Katsura Garden KYOTO (315 miles southwest of Tokyo and 25 miles east of Osaka) was the home of the Japanese Emperor, the center of Japanese civilization and the capital of Japan for about 1,100 years or its 1,200 years of existence. Today it known best for its geishas, great temples, beautiful gardens and works of art. It is also the home of Nintendo and more than its share of urban sprawl.
When visiting Kyoto, it is important to keep in mind that it is both a modern city and historical treasure with the old and new often placed side by side. Temples and pagodas share the skyline with office complexes; traditional crafts shops and old neighborhoods are intermixed with modern shopping malls and subway stations; and geishas walk down the streets next to salarymen, office ladies and skateboard punks. Yes, there are many lovely, historical buildings but there are also traffic jams, McDonalds and Mister Donuts.
Kyoto is home to about 1.5 million residents. Around 50 million tourists visit Kyoto every year—including 1 million foreigners, of whom 100,000 are Americans. The number of tourists dipped somewhat after the Kobe earthquake, even though Kyoto was not seriously damaged (the Golden Temple developed cracks and a 9th century statue of a Goddess of Mercy in the Koryuji Temple lost a right arm, but that was about it) but soon returned to normal
A lot of foreigners are surprised by how ugly downtown Kyoto is, describing it as a “jumbled mess” and “old and dreary” and ”not clean.” Many of the nice spots are outside the downtown and requires a little work to get to. But even here you often emerge from a lovely temple or garden only to face off with a busy road lined with wire-laden utility poles and buildings thrown up with little rhyme or reason.
New rules went into effect 2007 that aim to reduce Kyoto’s clutter. They include banning flashing billboards, rooftop signs and buildings higher than 31 meters or 19 stories, compared to the current 45 meters. Regulations also cover the color and design of buildings. The traditional wooden houses with lattice facades and slatted second story windows in Kyomachiya have been named endangered cultural heritage sites by the World Monument Fund. There are 50,000 of these houses in Kyoto but their numbers are being reduced by about two percent a year.
History of Kyoto
Heian period clothesKyoto became Japan’s capital at the beginning of the Heian Period (A.D. 794-1192) and flourished until 1868 when the Edo Period ended and Emperor Meiji moved the imperial seat to Tokyo. Although a variety of feudal lords have ruled Japan from different places during the country's long history, Kyoto has always remained its cultural and artistic center and for most of Japan's history the home of the imperial family.
Kyoto was spared much of the bombing in World War II that destroyed Tokyo, Osaka and other Japanese cities. One important American general wanted to drop the Hiroshima atomic bomb on Kyoto because he believed that "would most adversely affect the will of the Japanese people to continue the war." The Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, who had visited Kyoto in the 1920s, overruled him, arguing that destroying Japan's cultural capital was wrong.
A lot of Kyoto's cultural heritage is not necessary what it appears to be. The revered Heian Shrine, for example, was built in 1895 for an industrial exposition. The Miyako Odori, a so called form of traditional dance performed by maikos and geisha, was devised to help boost tourism. The entire city was city was burned down in a civil war in 15th century and much of it was destroyed in the riots in the final days of the Tokugawa shogunate. Most of what passes for the old city today was built during the Meiji Period (1868-1912).
When U.S. President George Bush visited Kyoto in 2005 he stayed at the Kyoto State Guesthouse in Kyoto Gyoen National Park in Kamigyo Ward. Companies based in Kyoto include Nintendo, Kyocera and Rohm
Surrounded by beautiful hills and laid out in a checkerboard design of streets and avenues developed more than 1,000 years ago, Kyoto is a repository for much of Japan's best art, architecture, culture, religion and thought.
