Timeless Kyoto

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Timeless Kyoto
Millennia of architecture, artwork, and custom still flourish in Kyoto’s valley and the surrounding mountains. Look for quiet tea shops and thriving artisans down stone alleyways, among the wooden temples, and alongside shrines' orange gates.
By Erin Bogar, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by J & C Sohns/age fotostock
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    Kyoto for Kids
    Kyoto is sophisticated but approachable; an entire family can enjoy the city. Follow the Kitasaga Bamboo Grove to the Iwatayama Monkey Park to hand-feed Japanese macaque monkeys while overlooking the city. Head northeast to the Kyoto City Budo Center to watch and attend classes—in Japanese—in archery, karate, aikido, and kendo. Gasp at a show of samurai skills at Samurai Kembu near Kyoto Station, then let children roam the Sanjo shopping arcade near Nijo Castle, where inexpensive, kitschy souvenirs await discovery.
    Photo by J & C Sohns/age fotostock
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    A Town of Temples
    The temples of Kyoto vary in appearance, from ornate and imposing to simple and austere. Pretty Kinkaku-ji, a Buddhist temple built in 1397 as a refuge from civilization, is one of Kyoto’s most popular sights. Its three-story Golden Pavilion gleams with gold leaf amidst a carefully landscaped grove. Follow the forested path behind the temple to a tea garden dotted with red umbrellas beneath leaning trees. In the northern Higashiyama district, the expansive Nanzen-ji temple complex comprises numerous small temples, raked gardens, and a 19th-century aqueduct. Perched on Mount Otowa, Kiyomizu Temple is a prime location to see the sun set over Kyoto.
    Photo by Erin Bogar
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    The Sanctuaries of Shintoism
    Magnificent red and orange gates mark the entries to Japan’s Shinto shrines. Fushimi Inari-taisha, the shrine to the god of sake and rice, is the most famous. Visitors can simply peek though a tunnel of torii—densely packed orange and black gates—or choose to hike beneath 2.5 miles of the vermilion arches as the path meanders up Inari Mountain to the shrine. In the center of the Gion district, Yasaka Shrine’s layers of lanterns cast a glow on the surrounding orange structures of the shrine. Find solitude along the banks of the Kamo River at Kyoto’s oldest shrine, Kamigamo-jinja, which dates to 678—predating the founding of the city.
    Photo by Austin Rea
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    Sculpting the Land
    Kyoto’s gardens and landscapes unite nature and architecture, transforming ordinary functional elements into things of beauty. Stone lanterns, stepping-stone paths, and dramatically arched bridges are all characteristic of Kyoto's gardens. Distinguished architect Kobori Enshu designed many of the city’s Edo-era gardens; admire his work on a tour of the Sento Imperial Palace gardens, taking care to observe how both interior and exterior intersect at the Kodai-ji temple. In the dry garden and strolling garden at Taizo-in temple, enjoy a tea ceremony, calligraphy, or meditation. And the art of simplicity is best observed at the stark, minimalist Zen rock gardens at Daitoku-ji and Ryoan-ji temples.
    Photo by Javier Larrea/age fotostock
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    Classic Japanese Souvenirs
    Stroll down stone paths and through shopping arcades and old temple markets in Kyoto. Chawan-zaka (Teapot Lane) is the charming hilly street that leads the way to Kiyomizu Temple. Tightly packed shops sell pottery, traditional Japanese sweets, tapestries, sketches, and sake. Kyoto’s largest flea markets, Tenjin-san (held the 25th of every month) and Kobo-san (the 21st of every month), are excellent spots to people-watch and pick through Japanese antiques and kimonos. Kyoto teems with shops that have been around for centuries, such as Aritsugu, one of Japan’s oldest and most esteemed knife shops; Miyawaki Baisen-an, a famous wooden-fan shop; and Matsuno Shoyu Shop, which has sold artisanal soy sauce since 1805.
    Photo by Philippe Widling/age fotostock
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    Discover Fine Craftsmanship
    Since its establishment as a city, the citizens of Kyoto have been producing exceptional works of art. The Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Hall, once the home of famous potter Kawai Kanjiro, is now a fascinating museum for furniture and pottery. Tour the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, which continues to feature Kyoto’s best living artists, and nearby Zohiko lacquerware museum and shop, which has been here since the 17th century. In Nishijin, one of Kyoto’s most traditional regions and home to the textile industry, see how kimonos are made and then witness a kimono fashion show at the Nishijin Textile Center. Look for the district’s machiya (old Kyoto townhouses), where craftsmen continue to keep ancient artistic traditions alive.
    Photo by Megan Eileen McDonough
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    Day Trips from Kyoto
    To escape the crowds of Kyoto, visit the rural mountain villages of Kurama and Kibune. Hike to Kurama-dera Temple and enjoy the mountain hot springs at Kurama Onsen. Once the capital of Japan, Nara is rich in historic sights. Feed tame deer in Nara Park and visit Japan’s biggest Buddha at Todai-ji temple, the largest wooden structure in the world. Two hours from Kyoto, Hiroshima’s remarkable Peace Memorial Park was created to facilitate global peace. At the Children’s Peace Monument, thousands of origami cranes honor the memory of the children who died from the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The park’s Genbaku Dome, the lone surviving structure after the bomb, is a potent symbol of hope that such destruction will never be repeated.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Enchanting Historic Architecture
    The ancient monuments of Kyoto are windows into the city’s thousand-year history. Toh-shiya, an archery contest that began in the 12th century, is still an annual event at Sanjusangen-do, the longest wooden building in Japan. Nishi Hongwanji temple is filled with paintings, intricate carvings, and metalwork from the Momoyama era, a time characterized by civil war, lavish art and architecture, and the simplicity of the tea ceremony. Kinkaku-ji temple is an iconic Muromachi-era pavilion with a tumultuous history. Constructed in 1397, when Zen Buddhism, Noh Theater, and landscape design flourished, the Golden Pavilion has burned down several times—most recently in 1950, set ablaze by a young, mentally ill monk obsessed with the temple.
    Photo by Jessica Mullins
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    Romance in Kyoto
    Hidden temples, lantern-lit stone streets, and secret gardens make Kyoto one of Japan’s most romantic cities. Stay at Hiiragiya, a nearly 200-year-old ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) where samurai once slept. Each room is a sanctuary, with wooden baths, tatami mats, and private gardens. Relax in a rickshaw and ride through Kyoto’s hilly Maruyama Park near the Gion district’s Yasaka Shrine. At the secluded Murin-an Villa, located near Nanzen-ji temple, escape the masses and wander through the villa’s shaded forests and open meadows while admiring views of the nearby Higashiyama Mountains. Travel by Old World boats directed by giant bamboo poles across the Hozu River to the Kitasaga Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama.
    Photo by Erin Bogar
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    Kyoto Walking Tours
    Explore Kyoto’s districts on foot and discover hidden shrines and tiny shops away from the masses. From Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, follow the Path of Philosophy to the Nanzen-ji temple complex. This tree-lined path ambles along a canal past small tea houses, artisan stores, and shrines. When darkness falls on Gion, hundreds of white paper lanterns form a warm glow around Yasaka Shrine. From Yasaka, follow Shijo-dori past souvenir boutiques to Pontocho Alley. Pontocho is brimming with tightly packed and elegant restaurants lit by paper lanterns; at night, geisha often wander through this narrow lane.
    Photo by Seigo Yamamura/age fotostock