Nothing really prepares you for Kyoto. This is the ancient Japanese capital which then moved to Tokyo in the 19th century. It is by far and away the most unique and amazing slice of Japan that you will ever see. Kyoto is teeming with people dressed in kimonos, and geishas and maikos jumping from house to cab to evening performance. If you happen to see a maiko walking through the streets, you literally stop in your tracks. There is nothing more beautiful than the sight of one of the geishas-in-training mingling with the crowds. Kyoto is home to the original royal palace, Nijo Castle, with its beautiful gardens, stunning gates, singing floors, and the replicas of the seated shogun and his gang.
On the surface, Kyoto is a small city dissected by a river that has restaurants and shops alongside. There is a modern area with department stores and an indoor central market that houses the main food market, Nishiki. This is an endless market of delicacies, spices, raw fish, and culinary delights. Nishiki is packed with ramen and sushi bars with lines of people waiting to get in. This is Japan after all where people queue and food stands tend to not have many seats.
Kyoto has more than 1,000 temples. But if you are temple and shrine hopping, you definitely have to visit Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, just outside of the city center. It has spectacular gardens, and yes, a golden temple. It is staggering in all seasons but likely most beautiful in the autumn and winter when it is engulfed in golden leaves or is covered with snow. There is a delightful walking path here and a great souvenir shop where you can buy things that do not even look touristy.
But the area that carries the entire buzz of the city is Gion. It stretches alongside the main city street and is peppered with tiny alleys and houses. This is the geisha area of the city. From the tiny outpost of Gion, you can walk towards the famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The walk along the street leading up to the temple, and the temple itself, is probably one of the most stunning walks you will do in the world. It is a street lined with colorful kimonos, green tea ice cream, mochi, and fish on a stick.
From there, you can walk all the way down through the narrow and winding streets of Gion, passing possibly the most extraordinary Starbucks you have ever passed; a beautiful, pure ryokan-style shop that you will never see anywhere else in the world. There are beautiful tiny shops lining the street that sell incense, crafts, and Buddhas. You eventually spill out to a main square area with men that sell rickshaw rides and a giant Buddha looming in the background. You can rent colorful kimonos in any number of places here. Eventually you get to the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine before heading down the main street in Gion where the geishas and maikos live.
Probably the most famous sight in Kyoto, apart from seeing a geisha, is the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its kilometers of bright red torii gates winding uphill and downhill. It’s a magnet for tourists and locals and people wearing kimonos walking hand-in-hand to the top of the hill. There are even wild monkeys here. This has to be accessed via metro or car as it is just outside of Kyoto. On a beautiful day, it is one of the great highlights of any trip to Japan.
Kyoto is also a hub city with a huge train station that provides access to all parts of Japan. With the ease of the shinkansen train network, Kyoto is not only beautiful but a great base to “hub and spoke.” I had purchased a 7-day JR Rail Pass. From Kyoto, there are short trips to Osaka, Nara, Himeji for the castle, Atami for the hot baths, Mt. Fuji if the weather is good, and Kanazawa for the spectacular food. Hiroshima is an easy day trip. All good as excursions.
There are plenty of steps and lots of walking needs to be done throughout Kyoto. But the walks are breathtaking, the sights are amazing, and if you are lucky enough to catch a geisha, you will have seen it all. But the highlight of Kyoto for me was being there during the New Year festival in the Gion area. I bought a palm leaf that was blessed by a maiko, caught a maiko and geisha at a food stand idly chatting, and played Konpira Fune Fune with a maiko, a drinking game that inevitably requires coordination, talent, and rhythm. Predictably, I lost big time.