Kyoto boasts over 1,650 Buddhist temples, over 400 Shinto shrines, two vast Imperial complexes, 20 percent of Japan's national treasures, 15 percent of Japan's Important Cultural Properties, 24 museums, gardens and 37 universities and colleges. Several temples and shrines have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website
Some buildings are admired for their architectural beauty; some are known for the art treasures and priceless statues they house; and others are famed for the beautiful landscape gardens attached to them. Most of Kyoto's temples and shrines have been rebuilt, as many as a dozen times, after fires which frequently have struck the city.
Kyoto Tourist Information
Kyoto in the 19th century Japan National Tourist Organization Tourist Information Center (JNTO) is located near Kyoto Station at Kyoto Tower Bldg., Karasuma-dori Shichijo-saguna, Shimogyu-ku, Kyoto, ☎ (075)-371-5649. The people that work there are amazingly well-informed and helpful and provide excellent maps, guidebooks and pamphlets. Kyoto City Tourist Information offices are located at Kyoto Station (☎ 075-342-6655) and in front of Heian Shrine (☎ 075-752-0227).
Websites: Kyoto Official Travel Guide by Kyoto Tourism Council Kyoto Travel ;Kyoto Prefecture Site Welcome to Kyoto ; Kyoto Visitor’s Guide Kyoto Visitor’s Guide ; Kyoto City Tourism and Information System kaiwai.city.kyoto.jp ; Kyoto City international Foundationkcif.or.jp ;
Maps: Kyoto Prefecture Site Welcome to Kyoto ; Japanese Lifestyle Japanese Lifestsyles ; Kyoto Asanoxn kyoto.asanoxn.com ; Japan Hotel Reservations japan-hotel-reservations.net ; qci.jst.go.jp Street Map of Kyoto qci.jst.go.jp ;
Area Maps: Kyoto Station Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Central Kyoto Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Northeast Kyoto Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Kinkaku-ju Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Arashiyama Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO
Guidebook of Kyoto: A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto by Marc Treib and Ron Herman; Old Kyoto: A Guide to Traditional Shops and Inns by Diane Durston (Kodansha); Kyoto: Seven Paths to the Heart of the City by Diane Durston; and Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide by Governor Mosher. The tourist offices provide a number of excellent free guides.
Tour and Travel Agencies: The Japan National Tourist Organization Japan in your home country can supply you with a list tour operators in Kyoto as well as lists of car rental companies and hotels.
For Other Kinds of Information such as lists of specific hotels and restaurants, tourist agencies, currency exchanges houses, post offices, telephone offices, shops, bookstores, night clubs, sports places, theaters, swimming pools, embassies, churches, and airline agents, maps, hospitals, pharmacies, car rentals and bike and moped rentals, consult the Lonely Planet Guides and other travel guides.
Orientation and Walks in Kyoto
Walks: The tourist offices provide a number of excellent free guides with walks. Popular walking routes: 1) the Kyoto Station Walking Course to temples and gardens in the Kyoto Station area. 2) the Kiyomuzi Temple Area Walking Course between Kiyomuzi Temple and Shoren-in in eastern Kyoto. 3) Path of Philosophy (between Nanzenji Temple and Ginkakuji Temple. 4) Ohara-Kurama Hiking Course through mountains between the Ohara temple area and the Kurama hot spring area.
5) the Golden Temple Walk to temples between Hanazono Station on the JR San-in Main Line and Kikakuji (Golden Temple) in northwest Kyoto. There are also a number of walks and hikes in the temple areas and mountains around Arashiyama in western Kyoto and Fushimi Inaria Shrine in southern Kyoto. Many people stroll around the Gion area in the evening and a night, hoping to catch glimpses of geisha and maikos. See Hiking Mountains in the Kansai Area.
Orientation: Kyoto is laid out on a Chinese model as a flat 3½-mile by 3-mile rectangle. Surrounded by mountains, it is divided by a great east-west highway, subdivided by parallel avenues, and organized into checkerboard units. The Tourist Information Center (TIC) provides a good free map.
