someone accuses you of being rude! Here are a few rules of etiquette that could help you when you are traveling to Japan.
Bowing is one of Japan’s most well-known customs and can be used for a number of reasons. The most common reason is when you meet someone. Bowing is used in the same way as a handshake in other parts of the world. Bowing is also used when thanking someone or apologizing. The deeper the bow, the more respectful!
When you enter a Japanese home or restaurant, it is custom to remove your shoes and put on slippers that are provided for you. What one must remember is that the Asian lifestyle is mainly centered around the floor. The tables are low and they sit on the floor to eat, sleep and do all their activities. That’s why it is so important to have clean and warm floors.
Chopstick etiquette is very important in Japanese culture. Never use your chopsticks to point at someone, never wave them in the air or stab food with them. If you have a chopstick rest, you must use it with your chopsticks placed neatly together. Don’t use your chopsticks to take food from a communal plate or pass food with your chopsticks.
Avoid leaving tips at restaurants, bars or in taxis. The fact is, tipping is simply not expected – it’s really not a part of Japanese culture – so if you leave a tip it will only cause confusion, and almost definitely won’t be accepted!
If you wish to travel to Japan from Europe, the UK, the United States of America or Australia, you can enter Japan without a visa for a total of 90 days. You must have a valid passport and an onward/return ticket for tourist/business “visa free” stays of up to 90 days. Your passports must be valid for the entire time you are staying in Japan.
If you are wanting to travel to Japan and you are from South Africa, you must apply for a visa. The following documents are required when applying for a visa to Japan: a valid passport, completed application form, passport-size photograph, complete flight schedule and return air ticket. Tourists applying for a Japanese visa will require in addition a daily itinerary, hotel bookings and a letter from the bank stating you have sufficient funds. Please allow time for the visa to be accepted and your passport to be sent back to you.
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