Kyoto is the font of Japanese culture and tradition. In a country that sets the pace in technological progress, Japan’s “thousand year capital” has remained rooted in the ancient ways. This city of 1.5 million still has modern touches – Nintendo is headquartered there, after all – but the fast pace and bright lights of other cities in Japan take a back seat to temples, Geishas, rock gardens and tea ceremonies.
And, boy, are there a lot of temples. There are more than 2000 shrines, mostly Buddhist but also many Shinto, in Kyoto and the surrounding hills. And these majestic temples should be the starting point in Kyoto for anyone on a Japan backpacking tour. Walking between temples is a great way to take it in and, apart from the occasional temple entrance fee, it costs very little – great for those travelling on a budget.
This is not a city that is stuck in the past. There’s great food, shopping and nightlife, catering for all budgets and atmospheres. The traditional wood-panelled establishments tend to be in areas east of downtown, such as Gion and Higashiyama, while there’s more modern fare in central and downtown Kyoto.
But underpinning it all is an unspoken respect for the old way of doing things. The artisanal markets, the Nishijin weaving district, the old Machiya townhouses and the Geishas have all have been around for eons and are still thriving. And that is testament to Kyoto’s continuous connection to what came before.
Between 794 and 1868, Kyoto – known initially as Heian-kyo – was the seat of the Imperial family and was therefore the country’s official capital. But that does not mean that Kyoto monopolised power for a thousand years. The rise of powerful shogunates at various times through Japan’s history bestowed real political power to those warrior families in other locations for long periods.
Through Kyoto’s long history as capital there were a few particularly notable periods of building, design and development that contributed to the city’s amazing architectural legacy. The first was right at the beginning when Emperor Kammu ordered the city to be designed in the same grid system as the Chinese Imperial capital of Chang’an (Xi’an). Hundreds of years later much of Kyoto was destroyed during the Onin War from 1467 to 1477 and was only properly rebuilt in the 16th century when extensive north-south streets were added, including a dedicated Buddhist temple quarter, and the imperial palace was redesigned.
Buildings were again razed during the Hamaguri Rebellion in 1864, and shortly after in 1868 Emperor Meiji moved the country’s capital from Kyoto to Tokyo, marking the end of a remarkable 1200 years of prominence. Kyoto recovered some pride through economic prosperity in the early 20th century as it modernised its weaving industry and embarked on vital infrastructure improvements.
The Kyoto we see today, with its abundance of pre-war architecture, was close to suffering the same fate as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to most accounts, it was the original target for the second atomic bomb. It is unclear why Kyoto was ultimately spared (one theory is that Secretary of War Henry Stimson had honeymooned in Kyoto in the 1920s and was so fond of the city that he lobbied President Truman directly to change the target), but the twist of fate meant the centre of Japanese culture was saved from destruction.
Things to do
It’s not easy for backpackers to work out which of the 2000 temples to visit and how to weave them into a coherent route. It helps to identify a few temples that you would be daft to leave out on your Japan budget tour.
Fushimi-Inari TaishaInari-san. There are enough paths and sub-shrines to fill an entire afternoon just here. But the main reason to visit is the endless tunnels of bright red Torii gates that lead you up the mountain – a stunning experience.
Make sure you also visit Kinkaku-ji for another iconic Kyoto view. The Golden Pavilion sits on the lake and really evokes a sense of calm (especially if you can get there early and avoid the crowds).
The Philosopher’s Path, which runs around 2km, is a lovely walk along a canal lined with cherry blossoms. There are impressive temples, such Honen-in and Ginkaku-ji, to dive into just off the route. Other temples that stand out include Kiyomizu-dera, which has an enormous balcony from the temple’s main hall that overlooks the rest of the hillside, and nzen-ji, which has shrines galore and The Leaping Tiger zen garden.
Remember to spend plenty of time just soaking up the atmosphere of old Kyoto. For that, head to Gion and Higashiyama. This is where you may catch a glimpse of a Geisha or enjoy a traditional tea ceremony. Explore the streets around the Arashiyama intersection of Hanami-koji and Shijo-dori – there’s a concentration of old restaurants and teahouses in which Geishas still host and perform.
The Arashiyama Hills to the west of Kyoto is home to a lush bamboo forest that is certainly worth a morning or afternoon. There’s also a monkey park in the area and further north is the Hozugawa River which offers activities such as rafting.
If you’re suffering from temple overload, then fear not – central Kyoto brings you back into 21st century Japan. There’s the Kyoto International Manga Museum for manga buffs and the retro-cool Kyoto Tower, which has great views of the city. The Nishiki Market has an amazing selection of local produce on offer.
When to Visit
Kyoto, like most cities in central Japan, has the full four seasons. The ideal times to do a Japan backpacking tour are probably spring and autumn. Spring in Kyoto sees mild temperatures, low rainfall and, of course, the famous Hanami cherry blossom season, which combined with Kyoto’s ancient charm makes for a photogenic bonanza. It can, however, be very crowded during the cherry blossom season.
Temperatures in autumn begin to cool off towards the end of October with average lows around 10⁰C. But it’s still a really pleasant time to explore Kyoto – perfect for hiking and walking. The bonus is the colour of the foliage, which makes for a stunning backdrop in the temples.
Summers in Kyoto are fairly hot and humid. The rainy season is in June and July, when there are occasional heavy showers.
Winters are cold with occasional snowfall. Average temperatures in January and February are 4⁰C to 5⁰C, so make sure you pack some warm clothes!
What to Eat
You’ll find all of the staples of Japanese cuisine done really well in Kyoto. There’s sushi, ramen, udon, soba, tempura, yakitori and okonomiyaki all over the city and all delicious. These will generally be the cheap options for those on a Japan backpacking tour.
As the centre of Japanese high culture, Kyoto is known for its very refined and delicate cuisine. Kaiseki ryori is the equivalent to haute cuisine: multiple courses of perfectly prepared dishes that require an incredible amount of skill to prepare.
Kyoto is also famous for vegetarian Buddhist cuisine called Shojin ryori. It involves preparing only the most seasonal vegetables and using it in its entirety from root to leaf. It Kaiseki Ryorialso uses plenty of tofu, which is a Kyoto specialty (the city’s water is ideal for making tofu, apparently). Shojin ryori tofu is served in multiple forms, including Yuba, the skin by-product in the tofu-making process, and yudofu, which is tofu cooked with vegetables in broth. It’s the ultimate cleansing meal.
A kaiseki meal is going to be expensive in most places – it’s fine dining after all! But a Shojin ryori set meal can be found for less than 1000 yen in some places. That’s still a bit of a splurge compared with a bowl of noodles, but it’s worth experiencing even if you’re on a Japan budget tour.
Finally, don’t leave Kyoto without trying its famous Kyogashi sweets. The sweet-making tradition goes back to the first Imperial court in the 8th century, so at the highest level it’s an art form. The main sweetening ingredients are red-bean paste and highly refined wasanbon sugar, which are typically paired with mochi rice cake. Then other ingredients, such as green tea powder or fruit, are added. You won’t believe the different combination of flavours, textures and appearances that are possible with such simple starting ingredients.