Introducing Kyoto

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The capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, KYOTO (京都) is endowed with an almost overwhelming legacy of ancient Buddhist temples, majestic palaces and gardens of every size and description, not to mention some of the country’s most important works of art, its richest culture and most refined cuisine. For many people the very name Kyoto conjures up the classic image of Japan: streets of traditional wooden houses, the click-clack of geta (traditional wooden sandals) on the paving stones, geisha passing in a flourish of brightly coloured silks and temple pagodas surrounded by cherry blossom trees.

While you can still find all these things, and much more, first impressions of Kyoto can be disappointing. Decades of haphazard urban development and a conspicuous industrial sector have affected the city, eroding the distinctive characteristics of the townscape. However, current regulations limiting the height of new buildings and banning rooftop advertising indicate that more serious thought is being given to preserving Kyoto’s visual environment. Yet, regardless of all the trappings of the modern world and the economic realities of the lingering recession, Kyoto remains notoriously exclusive, a place where outsiders struggle to peek through the centuries-thick layer of cultural sophistication into the city’s traditional soul.

The vast amount of culture and history to explore in Kyoto is mind-boggling, yet it’s perfectly possible to get a good feel for the city within a couple of days. Top priority should go to the eastern, Higashiyama, district, where the walk north from famous Kiyomizu-dera to Ginkaku-ji takes in a whole raft of fascinating temples, gardens and museums. It’s also worth heading for the northwestern hills to contemplate the superb Zen gardens of Daitoku-ji and Ryōan-ji, before taking in the wildly extravagant Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. The highlight of the central sights is Nijō-jō, a lavishly decorated seventeenth-century palace, while nearby Nijō-jin’ya is an intriguing place riddled with secret passages and hidey-holes. Also worth seeing are the imperial villas of Shūgaku-in Rikyū and Katsura Rikyū, and the sensuous moss gardens of Saihō-ji, in the outer districts. Take time to walk around the city’s old merchant quarters; one of the best is found in the central district, behind the department stores and modern shopping arcades north of Shijō-dōri, and across the river in Gion you’ll find the traditional crafts shops, selling everything from handmade bamboo blinds to geisha hair accessories, and beautiful old ryokan for which the city is justifiably famous.

The spirit of old Kyoto reveals itself in surprising places. The key to enjoying this ancient city is to leave the tourist haunts behind and delve into the quiet backstreets, to explore age-old craft shops and distinctive machiya houses or seek out the peaceful garden of some forgotten temple. However, the city is not all temples and tradition; the recently opened Kyoto International Museum of Manga, alongside the increasing number of innovative designer shops and stylish cafés, are examples of Kyoto’s modern spirit, showing how the city manages to combine its heritage with contemporary culture.

Spring and autumn are undoubtedly the best times to visit Kyoto, though also the busiest; after a chilly winter, the cherry trees put on their finery in early April, while the hot, oppressive summer months (June–Aug) are followed in October by a delightful period of clear, dry weather when the maple trees erupt into fiery reds.

Food culture

Kyoto, as the capital of Japan for over 1200 years, was the kitchen of the Imperial Court. Top-ranking nobles inherited a multitude of refined cuisines, including specialties unique to Kyoto such as elegant “Kyo-kaiseki-ryori,” vegetarian-friendly “Shojin-ryori”, and “Obanzai” for everyday dining. Today, Kyoto remains the home of traditional Japanese cuisine, and there are many specialty eateries for sushi, tempura, soba, and ramen. It was the efforts of Kyoto chefs that resulted in “Washoku,” or Japanese cuisine, being recognized as an intangible heritage by UNESCO in 2013. Kyoto is also famous throughout Japan for traditional Japanese sweets, some of which are used in the Japanese tea ceremony (the tea also comes from Kyoto). Needless to say, eating in Kyoto is a rich and multifaceted experience!

There is a unique regional rule in Kyoto City which is called“Raise toasts with Nihonshu” that was passed in 2013. The purpose of this rule is to promote various traditional industries in Kyoto by using locally-produced Nihonshu (sake) when raising toasts, and in so doing contribute to Japanese culture.

Read more Kyoto travel guide at here.

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