If you are looking for a more authentic view of Japan, head to the cultural capital of Kyoto. Although a large metropole with 1,5 million inhabitants, Kyoto has retained a small town atmosphere. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto has few skyscrapers and still a large amount of beautiful historical structures as well as temples and shrines. It is a relatively quiet and relaxed city, despite its size. You can easily spend a few days roaming the city as well as take a trip or two to other places. Here are a few things not to miss in Kyoto:
1. Visit shrines and temples
Kyoto is home to a staggering 1600 shrines and temples. Although they often look similar to us Westerners, shrines are part of the Japanese Shinto faith, while temples are Buddhist. A must see is the Fushimi Inari Tashia shrine, dedicated to the Goddes of rice. To reach it you must first climb up the hill via a long path lined with red ‘torii’. These ‘tori’ are wooden gates that have been donated by local businesses as a plea for good fortune. From Fushimi Inari Tashia it’s a 15-minute walk to the Tofukuji temple. The temple itself is often closed to the public, but the outside, as well as the surrounding park and buildings, is equally beautiful.
Another must-see is Kinkakuji or the Golden Temple. This breath-taking gold covered temple overlooks a lake and is surrounded by lovely greenery. It draws a crowd so be prepared to stand in line.
2. Stroll through the Imperial Garden and Palace
Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan and the seat of the Emperor. This was moved to Tokyo in 1869 after the Meiji restoration. The Palace, however, has remained and is now open to visitors. The Imperial Palace and gardens are very impressive and a lovely place to spend an afternoon, especially during cherry blossom season or in the fall.
3. Catch some art and culture at a museum
If you get tired of looking at buildings, try looking at art. The Kyoto National Museum houses a large collection of Asian art. If modern art is more your thing, the Museum of Modern Art offers an impressive permanent and temporary exhibition. Both museums close from time to time when new exhibitions are installed, so be sure to check if they open before you go. To learn more about the history of Kyoto, head to the Museum of Kyoto. Most of the information is only available in Japanese but English speaking guides are available upon request.
4. Go shopping
The Nishiki market is a Kyoto staple. And although it has become very touristy, it is still a fun place to stroll through. You can try all sorts of Japanese snacks there as well.
To shop for clothing and quirky souvenirs, head to Loft. This department store has literally everything, including a cat cafe where you can take a break from browsing through cutesy stationary and tech gadgets to cuddle with some furry felines.
5. Relax at the Onsen
After all that sightseeing and shopping, the perfect place to unwind and relax is at an Onsen, a Japanese style spa. These spas have one or more water baths, often sourced from natural hot springs. Swimwear is not allowed at an Onsen, and the most traditional ones don’t allow visible tattoos either.
My favourite Onsen in Kyoto is located on Mt. Kurama. You can reach by riding the cute little train to the top station from where a shuttle bus takes you to the Onsen. To fully appreciate the relaxing hot water, exercise your muscles by climbing up to the Buddhist temple first.