With its historic neighborhoods, geisha quarters, some 2,000 temples and shrines and 20% of Japan’s National Treasures, Kyoto has enough to keep the inquisitive busy for a weekend, a week, a year and even a lifetime. This itinerary pares the city’s gems into a manageable list of top must-sees, but be sure to allow time to simply wander around.
To enhance your experience, I also recommend staying at least one night in a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan), because this is an only-in-Japan opportunity and Kyoto is one of the best cities to do it. Downtown Kyoto, located in Nakagyo-ku (“Central Capital Ward”), is one of my favorite downtown districts in Japan, especially the area bound within the square formed by Shijo, Kawaramachi, Oike and Karasuma streets.
You’ll also find artisan shops, restaurants, and ryokan, some housed in renovated machiya (traditional townhouses). Not to be missed is the Nishiki Food Market on Nishikikoji Dori, a covered arcade stretching from Teramachi to Takakura streets and lined with 130-some shops and stalls. Also in Nakagyo-ku is Nijo Castle, built in 1603 for the shogun’s residence whenever he was in Kyoto and famous for its size, defense mechanisms and garden.
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Northwest of downtown Kyoto also has its share of world-famous treasures, including Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), covered in shimmering gold leaf, and nearby Ryoanji, the most famous rock garden in Japan. One of the loveliest wards in Kyoto is Higashiyama-ku (“East Mountain Ward”), home to Kiyomizu, Kyoto’s most famous temple due to its cliff-side location and construction. Even the walk to the temple is memorable, past shop after shop selling souvenirs and tasty treats ubiquitous to the former capital.
Another worthwhile stop in Higashiyama-ku is Sanjusangendo Hall with its more than 1,000 life-size statues housed in the longest wooden building in the world.
But come evening, one of my favorite things to do is to stroll the narrow alleyway called Pontocho, which parallels the Kamo River to the west and is lined with restaurants and bars. Just to the west of that is another nightlife street, Kiyamachi, which hugs a narrow canal. I also recommend strolling along the west bank of the Kamo River, popular with couples on dates. In addition to the above, it might also be worthwhile joining a walking or biking tour of Kyoto.
One of my favorites is the walking tour of Gion, Japan’s most famous geisha district. Although you can often glimpse a geisha or maiko (geisha apprentice) on their way to an evening appointment, on this tour you’ll learn about their lifestyle and obligations and see where they live and work.