The main commercial and nightlife centers is between Shijo-dori to the south, Sanjo-dori to the north, Kawaramachi-sori to the east and Karasuma-dori to the west. Central Kyoto includes this area and extends roughly from Kyoto Station in the south to Imperial Palace in the north. Temples, shrines and other places of interest are scattered all over the city and its hinterlands.
It is hard to get around Kyoto exclusively on foot. To make matters worse only a few places can be reached by train or subway. To reach the majority of temples, shrines and gardens you have to take at least one public bus, some of which run only a couple times an hour. Many people end up taking an organized tour because transportation is so problematic. Taxis are convenient if you have enough money.
Entertainment in Kyoto
19th century geisha The best source of entertainment information was Kansai Time Out but it ceased publication in September 2009. The best source now is Kyoto Visitor's Guide. It is free. Calendar of events and other guides may be obtained from the tourist offices. There are lots of bars and nightclubs in Pontocho (across the Kamogawa river from Gion, between the river and Kawaramachi-dori, north of Kawaramachi station) and in main commercial district between Shijo-dori to the south, Sanjo-dori to the north, Kawaramachi-sori to the east and Karasuma-dori to the west.
Traditional entertainment districts are known as “hanamachi: and “kagai.” These are the traditional stomping grounds of geisha—or as they are known in Kyoto, geiko and maiko. There are currently about 100 maiko working in Kyoto. They are younger—and generally better looking—than the geiko and tend to be the geisha tourists are most likely to see.
Gion is the most well-known of Kyoto’s five traditional hanamachi (entertainment) districts. Keep in mind that places with geishas are extremely expensive and don’t accept people off the street. Bunraku puppet theater, Kabuki, No Theater and traditional forms of Japanese music and dance are often staged at various venues in Kyoto (again check Kyoto Visitor’s Guide or the tourist offices for schedules). Many of Kyoto's temples and shrines come to life during the numerous festivals and events that fill Kyoto's calendar.
Western and Japanese classical music concerts are performed at the Kyoto Concert Hall. It can seat 1,800 people and contains a pipe organ that ca make the sound of Japanese musical instruments. Nintendo has plans to build a "Pokemon World" theme park in Kyoto.
Entertainment Websites: Kansai Restaurant Guide Bento.com ;
Kyoto Official Travel Guide by Kyoto Tourism Council Kyoto Travel ; Kyoto Prefecture Site Welcome to Kyoto Kyoto Visitor’s Guide Kyotoguide.com ; ;
Theaters, Gardens and Baths in Kyoto
Kabuki Minami-za Kabuki Theater (near the Kamo river) is the oldest Kabuki theater in Japan. Near the spot where the theater now stands, a Shinto priestess and her troupe performed the first Kabuki in 1603 to raise money for a shrine. Most performances are held during the Kaomise festival from the end of November to late December. Website: Welcome to Kyoto Kyoto Prefecture site
Noh Theater was first performed in Kyoto in 1374. A new Noh theater, the Kongo Noh Theater (five minutes by foot from Imadegawa subway station), opened in Kamigyo Ward in June 2003. Replacing the wooden Kongo Nogaku-do Theater which closed down after 140 years in 2000, it is a 430-seat concrete theater with computer-controlled lighting, a stage close to the audience, carefully-engineered acoustics and a headset system so that non-Japanese can follow the action in six languages. Noh and kyogen are also performed at the and the Kanze Nogaku-do Kaikan. Website: Kyoto Travel Kyoto Travel
Gion Corner: See Gion.
Baths: Funaoka Onsen (Kuramaguchi-dori) has seven baths, including an indoor bath, outdoor bath and an herbal bath which smells like celery. The changing rooms features a painting of a large red-nosed demon and woodcarvings made during the invasion of Manchuria.
