Kyoto is a wonderful melting-pot of old and new Japan that both enchants and excites. From the magnificent temples (of which there are many), to the narrow cobbled streets (many unnamed), to artisans and traditions that stem back thousands of years – if custom and culture are of interest then look no further. The quintessential tea ceremony, flower arrangements, kimonos and Maiko can all be found in heart of Kyoto.
Don’t be fooled into thinking its all ‘old relics’ though this city is in continual development and there are all the trademarks of a vibrant city here too such as upscale department stores (a plenty), cutting edge industries and modernist design.
I recommend a minimum of 5 nights in Kyoto to really allow yourself time to explore. You’re not going to see it all but this will allow you time to design an itinerary to give you a taste of everything. Make sure you’re adaptable and have a contingency plan when things go awry. Mr Iced Vovo and I found this out in April when we visited. The weather at that time of year was unpredictable. We went from wearing t-shirts one day to being totally drenched and cold to the core the next. On the day we had planned to walk the famous Philosophers walk the weather was torrential so we re-jigged our schedule and luckily the next day the weather held off.
Of course some things can’t be changed such as the Toji Temple market that only occurs on the 21st of the month and well worth visiting whatever the weather. You’ll find numerous stalls selling everything from real antiques and collectables to kitschy garage sale type items. With so many stalls you’re bound to come away with some kind of ‘gem’.
My top temples if on a short stay are: Ryoanji, Kiyomizu, Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji, To-ji. The area around Kiyomizu Temple is also a must-see, a rabbit warren of specialty shops, tea-houses, cafes, and you are most likely to see Maiko here darting from place to place carrying out there daily appointments.
When thinking about where to stay think about a more traditional option such as a Ryokan (Japanese Inn) or a Machiya (traditional long wooden home). We stayed at a lovingly renovated Machiya owned by an Australian guy and his Japanese wife who have since sold the business and moved to Byron Bay. Of course Kyoto has a number of hotels, backpackers and other forms of accommodation available to suit all budgets.
There is more to Japanese food than sushi and tempura (even though these are delicious). Why not try a Yu Do-fu (tofu meal) or treat yourself to Kyo-Kaiseki – the ultimate in Japanese gastronomy that is a stunning mixture of seasonal produce, impeccably cooked and presented (Food meets Art!)
One of my favourite things to do is go to the many small bar/restaurants where you can order Izakaya. The best find on our trip to Kyoto was Bamboo Restaurant on Sanjō-dōri, (near the mouth of a traditional, old shopping arcade, 5min walk from Higashiyama Station, Tōzai subway line). At Bamboo you have the choice of selecting individual dishes off the menu or, as we did, you can opt for a prix-fix menu and be presented with a surprising array of tasty dishes, usually with some drink/s included (we got 9 dishes plus a drink). (Think of it as a more budget conscious Kyo-Kaiseki!) We sat at counter here watching as the chefs cooked up our tasty treats whilst chatting to customers.
Be aware though Japanese restaurants don’t all have non-smoking sections. So if want a smoke free dining experience you’re options are going to be cut down.
The local bus system is fantastic. Get yourself a local bus guide and use it to map out your daily journey as places can be a lot further than they may seem.
Getting there: The closest International Airport would be Osaka. Then transfer to a bus or train to take you to Kyoto Station or if flying in to Tokyo you could transfer to one of the many Shinkansen (bullet trains) to get you there.
(PS. Thanks go out to Mr Iced Vovo for the pictures)