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Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, is a wonderful contrast between old and new, modern and traditional, energy and serenity. For many people the very name Kyoto conjures up the classic image of Japan: streets of traditional wooden houses, the click-clack of geta (traditional wooden sandals) on the paving stones, geisha passing in a flourish of brightly coloured silks, and temple pagodas surrounded by cherry blossom trees. Full of hidden gems, there is something to discover around every corner. Whether it’s your first or 50th time in Kyoto, the city’s little-known local spots and world-famous tourist attractions will amaze you.

Japan’s spiritual and cultural heart

Kyoto is a city with something for everyone. Stumble across a small noodle bar down a laneway or a Japanese jazz bar with the most delicious dumplings you will ever try, wander around picturesque manicured gardens, or jump on a bike and explore the traditional neighbourhoods – you’ll see geishas going about their business for the day. This is a city of some 2000 temples and shrines, so even in the modern buzz you’ll be reminded that this is the spiritual heart of Japan.

Kyoto is clean, organised, vibrant and fun as well as being serene and a place where you can find some space to take in this amazing culture. There are also an incredible 37 universities and colleges scattered throughout this beautiful city, injecting a young fresh and exciting energy. Kyoto also offers a packed calendar of local festivals to enjoy. 

History of Kyoto

The Kyoto area was first settled in the 7th century. It became the capital by the year 794 and remained so until 1868. Much of the beautiful history you see in Kyoto today remains from the Edo period. Fortunately Kyoto was spared from aerial bombings at the end of WWII, so it is the only large city in Japan that still has an abundance of pre-war buildings. Kyoto offers the chance to stay in a traditional Machiya teahouse, enjoying life like a local. Exploring this city by foot allows you to discover countless reminders of Kyoto’s rich history.

Kyoto Station

Contrasting with the historical buildings in Kyoto is the ultra-modern Kyoto Station – the most important traffic hub in the city, with numerous restaurants, shops and fantastic tourist information. In front of the station is the Kyoto Bus Station. The bus network weaves itself around various neighbourhoods in Kyoto, offering access to great tourist spots and wonderful local neighbourhoods.

Sightseeing

For the ultimate torii gate experience, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is a must-see. The shrine is famous for its thousands of torii gates lining the network of pathways winding up into the forest of Mount Inari. The hike up to the summit can take from 2 to 3 hours although you can walk as far as you wish then turn back. When you reach the Yotsutsuji intersection you will be rewarded with beautiful views over Kyoto.

The Nishiki Food Markets are an experience not to be missed, enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Nishiki Ichiba is a five-block long shopping strip lined with over 100 restaurants and shops. I recommend visiting over lunch or when you are hungry – you can sample all sorts of local delights, Kyoto specialties and seasonal produce! It’s a fun atmosphere and nearly everything offered is locally produced or procured. Each stall has a speciality: some offer snacks to be eaten then and there, while others offer a sit-down restaurant experience. Opening in 1310, this market has a long history. Many stalls have remained in the same family for years. 

Taking an early morning walk through the stunning Arashima Bamboo forest is like being in another world. It is one of the most photographed spots in Kyoto. The feeling of standing among the tall beautiful bamboo grove is incredible. This area is a wonderful place to explore numerous temples and gardens. One of my favourite temples was Jojakko-ji with its beautiful moss garden and happy frogs singing away in their pond. You can easily enjoy the whole day here wandering around this historic green area, stopping for a delicious lunch then strolling along the Oi river with the beautiful mountains as your backdrop.

Japanese food

Japanese food is simple by nature and uses only the best possible fresh ingredients available at their peak of seasonality and freshness. In Kyoto you can enjoy Shojin Ryoriwhich is Japanese vegetarian Buddhist cuisine, and very delicious. Another highlight is Obanzai, which is based on traditional Kyoto style cooking where at least half the ingredients must be produced in Kyoto. Bento boxes are a great option for lunch and sold all over Kyoto. Make sure you visit Porta, opposite Kyoto Station; it has a wide range of really good food.

Another favourite is Ippudo Nishikikoji, which offers amazing ramen and gyoza in a fast, vibrant environment – go early as the queue can wind around the block! For the best soba noodles, try Ukiya located on Pontocco – one of the prettiest dining spots in Kyoto. These buckwheat noodles are handmade every morning the same way they have been for 100 years.

People

I had heard that Japan was an extremely safe place to visit. As a solo female traveller, this rang true from day one. Arriving into Kyoto and navigating my way to my hotel in the dark, I felt relaxed and safe. Locals asked if they could help and offered directions and assistance; I found them incredibly warm and friendly.

Tourists are warmly welcomed here. I highly recommend learning some basic Japanese before you arrive as it will make your trip a lot richer. 

Getting there

The international gateway to Kyoto is Kansai Airport, which services both Osaka and Kyoto (they are only 30 minutes apart). This busy international hub opened in 1994. It is modern and easy to navigate. The train journey to Kyoto from Kansai station is easy and will only take 1 to 1½ hours.

Find out more

Kumano Kodo, Koyasan & Kyoto (12 days)

Follow in the footsteps of former emperors and challenge yourself on one of the world’s great historical trails. Includes 3 nights in a centrally located hotel in Kyoto and 2 nights in a Buddhist monastery in Koyasan.

RAW Travel Kyoto City Break

Explore hidden corners of Kyoto and enjoy an authentic Japanese experience. Our exclusive 3-night package offers boutique accommodation in a Kyoto-style ‘Machiya’ townhouse in a typical local neighbourhood plus your own private tour guide. Contact our in-house flights specialist Rosalind on (03) 5973 3763 for more details.