Shomen-yu is huge three-story bath complex with an outdoor bath on the roof. The sauna has a television and room for 20 men. One of the nicest outdoor onsens is in Kurama. See Kurama. Website: Japan Visitor Japan Visitor
Gardens in Kyoto include the ones at the Imperial Palace, Heian Shrine, Ginkakauji Temple, Shugaku-in Imperial Villa, Sanzen-in Temple, Kinkakuji Temple, Ryoanji Temple, Tenryuji Temple, Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa, Saiho-ji Temple Moss Garden, Daichiji Temple, Jonangu Temple, Nijo Castle, and Tofukuji Temple. For more details see these places. Websites: Kyoto Gardens.org kyotogardens.org ; Japanese Garden learn.bowdoin.edu/japanesegardens ;
Restaurants in Kyoto
traditonal kaiseki dishes A variety of places to eat are scattered around Kyoto. A good list of restaurants is sometimes available from the tourist office and guides with restaurant are on sale at bookstores and newsstands. You can also check lists of restaurants and suggestions in local entertainment magazines, the Lonely Planet books, and other guidebooks.
The Michelin Guide Kyoto and Osaka 2010 was released in October 2008. Six restaurants in Kyoto and one in Osaka were awarded three stars. They included 400-year-old Japanese restaurant Hyotei, the main restaurant in Arashiyama of Kyoto Kitcho and the French restaurant Hajime in Osaka. In the guide the five level rating system was applied to restaurant and ryokan.
For three months, beginning on June 15th, outdoor Yuka Dining Platforms on the west side of the Kamogawa river, are open. These places tend to be very expensive. More than 82 restaurants offer alfresco dining stretching on a 2.5-kilometer stretch of river. There are lots of restaurants and bars in Pontocho (across the Kamogawa river from Gion, between the river and Kawaramachi-dori, north of Kawaramachi station) and in main commercial district north of Kawaramachi station and between Shijo-dori to the south, Sanjo-dori to the north, Kawaramachi-sori to the east and Karasuma-dori to the west.
One Kyoto resident wrote: "We have so many many good restaurants in the downtown area that every day I discover new ones. We also have a decent gaij community...you might add for relief Tadg's Irish bar on the 8th floor of the Empire building just south of Oike on Kiyomachi. There is comfort food for the foreigner tired of total Japanese. It is in area of the hotels too. Recently sanjo street has taken off between terramachi and Karasuma. Also Karasuma is becoming the center of Kyoto and had new hotels and shops including the Sinpukan near Oike."
Restaurant Websites : Kyoto Official Travel Guide by Kyoto Tourism Council Kyoto Travel ; Kansai Restaurant Guide Bento.com ; Kyoto Prefecture Site Welcome to Kyoto ; Kyoto Visitor’s Guide Kyotoguide.com ; Frommers Frommers.com ; Fodors Fodors.com
Shopping in Kyoto
Marutamachi Dori is one of Kyoto's busiest modern shopping streets. But it is also a busy street chocked with traffic. Shinmonzen Dori is Kyoto’s main street for antiques. Kitayama used to be known as a trendy shopping area but it was at its peak a long time ago when the Bubble Economy was in full swing in 1980s. Websites: Kyoto Official Travel Guide by Kyoto Tourism Council Kyoto Travel ; Kyoto Prefecture Site Welcome to Kyoto ;Kyoto Visitor’s Guide Kyotoguide.com ; Frommers Frommers.com
19th century souvenir shop Shijo Street (Shijo subway station) is the main east-west shopping street in downtown Kyoto. There are department stores here and many interesting craft shops. There are many small shops in the shopping arcades on Teramachi Street and Shinkyogoku Street. Kawaramchi, which intersects Shijo Street, is full of amusement facilities and more shops.
Crafts: Kyoto is still regarded as a major center of traditional crafts. Among the 40 or so different kinds crafts that are still made in Kyoto are Nishiki silk weaving, Yuzen dyed cloth, Kiyomizuyaki pottery, Kyo Zogan (Damascene), Koi Braided Cord, Kyo Washi (handmade paper). cloisonne, lacquerware, dyed garments, woodwork, embroidery, braiding, round paper fans, folded paper fans, stonework, dolls, sliding paper doors, kimonos, Buddhist altars, and Buddhist altar implements.
