You walk through 11 centuries of Japanese history when you walk through Kyoto. Of course, the city has been swept into the industrialized, high-tech age along with the rest of Japan—plate-glass windows dominate central Kyoto, and parking lots have replaced traditional town houses. But magnificent temples and shrines, perfect gardens, and the pursuit of traditional arts bring to life Kyoto’s rich past. It was in Kyoto that Asian influences, particularly Chinese, were most deeply assimilated, polished, and reinvented into the distinctively Japanese culture that exists today.
For more than 1,000 years, from 794 to 1868, Kyoto was Japan’s capital, though at times only in name. From 794 to the end of the 12th century, the city flourished. Japan’s culture started to grow independent of Chinese influences and to develop its unique characteristics. Unfortunately, the use of wood for construction, coupled with Japan’s two primordial enemies, fire and earthquakes, has destroyed all the buildings from this era, except Byodo-in in Uji. The short life span of a building in the 11th century is exemplified by the Imperial Palace, which burned down 14 times in 122 years. As if natural disasters were not enough, imperial power waned in the 12th century. There followed a period of shogunal rule, but each shogun’s reign was tenuous. By the 15th century civil wars tore the country apart. Many of Kyoto’s buildings were destroyed or looted.
Not until the end of the 16th century, when Japan was brought together by the might of Nobunaga Oda and Hideyoshi Toyotomi, did Japan settle down. This period was soon followed by the usurpation of power by Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, which lasted for the next 264 years. Tokugawa moved the political center of the country to Edo, present-day Tokyo. Kyoto did remain the imperial capital—the emperor being little more than a figurehead—and the first three Tokugawa shoguns paid homage to it by restoring old temples and building new villas. In the first half of the 17th century, this was yet another show of Tokugawa power. Much of what you see in Kyoto today dates from this period.
But such was Kyoto’s decline in the 17th and 18th centuries that when the power of the government was returned from the shoguns to the emperor, he moved his capital and imperial court to Edo, renaming it Tokyo. Though that move may have pained Kyoto residents, it actually saved the city from destruction. While most major cities in Japan were bombed flat in World War II, Kyoto survived. And where old quarters of Tokyo have been replaced with characterless modern buildings—a fate that Kyoto has shared in part—much of the city’s wooden architecture of the past still stands.
Most of Kyoto’s interesting sights are north of Kyoto Station. Think of this northern sector as three rectangular areas abutting each other.
The middle rectangle fronts the exit of Kyoto station. This is central Kyoto. Here are the hotels, the business district, the Ponto-cho geisha district, and the Kiya-machi entertainment district. Central Kyoto also contains one of the oldest city temples, Toji; the rebuilt Imperial Palace; and Nijo-jo, the onetime Kyoto abode of the Tokugawa shoguns. Eastern Kyoto, Higashiyama, is chockablock with temples and shrines, among them Ginkaku-ji, Heian Jingu, and Kiyomizu-dera. Gion—a traditional shopping neighborhood by day and a geisha entertainment district by night—is also here. You could easily fill two days visiting eastern Kyoto. Western Kyoto includes the temples Ryoan-ji and Kinkaku-ji, and Katsura Rikyu, a bit south.
You need three days just to skim over these three areas. However, two other areas have major sights to lure you. West of the western district is Arashiyama, with its temple, Tenryu-ji. And north of central Kyoto are Hiei-zan and the suburb of Ohara, where the poignant story of Kenreimonin takes place at Jakko-in.
Kyoto’s sights spread over a wide area, but many of them are clustered together, and you can walk from one to another. Where the sights are not near each other, you can use Kyoto’s buses, which run on a grid pattern that’s easy to follow. Pick up route maps at the JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization) office. The following exploring sections keep to the divisions described above so as to allow walking from one sight to another. However, notwithstanding traffic and armed with a bus map, you could cross and recross Kyoto without too much difficulty, stringing together sights of your own choosing.
