Japanese traditions are very much alive in Kyoto, finds Morag Bruce
‘Sir, where is the old Japan?’ a fellow passenger asks the train guard, as the sun striking Kyoto’s vast steel-and-glass main station causes her to blink. We have just arrived from Tokyo by bullet train, having sped from its infinite skyscrapers and 24-hour stimulation at a smooth 200mph.
She has a point. Founded in AD794, Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital until the mid-19th century and its cultural centre for over 1,000 years; I was expecting to see this history immediately too.
Kyoto is a modern city, but it also has around 2,000 Shinto and Buddhist shrines and temples, some of which were founded long before the city itself, and 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites.
You can experience the geisha tradition alive and well, buy souvenirs from 500-year-old shops, walk through soaring bamboo forests, visit 17th-century teahouses and, above all, enjoy a moment of contemplation after the buzz of Tokyo.
Recommend clients book a guide to see the best of the city and skip the crowds. And dispel the myth that Japan is eye-wateringly expensive. It isn’t, for now, on account of the weak yen. This year, British visitors’ money will go about a third further than in 2012.
09.00: Start in epic style at Fushimi Inari shrine, which dates back to AD711. This is a Shinto shrine – the religion that pre-dates Buddism in Japan – dedicated to the god of rice and business.
It’s famous for the 40,000 bright vermilion torii gates that wind their way up the 233m-high mountain. Each gate you pass through was bought by a merchant or company hoping to curry favour.
There’s even a price list for torii gates halfway up, should you wish to add to their number. Look out for the fox statues; these are ‘kitsune’ – Inari’s messengers. The walk is steep in places, but the view of Kyoto from the top makes the three-hour trip up and down well worth it.
12.00: Kyoto’s public transport is reasonable. You can buy an all-day, city-wide bus and subway pass for ¥1,200 (around £6). Take the Keihan subway line two stops to Tofuku-ji, a huge 13th-century Zen temple that’s celebrated for its beautiful moss and drystone gardens.
The intricately raked gravel is designed to be an abstract representation of the landscape. You’re encouraged to sit for a while and contemplate its atmosphere – perfect after the walk to Inari.
13.00: Jump back on the Keihan line for another stop to Shichijo, where you’ll find Sanjusangen-do.
This 12th-century Buddhist temple is all about scale. Inside the mighty 120m-long wooden structure are 1,000 exquisite gold statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, surrounding one enormous thousand-armed Kannon in the centre.
13.45: Three temples is enough nourishment for the soul – real food calls. Take the Keihan line to Sanjo, and walk over the river to Musashi Sushi. This high-quality, inexpensive ‘kaiten-zushi’ (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant will be busy with locals at lunchtime, but it’s worth the wait for a seat at the counter rather than taking a table downstairs.
Watching the chefs at work is a big part of the experience. Dishes start at ¥170 (about 80p). A tip: the blue plates contain wasabi, the rainbow plates don’t. Another tip: don’t, it’s never expected by waiting staff in Japan.
14.30: Walk off lunch with a peaceful stroll along the Philosopher’s Path. This 2km canal path is packed with cherry and maple trees, so particularly magical in spring or autumn.
Reach its start at the Silver Pavilion temple by taking the Keihan line to Demachiyanagi followed by a 15-minute walk. There are plenty of shops and cafes along the way.
17.00: Head back to Sanjo station via the Tozai line from Keage. From there it’s a short walk into Gion, one of four districts in Kyoto given the snappy title of ‘important preservation district of historic buildings’ and one of the city’s entertainment centres.
Here you’ll find streets lined with ancient wooden houses and noren flags fluttering outside 17th-century restaurants. For eating, drinking and buying anything, this is an expensive part of Kyoto, but a must-see nonetheless.
18.00: There is mystery surrounding ‘geiko’ (the term for geisha in Kyoto) and ‘maiko’, the apprentices, but no shortage of opportunities to see and meet them.
The cheapest and easiest is to book tickets for an evening show at Gion Corner theatre, where you can see an hour of traditional dancing, music and puppetry for around ¥3,000 (£15).
For something less commercial, it’s easy to book private tea ceremonies or private picnics at temples with geiko and maiko through operators such as Inside Japan.
20.00: There are 95 Michelin-starred restaurants in Kyoto, which is impressive for a city of 1.4 million people (London has 62). One of the smallest is Sakamoto in Gion.
With just two low tables, booking is essential, but try to sit at the counter to watch chef Ryuta Sakamoto prepare a set meal of up to 20 seasonal courses, from ¥14,040 (around £72).