If crafts are your thing, a good place to begin your visit to Kyoto is at the Fureaikan Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (near Heian Shrine) Many traditional industries took centuries to develop and are now kept alive by a few artisan families. There are a number of craft museums and craft shops where crafts are sold and craftsmen can be seen doing their work. Check Old Kyoto: A Guide to Traditional Shops and Inns by Diane Durston. Tourist offices in Kyoto also have guides and pamphlets that explain where you can buy and see demonstrations of all the crafts mentioned above. Websites: Welcome to Kyoto Kyoto Prefecture Site ; Japan Guide apan-guide.com
Kyoto Handicraft Center (accessible by No. 206 bus from Kyoto Station) sells good quality but expensive crafts such as ceramics, dolls, fans, and dyed cloth. You can often see craftsmen at work and try your hand at making cloisonne, wood bloc prints and dolls.
Nishijin Textile Center (Karasuma subway station) is a facility set up for tourists. Here visitors can see a kimono fashion show, a demonstration of silk weaving, and displays of Nishijin fabrics. Women can try kimonos and have their picture taken in them. Shoppers can buy kimonos, dresses, robes, neckties and other garments made of Nishijin silk.
The Nishijin area is famous for its tradition silk weaving. Christal Whelan wrote in Daily Yomiuri:“For five centuries the neighborhood of Nishijin, west of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, has been the production center of Japan's obi, silk brocades, twills and gauzes. Its narrow streets are lined with two-story wooden townhouses called machiya, the traditional habitations of the textile artisans and the merchants who organize production and sell the finished products to wholesalers. The characteristic latticed doors and house-fronts are often painted with a red-ocher pigment that repels moths from these silk-weaving workshops. "Nishijin" refers not only to this district in Kyoto, but to a weaving process and to a textile product that carries its label.”
At Orinasukan (on the street east of Senbo, two blocks north of Imadegawa) you can see kimonos being made by skilled weavers and elaborate looms. For a $4 entrance fee you get shown around by an English-speaking guide and see a museum with modern kimonos and spectacular Noh costumes. Website: Nishijin.or Nishijin.or
Nishiki Food Market (behind Shijodori, the main commercial district) is filled with many small shops selling Kyoto delicacies. Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” it is where restaurant chefs pick up ingredients by bicycle and women do their shopping in kimonos. Rows of paper lanterns hang from pickle shops and items from the shops spill out in the narrow 390-meter-long covered arcade. Among the delicacies on sale are gu (bread-like pieces of wheat gluten), yuba (soy paper), and steaming carp roe
Temple Flea Markets include the ones at 1) Toji Temple on the 1st Sunday each month, 2) Kitano-Tenmangi Shrine on the 25th of each month, 3) Imamiya Shrine on the 1st of each month, 4) Chionji Temple on the 15th of each month. 5) Kamigoryo Shrine on the 18th of each month. 6) Myorenji Temple on the 12th of each month and 7) Koshoji Temple on the 28th of each month.
Toji Temple The flea markets in January and February are said to be particularly large and interesting. The Kitano-Tenmangi market is the most famous. Honoring a local patron saint, it draws vendors from Osaka, Nara, Mie, Hyogo as well as Kyoto. Vendors sell everything from candied apples to octopus balls and stalls offer plants, pottery, used kimonos and obis, second-hand cloths, antiques, produce, pickles and a wide variety of other stuff. There are about 400 stalls the flea market. About 10,000 people show up at the market.
An interesting artists market is held on the top of Mt. Yoshida above Ginkaku Temple on the third Sunday of each month. . The monthly market at Hyakumanden Chionji Temple is popular with aspiring designers, aiming to find markets for their clothes. Websites: Japan Hopper japan-hopper.com
Accommodation in Kyoto
Kyoto has many nice traditional Japanese inns and a large selection of first rates hotels and some standard hotels, hostels, and business hotels. Hotels are scattered all over town. Some are located around Kyoto Station.
