Any arrival and stay in Japan for the first time is exhilarating, but rather than fly into the confusion of Tokyo’s Narita Airport, try Kansai instead, gateway to Osaka and the beautiful former capital of ancient Japan, Kyoto.
The reason that Kyoto is quite so attractive is that it was spared intensive American bombing during the Second World War, so the original grid system of the old city largely remains, with narrow little streets lined with tiny wooden houses – plus some of the country’s most dazzling temples – and where you’ll now find cool bars, exotic markets and the best food in Japan. It means you can walk about without getting lost, take taxis with confidence, and get to understand the public transport.
The best times to visit are spring/early summer and August for the spectacular Gozan Fire Festival.
Depending on season and fuel charges you can sometimes fly direct with Japan Airlines, for as little as $550 return from Europe to Italian architect Renzo Piano’s stunningly modern, airy airport terminal, where trains will whisk you straight to downtown Kyoto every half hour, taking 70 minutes for a fare under $25.
OK. WE’RE HERE.
You can’t miss Kyoto Station, 16 floors of shimmering glass and endless escalators. It is the city’s most outlandish piece of modern architecture to date and caused a storm when it was built because until its arrival, no building had been built higher than the Buddhist Temples. On the second floor is the city tourist office, which opens daily 8.30 am – 7 pm to assist you find accommodation. Keep going to the top floor by a series of outdoor escalators and you’ll find a 360-degree cityscape panorama, with the Kyoto Tower facing you in the foreground.
The subway is simple and the buses are cheap – board by the back door and leave by the front. A cheap day pass covers both services. Bike hire is plentiful and equally cheap.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
The Imperial Palace Park is a delight, is free to enter and has a carp-filled lake at the southern end. The present Palace dates from 1855 and daily guided tours in English take place at 10 am and 2 pm, Monday – Friday, and 10 am on the third Saturday of every month. To join one, take your passport and fill out a simple form at the Imperial Household Agency. Generally, access is granted the same day, and foreigners are given priority.
For shopping try the covered markets surrounding Nishiki-Koji. Kyoto is an excellent place to dabble in the retail frenzy that characterizes Japan: the Teramachi and Sanjo shopping arcades sell everything from kimonos and handmade papers to the tempting 100 yen shop (50p) for homewares.
Kyoto was once the so-called “Hollywood of Japan”, and the film industry is celebrated in the Museum of Kyoto. The collection also includes model cities, recreated shops, Japanese crafts and art. It opens 10 am – 8.30 pm daily, admission is under $5.
LET’S DO LUNCH
Nishiki-Koji Food Market offers up all the seasonality and freshness of the Japanese menu with the added bonus of a Kyoto speciality: pickled vegetables, of which there are dozens of varieties. Tiny little establishments abound serving noodle, tempura (lightly battered, deep-fried vegetables and fish), and yakitori (skewers of chicken) to buy and eat as you go. Choosing is simple since most have pictures or plastic models of the dishes in the window: just point and order. It’s open every day from 10 am – 7 pm.
You’re in Japan, so take tea. At the junction of Horikawa and Imadagewa Streets is Tsuruya-Yoshinobu‘s handmade sweet shop where the red-bean paste confectionery blends beautifully with the bitterness of frothy green tea for under a fiver. Next door is the Nishijin-Ori Industrial Association where you can watch kimonos being made on traditional hand-looms, followed by a free fashion show. You can buy what you see too. Both are open daily.
In summer, beer gardens are opened up around town in an odd assortment of places, normally with some kind of view. The easiest to find is on the roof of the Kyoto Tower Hotel.
To try sake go to Bar Yoramu on Nijo Dori, east of Higashi-no-toin, where the English-speaking owner will explain the subtleties of rice wine, from fruity to dry, old to new. Three glasses will cost you less than $10.
Shinto and Buddhism co-exist in Japan, and there is no shortage of temples and shrines dedicated to both in Kyoto. Unesco has declared 17 of these as World Heritage Sites – the highest concentration in the world.
Bus 26 from Kyoto Station will take you to Ninna-ji Temple in the suburbs, dating from 888. Only a few of the 60 buildings survive, but these include tea houses, a pagoda, plus the Omura cherry trees – beautiful at any time of year, not just the cherry “season” in April. It’s open 9 am – 5 pm daily. Nearby is the shimmering Golden Pavilion, covered in gold leaf; also open 9 am – 5 pm daily. Other temples are open every day and all have small entrance fees.
The Path of Philosophy is a rewarding 2km canalside walk, from the imposing Buddhist temple architecture of Nanzen-ji to the profound simplicity of Zen at Ginkaku-ji, via teashops and beautiful countryside. It is named after Nishida Kitaro, a modern philosopher who used the route to contemplate while walking to work at Kyoto University. It’s free!
DINNER IS SERVED
Unusually, I would highly recommend dinner in any of the hotels named above. The Granvia has a selection of international restaurants but it’s modern Japanese “Kicho” is beyond reproach.
Similarly, the traditional Kaiseki banquets served in both the Ryokans, Hiiragaya and Tawaraya are not to be missed.
The nightlife hub is Gion, fine for lovers of “Memoirs of a Geisha” but more interesting is the narrow riverside thoroughfare Pontocho-dori, where hundreds of little restaurants vie for business. You might glimpse the odd geisha girl (of which there are very few left) or their apprentices, the maiko, tiptoeing to their next assignment, entertaining rich businessmen with tea, songs and musical dexterity. An endless array of small, intimate restaurants which have an incredible range of sake, fresh fish as well as a lively atmosphere.