Tokyo may be the modern day capital of Japan, but Kyoto will always hold a place in Japanese hearts. Standing as the capital of Japan for over a millennium, this city still holds on to the old world charm while embracing the modern-era. Though you may be fooled initially upon entering the city, where the steel and glass main gateway greets you, the hidden gems of this city, such as the parks and the temples, will take you back to bygone eras. This city may be small in size, but it is rich in cultural heritage.

Where to Go

Spread out among the districts, you will find a plethora of activities to enrich and excite your mind. Lace up your walking shoes and take in the sites of Old Japan.

Central District

In the main district of Kyoto you will find a whole day’s worth of adventures, starting with your place of entry, the Kyoto Station. This is the second largest station building in Japan and you could spend hours in the shopping mall, the movie theater, and the department store. If you want to be close to the transportation hub, look no further, and there’s also a hotel incorporated into the station. The Kyoto station has a rich history. It first opened in 1877 and has had two renovations since then to help bring it’s aesthetic up to par. The most recent renovation created its current futuristic look with a cubic façade of glass over the steel frame that opened back in 1997.

Also in the Central district is the Nijō Castle, originally built by the Tokugawa shoguns. As you wander the impressive gardens and centuries-old structures, it will feel like you are taking a stroll through history. If you’re lucky, you can even find spots where views of the city that lies beyond come through.  

Eastern District

The Eastern district, or Higashiyama, is the home of some of the most picturesque areas of Kyoto. You will find a full day’s worth of things to see and do in this district, starting at Kiyomizu-dera, the independent Buddhist temple and one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto.

Next, you will want to see Ginkakuji, the Zen temple in this district that represents the culture of the Muromachi period. Though it recently went through an extensive restoration, it is now completely open to the public so visitors can relax in the Japanese garden and walk through the main temple complex.

Don’t forget to visit Nanzenji, but you’ll mostly want to commit time to visiting Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto. Here you’ll find the Yasaka Shrine and the two main Geisha communities that live here. The ward is also dotted with traditional teahouses and entertainment establishments. You’ll want to visit an Ochaya, or teahouse, and experience the traditional Japanese nightlife of music, singing, dancing, and performances by the Geisha. It is important to know, Geisha are not referred to as Geisha in this area, but instead a local term, geiko. Geisha has the meaning of “artist,” while Geiko means, “a woman of art.”

Finally, head over to the Philosopher’s Walk, the cherry-tree lined pedestrian path that runs along the canal. It was named after the influential Japanese philosopher and professor, Nishida Kitaro. It is called the Philosopher’s Walk, because it is thought that this is the path that Kitaro used for his daily meditation. Though it only takes about 30 minutes to complete the walk, you may find that you will need a while longer to finish due to all of the hidden spots along the way that will capture your attention and imagination.

Western District

Though dismissed by most, this district, known as Arashiyama, is still quite popular among Japanese tourists. It is well-loved for its natural beauty and serves as a quiet retreat from the busier downtown districts of Kyoto. Here you can take a walk along the Togetsukyo Bridge that spans the Hozu River and particularly beautiful during the cherry blossom season and autumn when the leaves are changing. 

Another notable destination is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The thick, green stalks seem to grow from every direction in an endless stretch towards the sky. If the bamboo doesn’t cut it and you’d like to see some wildlife, then you’ll want to head to the Iwatayama Monkey Park. The Park is home to over 170 monkeys, who live on the grounds. There is even a fenced enclosure in the Park where visitors can feed the monkeys.

North District

For a true step back in time, head to the North District where you’ll find centuries-old shrines and temples, several UNESCO World Heritage sites, and the gilded pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, one of Kyoto’s most famous attractions.

What to Do

While you’re visiting Kyoto you may spend all of your time wandering through the districts and visiting the shrines but don’t forget to take in some of the iconic pieces of Japanese culture such as the Public baths. If you get the chance to visit an actual hot spring, locally referred to as an onsen, you will leave feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. The healing properties in the water are great for the skin, making this an activity you won’t want to miss!

You can also participate in a traditional Buddhist meditation session. These meditation sessions are one of the most popular attractions for tourists looking to unwind and get in touch with their inner mind. Depending on where and when you decide to visit Kyoto, you will be met with an array of options and different meditation sessions.

The Japanese Cherry Blossoms are undoubtedly the best reason to visit Japan in the spring and they are especially breathtaking in Kyoto. Walking along the Philosopher’s Path is one of the most picturesque ways to take in the blossoming trees. If your timing is right, you can visit the Nijo Castle’s “light up”, where visitors can walk the grounds of the castle at night among the blossoms. This event usually lasts for approximately two weeks.

Travel Tips

You will find that there is no longer an direct airport available for Kyoto. Instead, you will need to use Osaka’s airport and then continue your journey by railway or roadway (it will take about an hour to get there, by car).

When looking to get around Kyoto, the subway is your best option for transport. For those that plan to sight-see many areas of the city for more than one day, you may want to look into the Kyoto Sightseeing Card, which gives you unlimited transportation access around Kyoto for 1-2 days.

Travelling through Japan is a little like travelling back in time and into the future at the same time. When you visit Kyoto, you’ll get a taste of the old culture and ways of life in Japan and learn about the customs and traditions of this city. Protect your holiday to this culture hotspot with travel insurance from Cover-More.

Image courtesy of Flickr user syvwlch.