Japan's former capital maybe a modern metropolis but it's where your view of traditional Japan will be fulfilled. It's the best place to experience sublime Zen gardens, mysterious Buddhist temples, colourful Shinto shrines, ancient tea ceremonies and graceful geisha. An incredibly rewarding city that should not be missed, Kyoto is Japan in a nutshell.
Kyoto was spared the bombings that blitzed other Japanese cities during World War II so remains awash with remnants of its past glory, including around 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines along with a stunning collection of 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites in and around the city.
Perhaps the most important sightseeing district in Kyoto is Higashiyama, as it has everything from dazzling temples, to preservered lanes, lots of greenery and the city's central geisha area. Perhaps the most arresting sight is Sanjusangen-do Temple, which has over 1000 images of the Buddhist goddess Kannon, it almost resembles an angelic terracotta army. Additional must-sees include Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Nanzen-ji Temple and Heian-jingu Shrine to name but a few. It's well worth taking the time to amble along some of the attractive streets and lanes of this district; lined with beautifully restored traditional shophouses they are incredibly atmospheric.
Historic temples and shrines are scattered throughout the bamboo woods of the Arashiyama district in the western part of Kyoto, tucked along the base of the Arashiyama Mountains. Tenryu-ji Temple, a sprawling Zen temple with a fine garden and wonderful mountain views is the most notable landmark here, as well as the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Standing amid these soaring stalks of bamboo is akin to being in another world altogether.
Your explorations should also include Kinkaku-ji, the famed 'Golden Pavilion', regarded as Kyoto's most iconic sight. Whether you glimpse it with snow in winter or against a lush green background in summer, the golden reflection of this beautiful building shimmering across the tranquil pond in front of it is incredible. We also recommend you see Ryoan-ji Temple, Japan's most famous Zen garden; Kyoto Gosho, which is the Emperor's official residence in Kyoto and Kyoto Gyoen, a green sanctuary surrounding the palace. Nijo Castle is another impressive sight with huge stone walls and deep moats enclosing an imposing palace building rich in decorative style and gorgeous gardens. While the tea ceremony is by no means exclusive to Kyoto, with the city's rich Zen traditions, it's an ideal place to experience it.
When you feel the urge to shop, you'll discover some superb independent local shops, perfect for picking up unique souvenirs and decorative items for home, but being a major city, there are also vast malls, high-end luxury brands and all-encompassing departments stores too.
Don't miss Gion, the traditional entertainment and best known geisha district. Packed with bars, restaurants and teahouses, Gion is particularly atmospheric in the early evening, when the lanterns are lit and you may chance upon a white-faced geisha shuffling along the narrow, cobbled lanes in their cumbersome zori sandals and exquisite kimono.