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Welcome to Kyoto


Kyoto, Japan's most historically important town, is the country's sightseeing capital, packed with 1,700 Buddhist temples, 300 Shinto shrines, imperial palaces, gardens and traditional wooden homes, all well preserved and presenting a picture of traditional Japanese culture. The city lies in the mid-western Kansai district on the island of Honshu, surrounded by plains full of rice paddies.

Visitors arriving from the Kansai International Airport or on board the famous Shinkansen bullet train at Kyoto's modern central station may be disenchanted to initially discover a thriving, overcrowded industrial city with a straight grid of uniform streets presided over by the futuristic Kyoto Tower. The city may present a modern face, but explore behind the scenes in the outer districts or off the beaten track in the old merchants' quarters and you will glimpse cameos and images of traditional Japan, from cherry blossom to geishas, and bonsai trees to shoji screens.

Apart from the architectural legacy, which was fortunately spared the heavy bombings inflicted on other Japanese cities during World War II, Kyoto also boasts some of Japan's most significant art works, a culturally traditional way of life, and superior cuisine. No visit to Japan is complete without devoting time to experience Kyoto.

Information & Facts


Kyoto has four distinct seasons, its climate ensuring very hot temperatures in summer and winter weather characterised by temperatures below freezing and occasional snowfall. Kyoto summers are hot and humid, with very little wind, and the temperatures can rise to 104°F (40°C).

Getting Around

The best way to access Kyoto's tourist attractions (which are not located near subway stations) is by bus. The city is served by multiple bus companies with direct lines from Kyoto Station and several points in the city centre. An English map of the Kyoto City bus network is available from tourist offices, and signs are in English as well as Japanese. Fares are paid on leaving the bus. The only drawback to the buses is that traffic density makes them slow and they can become very crowded. For getting around the city centre the subway is recommended. Two subway lines cross the city, from north to south and east to west. Kyoto has a high concentration of taxis, particularly in the city centre.

Japanese is the official language. Most Japanese people will have studied English at school, but few can speak it well or understand what is said to them.

The currency is the Japanese Yen (JPY), which is equal to 100 sen. Major credit cards are accepted in the larger hotels and stores, but most Japanese operate with cash. Cash and travellers cheques can be exchanged in banks, post offices and currency exchange bureaux. Banks are usually open Monday to Friday 9am to 3pm. Travellers cheques offer the best exchange rate and are best taken in US dollars. ATMs do not accept all credit and debit cards; only the international ATMs in post offices, airports and some major stores.

Local time is GMT +9.

Most visitors to Japan are fascinated with the traditional Geisha: white-faced kimono-clad women specially trained to entertain and spoil men in a soothing setting. Kyoto boasts one of the most famous Geisha districts in the country, a neighbourhood of plain wooden buildings to the east of the Kamo River known as Gion. There were once thousands of Geisha and maiko (apprentice Geisha) performing their genteel tasks in this area. Today the number has dwindled to a few hundred, but visitors who stroll the Hanami-koji street at sunset, past teahouses and restaurants, will probably catch a glimpse of one or two en route to the geisha houses in their clattering wooden shoes. The geisha houses themselves are strictly off-limits to anyone not properly introduced and invited, but from behind the paper screens you will hear the strains of music and laughter. While geisha-spotting in the Gion district, take in the Yasaka Shrine with its many paper lanterns, and the Minamiza Kabuki Theatre.

One of Kyoto's most popular attractions is to the north of the city. The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) is a three-storey pavilion covered in gold leaf, glittering in the waters of a calm pond. Kinkakuji was built in 1397 as a retirement home for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who lived there in luxury until he died in 1408, after which the building was converted into a Zen temple. In 1950 a mad monk burnt the pavilion down, and it was not rebuilt until 1955. Today it is covered in gold leaf five times thicker than the original coating, and presents an awesome sight. A short walk from the pavilion is Ryoanji, Japan's most famous Zen rock garden, laid out in the 15th century. A veranda overlooks the garden in which 15 rocks are set among raked white pebbles.

Considered to be the finest example of pure Japanese architecture and garden design, Katsura Rikyu, built in 1645 by Prince Toshihito, is beautiful in its simplicity. The buildings are constructed of entirely natural materials and consist of a moon-viewing pavilion, an imperial hall, teahouse and the wooden villa itself. The garden is designed for leisurely strolls with surprises around each turn of the path, from stone bridges and lanterns to ponds and manicured trees.

The 'Pure water temple', Kiyomizu-dera, is one of Japan's most celebrated temples, founded in 780 and associated with Nara Buddhism, the oldest sect in Japan. The temple's main feature is the lovely view afforded of the wooded hills of eastern Kyoto from its terrace. Below the terrace is the spring from which the temple got its name; visitors can sample the water, which is said to have healing powers. Nearby is an interesting three-storey pagoda, and the Otawa Falls. The approach to the temple along Kiyomizu-michi or Gojo-zaka is steep and narrow, the streets lined with stores specialising in local sweets, pottery and the inevitable souvenirs. Behind the temple is the Shinto Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the god of love.

Japan's imperial family lived in the Kyoto palace from 1331 until 1868 (when they moved to Tokyo), and today visitors can view the furnishings and delicate decorations on guided one-hour tours of the city's Imperial Palace. It is necessary to reserve a tour in advance by calling at the Imperial Household Agency office in the Kyoto Imperial Park, which surrounds the palace. To join a tour you need to produce your passport.

While there are many places in Japan from which to view Kabuki theatre, the Kyoto Minamiza Theatre is one of the principal venues for such performances and a major hub for the art form. The building itself is an architectural wonder, built in a traditional style in 1929, on the edge of the geisha district of Gion. Visitors can pay to see individual acts of plays of to see the entire performance. Because the theatre has become popular among tourists, an English voice-over explains the show to tourists.

The city of Nara, 26 miles (42km) south of Kyoto, could be regarded as the place where Japan's culture was formalised. The city, originally called Heijo, became the first permanent capital of the country in 710. Although its capital status only lasted for 74 years, they were years that entrenched and enshrined Japan's arts, crafts and literature. Nara flourished as a political and cultural centre and thus was blessed with numerous temples, shrines, pagodas and palaces, which today attract locals and foreigners intent on glimpsing historic Japan. Most of Nara's historic treasures are contained in a vast park which has been designated a World Heritage Site, making sightseeing easy and pleasurable. Highlights are Todaiji, the huge temple that contains Japan's largest Buddha statue, and Horyuji, the temple containing the world's oldest wooden structures.

The temple of Rengeoin in eastern Kyoto is better known by its popular name of Sanjusangen-do, and houses an amazing sight. Inside the longest wooden building in Japan stand row upon row of life-sized statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, carved from Japanese cypress in the 12th and 13th centuries. There are 1,001 statues altogether. The statues surround the large, central figure of a seated Kannon, carved in 1254 in the Kamakura Period.

To-ji, with the tallest pagoda in Japan, was the Buddhist temple founded in 794 as guardian of the then young capital city's welfare. Today it stands about 10 minutes walk to the south of Kyoto Station, drawing curious tourists to admire in particular its five-storey pagoda, which was rebuilt in the mid-17th century. During the span of centuries a treasure trove of statuary, calligraphy and paintings has been collected at the temple, now housed in the various historic buildings making up the temple complex. The statues include a six-metre-tall Senju Kannon (thousand-arm Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) carved in 877. A well-known flea market is held on the 21st of every month.

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