22.30: Kyoto is packed with bars of all kinds. Try Hello Dolly for jazz and a fine selection of whiskies. Even if you think you don’t enjoy a wee dram, it’s worth giving it a go here. Japanese malts tend to be far more delicate than their Scottish forefathers.
10.00: Life as the wife of a nobleman in 16th-century Japan was far from satisfying by modern standards; there was a lot of bowing to men involved. Then, when your husband died, politeness dictated you shave your head and become a Buddhist nun.
That was the fate of Kita-no-Mandokoro when, in 1605, she founded Kodai-ji Temple in memory of her husband. On the way to its 17th-century teahouse we pass gardeners, kneeling down, picking through the grass with tweezers.
This is how you weed a Zen moss garden. The teahouse itself is exquisite, and the temple grounds feature a bamboo forest the height of a three-storey building.
11.30: There is an etiquette to walking on the bamboo tatami mats that cover the floors of traditional Japanese houses and temples. First, never wear shoes. Second, it is rude to walk on the silk borders – the most expensive part.
That’s hard to remember at Kennin-ji, Kyoto’s oldest Zen Buddhist temple, when looking up at the two enormous silver dragons painted on the ceiling, created to commemorate the temple’s 800th birthday in 2002. The temple buildings wrap around a tranquil maple, moss and stone garden.
13.30: Seafood has been sold on the site of the Nishiki Fish Market, just over the river, since the 1300s. As well as hundreds of stalls there are cafes and grill counters where you can gorge on chunks of delicious, barely grilled tuna for the equivalent of a few pounds. For dessert, try matcha green tea ice cream.
14.30: The blocks around the fish market are perfect for picking up souvenirs. Tsujikura specialises in handmade washi paper umbrellas and lanterns – a tradition it has kept alive since it was founded in 1690.
Harajuku Chicago offers vintage kimonos at very reasonable prices (from around £6). Tessaido sells a superb selection of antique print scrolls dating from the Edo period (1603-1868) to the present day.
Slightly farther afield, Kungyokudo is one of Kyoto’s most iconic incense makers, having been in the same shop since it opened in 1594. Some Zen temples sell their own incense blends in beautiful boxes for around £5.
16.00: Time to learn about sake, one of Japan’s most famous products, during a tour of the Horino Memorial Museum, a former brewery – ¥5,600 (around £25) for 45 minutes including a tasting.
There’s a great deal more to this rice wine than the one option you’ll often have in the UK’s Japanese restaurants. There are even seasonal varieties – hanami-zake (sake for cherry blossom viewing) for spring, and yukimi-zake (sake for snow viewing) for winter.
19.00: In an ideal world, tempura batter is barely there, a millimetre-thick hint of crispness. Kyoto is that ideal world. Tempura Yoshikawa Inn, where meals are served on tatami mats with views of its landscaped garden, is one of the finest tempura restaurants in Japan, a temple to the technique.
Inside Japan offers a nine-night Golden Route self-guided tour that takes in Tokyo, Hakone and Kyoto (for three nights). It includes accommodation with breakfast, eight hours of private guiding in Tokyo and Kyoto, bullet train journeys and airport transfers, and costs from £1,280 per person. insidejapantours.com
When to visit
Summers in Kyoto are very hot and humid. The best weather coincides with two natural spectacles considered near-sacred by Japanese people. Cherry blossom season, known as ‘sakura’, peaks on average at the start of April, but it’s notoriously fickle – it could all drop in a matter of days.
Beautiful spots in Kyoto to enjoy it include the Philosopher’s Path and Shimbashi. Expect much celebration and drinking of sake – sakura represents the fleeting nature of life, after all.
With its abundant maple valleys, Kyoto is an ideal spot for ‘koyo’, the autumnal leaves. And it lasts. The leaves start changing at the end of October and do so until mid-December. Tofuku-ji temple and the mountain village of Takao are good koyo spots.
Tried & Tested: Hyatt Regency, Kyoto
Situated beside the Sanjusangen-do temple, this five-star, 189-room hotel is just a few minutes’ drive from the station, and offers a free transfer service.
It blends traditional and contemporary Japanese design in elegant style. We loved the pretty kimono-fabric headboards.
Of several restaurants on site, fine-dining Japanese Touzan is the place to take a culinary adventure. Try sea snail washed down with ‘Tears of a Peach’, one of 30 premium sakes on offer.
Grill is a great choice for breakfast, with European and American dishes. Combat jet lag with a session of authentic Japanese acupuncture in the hotel’s Riraku Spa. Rooms start at £145 a night.
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