Unlike other Japanese cities, Kyoto was modeled on the grid pattern of the Chinese city of Xian. Accordingly, addresses in the city are organized differently than in other parts of the country. Residents will assure you that this makes the city easier to navigate; confounded tourists may disagree. Many of the streets are named and east-west streets are numbered—the san in San-jo-dori, for example, means “three.” Nishi-iru means “to the west,” higashi-iru, “to the east.” Agaru is “to the north” and sagaru “to the south.” These directions are normally given in relation to the closest intersection. Thus the restaurant Ogawa’s address, Kiya-machi, Oike-agaru, Higashi-iru means, “Kiyamachi street, north of Oike on the east side.”
Admission to Kyoto sights adds up. Over the course of three days, charges of ¥400-¥600 at each sight can easily come to $100 per person.
Kyoto Restaurant Reviews
If you find yourself with an unintelligible menu, ask for the o-makase, or chef’s recommendation and you can specify your budget in some instances. The custom of dining early, from 6 PM until 8 PM, still endures in very traditional restaurants, but many restaurants are open until 10 PM or 11 PM. If possible, let the hotel staff make reservations for you where necessary. For more formal restaurants try to book at least two days in advance; bookings are often not accepted for the following day if called in after 4 PM. Keep in mind that not all restaurants accept credit cards.
Kyoto Hotel Reviews
You can assume all hotel rooms have private bathrooms, air-conditioning, telephones, and televisions, unless noted otherwise. In expensive and moderately priced lodgings, rooms come with a hot-water thermos and tea bags or instant coffee, as well as yukata (cotton kimonos).
Book your stay at least a month in advance, or as early as three months ahead if you’re traveling during peak spring and autumn seasons or around important Japanese holidays and festivals. Hotels in Kyoto often offer considerable discounts in summer. Keep in mind the following festival dates when making reservations: May 15, July 16-17, August 16, and October 22. Rooms will be scarce at these times.
Kyoto is known for its traditional performances—particularly dance and and No theater. All dialogue is in Japanese, but sometimes there are synopses available. From time to time world-class musicians play the intimate venues, including David Lindley, Ron Sexsmith, and Michelle Shocked. The most convenient source for information is your hotel concierge or guest-relations manager, who may even have a few tickets on hand. For further information on Kyoto’s arts scene check the music and theater sections of the monthly magazine Kansai Time Out, at bookshops for ¥300; you can also find information on the Web site www.kto.co.jp. Another source is the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide, www.kyotoguide.com, which devotes a few pages to “This Month’s Theater.” Look at the festival listings for temple and shrine performances. It’s available free from the Kyoto Tourist Information Center on the ninth floor of the Kyoto Station building; the staff can also provide you with information.
Though Kyoto’s nightlife is more sedate than Osaka’s, the areas around the old geisha quarters downtown thrive with nightclubs and bars. The Kiya-machi area along the small canal near Ponto-cho is as close to a consolidated nightlife area as you’ll get in Kyoto. It’s full of small watering holes with red lanterns (indicating inexpensive places) or small neon signs in front. It’s also fun to walk around the Gion and Ponto-cho areas to try to catch a glimpse of a geisha or maiko stealing down an alleyway on her way to or from an appointment.
Most shops slide their doors open at 10, and many shopkeepers partake of the morning ritual of sweeping and watering the entrance to welcome the first customers. Shops lock up at 6 or 7 in the evening. Stores often close sporadically once or twice a month, so it helps to call in advance if you’re making a special trip. On weekends downtown can be very crowded.
A shopkeeper’s traditional greeting to a customer is o-ideyasu (Kyoto-ben, the Kyoto dialect for “honored to have you here”), voiced in the lilting Kyoto intonations with the required bowing of the head. When a customer makes a purchase, the shopkeeper will respond with o-okini (“thank you” in Kyoto-ben), a smile, and a bow. Take notice of the careful effort and adroitness with which purchases are wrapped; it’s an art in itself. American Express, MasterCard, Visa, and to a lesser degree traveler’s checks, are widely accepted.