Kyoto is the spiritual heart of Japan – a living museum that changes with the seasons and yet remains eternally serene and important. While the centre of the city is a typical mix of buildings and buses and bustling pedestrians, it’s in the many districts and satellite regions that Kyoto really shines. Head in any direction from the Imperial Palace and you will stumble on a plethora of shrines, gardens and temples that put the rest of the world to shame. It would be difficult to visit them all in one holiday, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a go.
As well as these World Heritage masterpieces, the Gion neighbourhood is a time capsule of Japanese traditions and winding alleyways. The geiko (geisha) and maiko who tiptoe between the buildings, avoiding the lenses of the tourists and travellers, hark back to simpler times. It’s still possible to be entertained with conversation, games, music and – of course – dance, in the same way as samurais would have been hundreds of years ago. Learning first hand about the ‘Flower and Willow’ world of the geisha is an unforgettable and incomparable experience.
For another taste of the Japan of yesteryear, this is also the perfect place to stay in a traditional inn and savour a kaiseki meal: a multi-course, beautifully presented and delicious introduction to the local haute-cuisine. Even those staying in more modern accommodation can step back in time by experiencing a tea ceremony, turning their hands to origami, or throwing shapes with a sword while wearing samurai garb.
Not content with simply being the jewel in Japan’s crown, Kyoto also serves visitors well as the perfect base to explore other fascinating nearby destinations. The towns of Nara, Uji, Himeji and Kobe are all easy half day or full day trips, without needing to repack your suitcases and up sticks from your hotel. You can never have too many days in Kyoto, but do allow yourself a little extra time to hop on the rails to a few of these places too – you won’t regret it.