Famed for its sublime gardens, cherry blossoms and exuberant temples, the ancient town of Kyoto goes beyond its traditional reputation to offer a world full of modern indulgences. It boasts numerous shrines and tranquil zen gardens. The echoes of prayer and aromas of incense linger in and out of every lane in the city, gently reminding us that although it is not the nation’s capital anymore (it was the capital of Japan for much of the country’s history), it still remains the spiritual and cultural capital of Japan.
Expanding its horizons, Kyoto is now aiming to become a major Information Technology (IT) and start-up hub, thereby attracting business investments and travellers from overseas.
According to an industry report by Mori Memorial Foundation’s Institute for Urban Development, a Tokyo-based think tank, Kyoto ranked on top of the list of Japan’s most powerful cities beside Tokyo in 2019.
How to get to Kyoto
Kyoto, which is one of Japan’s largest and most visited cities, allows travellers to access the town conveniently through its high-speed trains and highway network. International travellers can transit to Kyoto on airlines such as Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Air China, Air India, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad Airways and Bangkok Airways via Tokyo or even from the following airports:
- Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Japan
- Osaka International (Itami) Airport, Osaka, Japan
- Kobe Airport, Kobe, Japan
Locals in Kyoto usually advise foreign visitors to opt for trains and subways wherever possible as they are comfortable and faster as compared to buses and taxis. Served by six train lines, Kyoto’s intercity transport consists of the main JR Line and some private train lines. Places like Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and Tofuku-ji (a Buddhist temple) are within easy reach from the city centre. Other close by cities such as Kobe, Nara, Osaka, Otsu can be visited by trains too.
Pro-tip: Keep a JR Rail pass handy.
The best way to explore the city is by living like a local. One can either go around the city on foot or hop on traditional rickshaws, where an athletic rickshaw puller may also recommend must-visit, offbeat places in the city. Visitors can book this tour through Ebisuya, a company which operates rickshaw businesses across Japan. The picturesque Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (a bamboo forest) and its charming neighbourhood make for a scenic route for your rickshaw ride. If you visit the region in mid-October, you can enjoy nature in different hues of autumn. The rickshaw that can accommodate two people, has comfortable seats and provides a roof on hot summer days.
Scenes from the past
Kinkaku-ji also known as the Deer Garden Temple, is one of the most iconic Zen Buddhist temples in Japan. Another significant building is The Imperial Palace, built in 1855, that used to be the majestic residence of Japan’s royal family, until the capital was shifted to Tokyo. Situated in the sprawling Kyoto Imperial Park, it has a lush surrounding. It is also home to the Sentō Imperial Palace, a large garden in Kyoto. The park has a certain elegance attached to it, perhaps this can be attributed to the pink glow of cherry blossoms in spring that accompanies the opulence of the palaces.
Kyoto’s Gion district, an area full of wooden buildings and charming teahouses (Ochayas), is populated by beautiful white-faced geishas (in their elaborate kimonos and wooden sandals), offering travellers the true flavour of Japanese culture. You can enjoy an evening of traditional Japanese entertainment here. Attending a geisha dance performance is a delight to watch, especially the annual dance ritual called ‘Miyako Odori’.
(Note that authorities in Kyoto have banned photography in parts of the city’s main geisha neighbourhood. The ban, introduced in October 2019 includes a fine of up to ¥10,000)
One can visit well-known areas in the district like Shirakawa which runs along the Shirakawa Canal, north of Shijo Dori and Hanami-Koji lane. The area draws travellers to its wide array of restaurants, shops and teahouses. At the end of the Hanami-Koji lane, there is the Kenninji Temple, a must-visit zen temple in Kyoto, where you will find beautiful Japanese artwork on the ceiling and walls. Next, head to Yasaka Shrine that boasts an illustrious history. Located between the Gion district and Higashiyama distict, this shrine has been home to the nation’s peculiar blend of Buddhist and Shinto believers. If you walk a bit further, you will find the prettiest lanterned-lined stretch, surely an Insta-worthy spot for travellers.