The English-language West Japan phone book has a good list of hotels in Osaka, Kyoto and the entire Kansai area. Hotels in Japan from the Japan National Tourist Organization, given out at overseas tourist offices, has a good list of deluxe, luxury and standard hotels. Lists of traditional inns are also available. Tourist offices can help you find a place. The Lonely Planet guides have good information on budget accommodation.
As a rule the cheaper places are not centrally located. Some of the cheapest accommodation are dormitory beds in gaijin houses and hostels. Temple lodging known as shukabo is offered at Myoren-ji Temple and Hiden-in Temple. The TIC offers two useful brochures: Reasonable Ryokan & Minshuka in Kyoto , Shukabos in Kyoto and Inexpensive Accommodation in Kyoto (Dormitory Style) . Also check Old Kyoto: A Guide to Traditional Shops and Inns by Diane Durston
Hotel Websites : Kyoto Official Travel Guide by Kyoto Tourism Council Kyoto Travel ; Kyoto Prefecture Site Welcome to Kyoto ; Kyoto Visitor’s Guide Kyotoguide.com ; JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net ; Trip Advisor tripadvisor.com Ryokan and Minshuku Kyoto Guesthouses Kyoto Guesthouses ; Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books
Transportation in Kyoto
Kyoto Station Kyoto is serviced by Japan Railways (JR) lines, two subways (the Karasuma and Tozai lines), five private train lines (Keifuku, Eizan, Keihan, Hankyu and Kintensu), a city bus system run by several companies, and taxis. See Orientation above and the "Getting Around Within Cities" section earlier in the text.
If you can three of four people together to save money you can save yourself a lot of time and hassle by taking taxis around to the sights.If you are on your own taxis may prohibitively expensive and getting around will take same planning and research because only some places can be reached by subway or train and many require a bus trip. You may want to consider a tour.
Most of the buses in Kyoto are painted light green, with a thick dark green line running down the center. In most cased the fare is ¥220 for inner city rides and more for rides into the suburbs or countryside. The bus information line (☎ 075-801-2561) is in Japanese language only.
Trafica prepaid cards can be used for all city subways and buses. They come in ¥1,000 and ¥3,000 denominations. City senyo prepaid cards are valid only on the city buses. A special one-day ticket is available for ¥700. One- and two-day tickets that can be used on all buses and subways without limit cost ¥1,200 for one day and ¥2,000 for two days. The prices are half for children. These tickets can be purchased at subway stations, bus stations and bus and subway information centers.
Velotaxis are available in some placed in central Kyoto. See Tokyo. Hankyu rents bicycles at 10 stations in Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo prefecture. Open top double-decker bus tours are available in Kyoto.
Websites: Kyoto City Web city.kyoto.jp ; Japan Guide japan-guide.com ; Kyoto University Kyoto University ; Kyoto Official Travel Guide by Kyoto Tourism Council Kyoto Travel ; Kyoto Prefecture Site Welcome to Kyoto
Train Station: The main long-distance train station is Kyoto Station. It is a new massive, modern building with stunning architecture that opened in 1997. In addition to trains it has a hotel, theaters, a museum, a department store, tourist information centers, restaurants and shops. It is also where you catch shinkansen (bullet trains) to Osaka, Hiroshima and Kyushu in the south and Nagoya, Tokyo, Nagano, Yamagata, Niigata and Akita prefectures in the north. Websites: Welcome to Kyoto Kyoto Prefecture Site ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Kyoto Station Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO
Image Sources: 1) Ray Kinnane 2) MIT Education 3) 5) 8) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 4) 7) Liza Dalby Tale of Genji site 9) 10) Kyoto Prefecture Tourism
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays