Kyoto is not the top-of-the-mind city to visit when people talk about a holiday to Japan. Is it because people do not understand how beautiful that city is, or do people not prefer the less cosmopolitan part of Japan? The ancient capital of Japan is one with so much hidden charm, so much to discover, so much to experience and take home; everywhere seemed to speak of some sort of mojo.
Maybe it takes a little more understanding about Kyoto, maybe it takes more postcards to entice you and to show you what an adventure the city can offer. For starters, here is our take on 10 things that will make you fall in love with Kyoto:
1. YASAKA SHRINE, ALSO KNOWN AS THE GION SHRINE
More popularly known as the Gion Shrine, the rich hues of Yasaka glistens under the summer sun and stands proudly in the heart of Gion. Every July, Yasake celebrates the Gion Matsuri, Kyoto’s annual summer festival that has a history that dates back over a thousand years.
Look out for the dance stage that is lined with lanterns that bears the names of all its donors; at night, it is a stunning array of lights that lights up the spirit of Kyoto.
If you are lucky to catch the cherry blossoms on specific dates in April, cross the road to Maruyama Park – a park in the vicinity which is arguably the most famous spot to watch the beautiful blooms.
2. KYOTO HAS THE BEST MATCHA DESSERTS
They say when in Kyoto, eat Matcha desserts every day. Why, we couldn’t agree more! Nothing quite like the simple pleasures you get from a tall parfait oozing with Matcha goodness from everything in the glass. We paid homage to the Japanese signature every day during our trip and because there are a thousand and one ways the Japanese could serve Matcha in, we promise there is always something to excite your taste buds.
Our favourite Matcha dessert place is Kyo Hayashiya, an established tea house and dessert cafe just a stone’s throw from Gion. It can be a little tricky to get there, but just follow our instructions and you are on your way to heaven.
At the foot of Shijo-dori is a building called Takase Building, surrounded by many eateries on the first level. Look out for the outlets ‘Pronto’ and ‘Ganko Sushi’ and you will see the elevator that will lead you up to level 5, where Kyo Hayashiya is.
You can also check out our Guide to Kyoto’s Best Dessert Shops for more matcha sweets options.
3. TOJI SHRINE, ONE OF KYOTO’S UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES
Toji is one of Kyoto’s UNESCO world heritage sites and is founded in the beginning of the Heian Period back in the 700′s. The five-storied pagoda is probably the most symbollic of Kyoto, and standing at 57m, it is the tallest pagoda in Japan. The ground level of the pagoda houses various Buddha statues and is irregularly opened to visitors.
Standing near the pagoda is the Kondo Hall – the temple’s main hall that houses a large wooden Yakushi Buddha. Destroyed by a massive fire in 1486, what’s left are mysterious remains of burnt wood and a reconstructed architecture that still smells of the rich Kyoto history.
4. NISHIKI MARKET, THE MOST FAMOUS MARKET IN KYOTO
More affectionately known as the “Kyoto Kitchen”, Nishiki Market dates way back to many centuries ago and is a long block of retail market where you can find anything and everything you need for your kitchen – from seafood and vegetables, to spices and condiments, to knives and cookware, and seasonal ingredients.
And if that is not enough, you can also count on Nishiki Market for Kyoto specialities like the traditional Japanese sweets, all kinds of tsukemono (pickles) and even freshly prepared sushi.
Some of the stalls have been operated by the same family for several generations, and it is a truly eye-opening experience to walk down the stretch of hundreds of stalls to learn and discover what Kyoto has to offer in its raw form.
5. GION, THE LAST FRONTIER OF KYOTO
Synonymous with geisha is the one-and-only Gion – what we would prefer to affectionately know as “the last frontier of Kyoto”. A charming street located in Shijo avenue, Gion is quite the translation of the ancient Kyoto. It is also the main area where geishas and maiko (apprentice geisha) entertain. But only if all stars are aligned, else the chance of bumping into them is actually and realistically very slim. Elusively mysterious and rare, geishas are.
Take a stroll down the iconic street and a beautiful scene that you thought you would only see in the virtual world unfolds right before your eyes – rows and rows of machiya (traditional wooden merchant houses) and ochaya (tea houses), all with the one-and-only Japanese X-factor.
Apart from the scattered boutiques and sweets shops, go on a food trail and dine to your heart’s content at the endless options of authentic nihon-ryori (Japanese cuisine). The Hanami-koji is a hot spot for lush dining – you can find both international and local delights, including kaiseki.
But our favourite has got to be quieter Shirakawa, a picturesque part of Gion that runs along the Shirakawa Canel just a stone’s throw from the main Shijo Avenue. Like a postcard, the Shirakawa area is lined with willow trees and a calm river that flows along to the beat of the (slow) life in Kyoto; rhythmic, tranquil and soothingly speaking of the magic that is otherwise unbeknownst to the world.
6. PONTOCHO, HOME TO GEISHAS AND EVERYTHING ANCIENT KYOTO
Like Gion, Pontocho is home to geishas and everything ancient Kyoto. Well-preserved with its traditional architecture, this famous street in the Hanamachi district is filled with ochaya, ryotei and many expensive dining outlets. Some are perched along the tips of Sanjo-dori and Shijo-dori, and boasts a riverside dining experience at the outdoor wooden patios.
Lined with traditional Japanese lanterns that serve as signboards and light up at night, you can also find other entertainment along Pontocho – from kabuki to traditional music and dance.
7. FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE, PROBABLY THE MOST FAMOUS SHRINE IN KYOTO
Recognised as one of the most important shinto shrine in Kyoto, Fushimi Inari sits on the south of Kyoto and is one of the most distinct shrines in Japan. A shrine that is dedicated to Inari – the shinto God of rice.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is the most impressive shrine that no one should leave Kyoto without visiting it. For the uninitiated, shinto is the indigenous way of religious life that is as old as Japan is, and is the main religion of Japan alongside Buddhism.
Back at the olden days, foxes were known to be the messengers of God Inari, which explains the many fox statues within the premise. But what is a lot more visually arresting is the Senbon Torii – the iconic duo parallel rows of vermillion gates that densely form a side-by-side linear, making it one of the world’s most enjoyable hikes that leads to the Mount Inari. Nothing quite like walking through the richly coloured gates that bear the names of all its donors – from individuals to companies, with the small gates beginning at ¥400,000 and the large ones costing over a million.
If you remember the impressionable scene from Memoirs of a Geisha – where little Chiyo found hope in the Chairman and ran through the Senbon Torii to give prayers to become a Geisha – this is it. The one-and-only Fushimi Inari of Japan.
On a side note, do try the inari sushi and kitsune udon – dishes that are primarily prepared with aburaage (fried tofu), known to be the foxes’ favourite food.
8. KAISEKI, A TRADITIONAL MULTI-COURSE DINNER
The highest form of art and food integration is Kaiseki (or kaiseki-ryori) – a traditional multi-course dinner that displays the best of a chef’s culinary skills. Kaiseki is also a form of art, and is often a testament to a chef’s acute senses to balance out tastes, textures, colours and presentation. Though known as a historic way of dining, Kaiseki is actually the modernized version inspired by its predecessors Honzen and Chakaiseki.
Served in ryotei (high class Japanese style restaurant) and typically comprising nine courses, Kaiseki is a reflection of the seasons – something so beautiful and it is precisely what makes Kaiseki so intriguing.
The menu differs every day, and it is the chef’s daily challenge to prepare the courses based on whatever seasonal ingredients and daily produce he has on hand. The cooking method – known as obanzai – usually revolve around the traditional Kyoto home styles to emphasize on its roots, and it is quite simply bringing out the natural flavours of ingredients.
The price does not come cheap, of course. But it will be well worth the splurge; or we’d call it the mandatory indulgence. In Kyoto, much is said about the renown Roan Kikunoi – undisputedly one of the best Kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto.
Lunch is ¥4,000 to ¥10,000, and dinner is ¥10,000 to ¥18,000. Reservations are a must, and cancellations are not advisable due to the imposed charges and for the very fact that it is highly disrespectful to the highly-acclaimed chefs.
Sushi in Kyoto is not quite what we know sushi as. The stark difference is one that you must experience to remember Kyoto. Very unlike the regular sushi in the market that is commonly known by the world, the traditional Kyoto sushi has a rich history and is a culinary fixture that had me developing a new level of appreciation for the Inarizushi (inari sushi).
We found the legendary Izuju – one of the oldest traditional Kyoto sushi restaurant in the heart of Gion, just across the Yasaka Shrine. Stepping in was like going back to the old Kyoto, with an intriguing interior and displays, every bit speaking of a certain history from their younger days. Even the paper talisman from the Atago Shrine has a story to tell.
It looked like nothing has changed; well actually, nothing has changed – the method of preparation and quality of ingredients used, the humility of Kitamura-san (the owner), and the unbeatable fragrance and freshness of a Inarizushi that has every inari pocket traditionally simmered in a hearth. No one else in Kyoto uses wood to cook, except Kitamura-san, and this clearly explains why his Inarizushi is the best we have ever had in my entire life. If you can’t already tell, yes, we really love our traditional Kyoto Inarizushi.
Go for the modest sampling set which includes the sabazushi (pickled mackerel sushi), hakozushi (box-shaped sushi with hamo pike eel and winter sawara Spanish mackerel) and of course, the Inarizushi (sweet and simmered tofu skins filled with sushi rice and simmered vegetables).
10. DAY TRIP TO ARASHIYAMA, A STUNNING DESTINATION IN THE OUTSKIRT OF KYOTO
Take a day trip to the outskirt of Kyoto and explore the pleasant Arashiyama. The sheer sight of Arashiyama’s natural landscape is breath-taking to say the least, and particularly beautiful in April with the cherry blossoms, and in November with its palette of fall colours.
The Togetsukyo Bridge is the landmark of Arashiyama, and is a common spot for couples for wedding photoshoots.
Take a stroll through the Bamboo Forest – a picturesque sight that every photographer will love, and a walk so calming that the soul will find peace with every step.
Stop by the Tenryuji – among the largest zen temples in Kyoto and is among the many other UNESCO heritage sites.
Have lunch at Unagiya Hirokawa – a famous and perpetually packed unaju specialty house just across the road from Tenryuji. Be prepared to wait for at least 30 minutes on good days, and do note that the restaurant imposes a minimum order of one main course per diner.
Other activities at Arashiyama include Ukai (traditional cormorant fishing), Hozu River Boat Tour and Saga Scenic Railway.
With these, we trust that you have a sharpened perspective of Kyoto now. The next time you need to take a holiday, book your flights to Japan and explore this exhilarating ancient capital that has much more to offer than you ever knew.
For more tips, read our food & travel guides to Kyoto and discover more of this beautiful city.