Wander the streets of Kyoto and stumble upon some swanky cocktail bars, cosy craft-beer pubs, avant garde cafés, Michelin-starred restaurants, sushi bars and of course, noodle joints. From a good old bowl of flavourful ramen to sugar-rush inducing matcha desserts, there are options for everyone. If you happen to be at Seimeicho, check out Café Bibliotic Hello!, a quaint and cosy eatery with an attached bakery offering freshly baked goodies, fusion pastries, plum tarts, sweet buns, chicken curry rice, seafood pasta and more. The café is usually packed with tourists and locals alike.
The city also gives you the opportunity to discover and taste sake by visiting a traditional brewery. One such place is Kinshi Masamune Horino Memorial Museum, a long-standing sake brewery established in Kyoto in 1781. Visitors here are allowed to purchase Kinshi Masamune sake and learn its history through exhibits and photographs placed here. You can also learn the secrets of preparing this Japanese rice wine. Try different types of sake flavours such as the aromatic ‘Matsuya Kyube’ sake and the fruity and tangy ‘Junmai-Daiginjo’ sake among others. These days, interest in sake has been seen in restaurants worldwide, and it is increasingly being paired with Chinese, French and Italian cuisines to create fusion flavours.
Shopping in Kyoto
Shopping-wise, Kyoto is an artisanal paradise, where you can find the most exquisite handcrafted copper tea canisters, lacquerware, textured paper, brilliant indigo-dyed textiles and so much more. Craftsmanship is like legacy here, passed on from generation to generation, deeply ingrained in the blood-lines that keep traditions vividly alive.
Visit Ikumatsu, the former residence of Takayoshi Kido, a Japanese statesman from the Meiji Restoration period. (We were told that he lived in this house with a geisha called ‘Ikumatsu’.) It’s now converted into a traditional Japanese inn (also known as a ‘Ryokan’) that’s furnished with defence holes and large stones that we were used in the time of the war. Currently, a heritage site in Japan, the place is mainly used for entertainment purposes. The rooms are beautiful featuring Japanese-style décor and include basic amenities for the guests. Ikumatsu is a 20-minute walk from Yasaka Shrine and a two-minute walk from the Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae station.
Where to Stay:
The Thousand Kyoto
Opened in January 2019, The Thousand Kyoto is a design luxury hotel under the Keihan Hotels and Resorts chain. The property, which is located close to the main Kyoto railway station, is an ideal destination for hosting meetings or small gatherings at one of their Experience Rooms that can accommodate up to 40 people. The hotel features elegant guestrooms and suites, providing top-notch services to its guests. There are a number of F&B outlets including a fine-dining Italian restaurant, Scalae. A multi-course gourmet meal is quite popular here. Additionally, there are other leisure facilities such as a fitness centre, a spa, a jacuzzi and a steam room. keihanhotels-resorts.co.jp
Hotel Kanra Kyoto
Taking reference from the Machiya-style of construction, the hotel guestrooms give out a very traditional Japanese vibe with modern touches. The hotel’s Kanra Junior suite features a minimalist living room with low seating and Japanese divider screens leading to a bedroom and a separate vanity area. Here, one must experience a teppanyaki-style dinner at the property’s exquisite Japanese restaurant, Hanaroku. Business travellers looking to unwind can chill at the Kanra Lounge with a cup of gourmet coffee. hotelkanra.jp
Suiran Hotel Kyoto
A Luxury Collection Hotel, Suiran has 39 guestrooms and is situated in a three-storey Japanese-style building. The accommodation categories include Superior, Deluxe, Premier King rooms, Executive suites and the Suiran Presidential Corner suite. The interiors are done in Japan’s traditional colours red and white. Some of the rooms are equipped with private open-air bath facilities too. Kyo-Suiran, a fine-dining restaurant and Cafe Hassui are some dining options available at the property. marriott.com
Other stay options: Recently, hotel brands like Park Hyatt and Aman have both opened new properties in Kyoto. Accor’s boutique MGallery by Sofitel brand also launched in the month of May, last year in Kyoto’s Higashiyama area.