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Filled with tradition and culture, Kyoto is often raved as one of the highlights when people come back from Japan. Countless glittering temples, prayer chants echoing through spectacular Zen gardens, and the distinct aroma of burning incense reminds one that this is the spiritual heart of Japan. The imperial capital for over a thousand years, its rich historic value helped keep many treasured palaces, temples, shrines and gardens spared from the ravages of the Second World War. 

Founded in 794 AD as Heian-kyo (the capital of peace and tranquility), it’s layout was modelled after the Chinese capital of Xian. While wandering the streets, you notice its early attempt at urban planning was still visible. There isn’t much that remains from those early days, but the Kamigamo and Shimogamo shrines are impressive – which managed to survive the Heian period unscathed, still standing since 1053. 

 

 

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Cross the Togetsukyo Bridge to Arashiyama, a picturesque neighborhood surrounded by mountains with the vibrant colors of autumn splashed about, and you step into the magical wonderland of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The sun filters in, protecting little slices of light across the trail and the towering stalks gently sway in the wind, creaking eerily as they collide. It’s like another world. 

As the birthplace of flower arranging, the tea ceremony and kaiseki cooking, you simply have to experience all three. Kado is the Japanese art of arranging flowers, dating back to ancient times when they were arranged as offers to Buddha. My lesson was with a monk and took place at a more than 600-year-old Nichiren temple. While tea ceremonies are common throughout Japan, attending one in Kyoto is uniquely special as an at least 500-year tradition. The only Zen dedicated Chashitsu open to the public is the Japanese Tea Cermony Room Ju-An, where I was able to learn how to perform it myself, surrounded by a beautiful garden. 

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The beauty of kaiseki cuisine is incomparable and there is nowhere as elegant as a Zen temple in Kyoto for experiencing. It has its roots in the 16th-century when simple meals were served to accompany the tea. Focused on seasonality and simplicity to showcase the natural flavors, just imagine savoring intricate bite after bite of a multi-course kaiseki meal surrounded by tranquility.

Kyoto is truly a special place and now that Japan is back open and thriving, I sat down with our Japan specialist, Luke Stapylton-Smith, to get some inside knowledge of when to go, where to stay and what to do for 72 hours in Kyoto.  

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When is the best time to visit Kyoto?

Like the rest of Japan, the optimum periods to visit are spring or fall when skies are clear and temperatures are perfect for exploring. The busiest weeks of the year are late March and early April, coinciding with Japan’s fabled cherry blossom season. This is an incredibly beautiful time of year to be in the country, and Kyoto especially, but it is enormously popular: if cherry blossom is a must, you should enquire at least 9-10 months in advance to secure first-choice accommodation and be aware that you’ll be contending with soaring hotel rates and dense crowds around the biggest sites. By contrast, early or late spring is much less pressured, as is the entirety of fall. 

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What are the best neighborhoods to stay in Kyoto?

Kyoto is a relatively small and compact city so in general, wherever you stay you should be able to access any other corner of the city within 30-45 minutes by taxi or public transport. For first-timers we find that anywhere within the Kyoto Station to Kawaramachi downtown area is an ideal base, with immediate access to shops and eateries, the best public transport options, and walking distance to key sites such as Nijo Castle, Kiyomizu-dera, and the Gion. Those looking for a more peaceful stay could cross the Kamo River and base themselves in the quieter streets of Higashiyama, with its village-like alleyways and some of the most refined ryokan in the city. Kyoto’s most luxurious and exclusive retreats are found even further out amongst the famous bamboo forests of Arashiyama. 

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What experiences in Kyoto shouldn’t be missed?

The UNESCO sites take the headlines of course: the Golden Pavilion of Kinkaku-ji, epic views from majestic Kiyomizu-dera, serene Nijo Castle, and the transformative rock garden of Ryoan-ji. There’s your first day covered already! But in addition to headline sightseeing Kyoto also has a fabulous menu of cultural immersion activities on offer. Our favorites include a dining tour in the atmospheric Gion district, a private tea ceremony with a maiko (trainee geisha), a private cooking class in a traditional machiya house, or a guided Zazen meditation session. Family-friendly activities include a ninja training class, samurai sword workshop, an introduction to origami, or a kimono-fitting session. 

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What day trips are possible from Kyoto?

Kyoto is a real all-rounder, with not only a week’s worth of sights and activities within the city but also a whole catalog of enticing day trips possible. Nara is the most common trip, another former ancient capital littered with heritage sites and just 30 minutes away by direct train. Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city and arguably greatest food and nightlife destination, is just 45 minutes away. Both Nara and Osaka can be paired with a trip to the vermillion tori gates of Fushimi Inari on the way back through Kyoto’s southern suburbs. Tranquil Lake Biwa is an hour to the north and is a compelling venue for rural and agricultural activities. Further afield, the astonishing castle complex in Himeji or the world-famous beef of Kobe are within 90 minutes. An ambitious day trip could even take you as far as Hiroshima, 2.5 hours west by shinkansen.

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How long should you stay in Kyoto?

In our opinion, three nights is the minimum length of stay. Assuming you are arriving midday onwards from Tokyo, Hakone, Kanazawa, or the Alps your first afternoon is for general orientation and perhaps a dining tour in the evening. The second day we like to pair you with an expert private guide to discover the city’s core highlights. A third day can be used for further sights or activities within the city, or left open for day trips. This is for starters though: you could spend two full days covering core sightseeing alone, and that’s before you’ve started on cultural activities mentioned above. Personally I think I could live in Kyoto (we can all dream…!) and never run out of things to see, do, and experience. 

 

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UT mag issue 7

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This article was first published in issue seven of the Unforgettable Travel Magazine so if you enjoyed this read, please check out the whole issue. Our Unforgettable Travel Magazines are published quarterly and our goal is to inspire our readers – whether that’s a new destination, a new experience or a new type of accommodation.

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