Kyoto – 10 reasons why it is unique and my favourite city in the world
I have said it a thousand times and will say it again and again: Kyoto is my favourite city in the whole world! Yes, in the WHOLE world!
I find Kyoto UNIQUE! …for so many reasons. I find it even difficult to describe in words sometimes but I feel a real connection with this city. I visited Kyoto twice so far, once during summer and once during Sakura (remember my dream? 😉 ). So…. I need to get back AT LEAST two more times! Why you ask? Why? It really is a place to see in every season!!! Trust me on this one! I know that many places can look different with seasons but Kyoto is something else! Each season seems to unveil another city, new places to discover, different atmosphere….
But let me try and show you why I am so taken with this amazing place:
Kyoto has more than 2000 temples and shrines spread throughout the city. And, if you love temples as much as I do, you can never get bored visiting. They are all different, they all offer something special. I have seen quite a few of them twice already and would visit them time and time again ( yes. in all four seasons!).
And although I call all of them temples, some are actually shrines. Temples belong to Buddhism religion whilst shrines belong to Shinto religion (the two main religions in Japan). There are indeed more temples than shrines in Kyoto, and in Japan for that matter. Usually the shrines are easily distinguishable by the torii gates which can be found at the entrance of each shrine and sometimes painted in the unmistakable vermilion colour. You can also read a bit more about the differences between the two religions in a previous post here.
Also for a more comprehensive guide, you can find here a list of the most important temples and shrines by region with plenty of details about each of them and how to get there.
Therefore, in this post I will just let you in a visual tour of a few of my favourites
Fuhimi Inari Taisha
This is the thousands vermillion torri gates shrine: 4km of tunnel made of gates and meandering through the top of the mountain
One of the most famous temples and definitely a must see if you get there. It comes with an astonishing view of the temple itself and of the city
This is one of the biggest temples Kyoto and the head temple of the Jodo sects in Japan (on of the most popular). It is famous also by its Sanmon gate, which is the biggest wooden gate in Japan (24m tall & 50m wide)
This is probably the first shrine you will lay eyes on in Kyoto, as it is right in the heart of the city at the base of Higashiyama mountain. Also, being next door to Gion district, it is also called the Giom shrine. The Yasaka shrine is also at the entrance of Maruyama park, one of the most famous places for Hanami (cherry blossoms watching) and picnic-ing under the cherry trees
Shunkoin Zen Temple
This temple is a little bit outside of Kyoto but definitely worth visiting if you want to try zazen (zen) meditation. The resident monk (Takafumi Kawakami), although a Kyoto native, has spent 8 years in the USA and speaks excellent English ( very rare in Japan, especially in Kyoto)
Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji, Kodai-ji, Kennin-ji & other temples
Because I do not want to overload this post with temples and pictures (although I guess I did that already….) I grouped some of them together but it doesn’t mean that they are less important
2. The gardens
Aaaah the gardens! The Japanese gardens!! Is there anything more beautiful?
They have evolved with time from simple “stones gardens” to elaborated works of art, creatively incorporating the existing nature and adding “details” such as ponds, bridges and even little islands. Here are the most common types of Japanese gardens which still exist today.
Usually gardens are part of a temple or a shrine complex so obviously Kyoto wins again :-). The old capital has the highest number of temples and therefore gardens in the country! I have already written two separate posts just about these gardens so you can head over here for dry landscape gardens and over here for all other gardens.
Geisha is the Japanese word. In Kyoto dialect they are called Geikos. Maikos are trainee geishas. Whilst there are still some geishas in other cities in Japan (especially Tokyo and Kanazawa), Kyoto is still home to most of them (see how Kyoto is always the best? 😉 ). Walking the streets in the evening you can spot them on their way to an engagement or sometimes in a window of a restaurant together with their guests. It is sights like these that can transport you back in time, in a mysterious world, …the floating world.
Geishas services are very expensive and they are not easily available…but everything is possible nowadays. Usually one has to be introduced by a long existing customer or a member of an ochaya (see below). Otherwise you can watch their performances daily at Gion Corner. During Sakura time, there is also the daily Miako Odori performace by maikos in the same place.
These are exclusive tea houses, where Geishas and Maikos entertain their customers. Only members have access to an ochaya. However…. to become a member requires not only the introduction, but also the guarantee from another long standing member. A dinner in an ochaya including entertainment (singing, dancing, games) by geishas can go as high as tens of thousands of euros! See the need for a guarantee??…
Gion is the most famous area of Kyoto and it is home to most of the ochayas. It is THE entertainment area par excellence. At dusk you can spot the geishas and maikos rushing to their engagements, especially on Hanami-koji street, whilst the rest of the people are ready to enjoy their dinner in one of the myriad of restaurants hidden in the charming wooden houses, behind closed doors and curtains…. sometimes showing a menu only in Japanese. Such an atmospheric place!
Pontocho is another entertainment and very atmospheric area in Kyoto. It consists of a very narrow alley lined up with bars and restaurants of which one side opens up to Kamo river. During the summer, the terraces and restaurants are raised on stilts above the river offering a charming view from across the other side when their lights are reflecting in the river below. Magical! Some of these terraces and restaurants offer only traditional sitting, meaning that you are sitting directly on the floor (usually on a pillow and only sometimes with a back rest) and which can be quite uncomfortable for long periods of time if you are not used to it. So better ask before going 🙂 .
7. The Philosophers Path
Probably one of the most loved spot in Kyoto, the philosophers path is a cherry trees-lined canal along the base of Higashiyama mountain and it is one of the most scenic spots during Sakura. Left and right off the canal are plenty of coffee shops, boutiques and souvenir shops and the perpendicular side streets always lead to a temple or a shrine.
8. Kaiseki cuisine
Japanese food is renowned world wide but Kyoto is really the heart and home of traditional and refined Japanese cuisine. Kyoto is the birth place of kaiseki cuisine, which is in fact Japanese “haute cuisine”. The highest and most refined form is called kaiseki ryori. In a buddhist country such as Japan, there is also a vegetarian version called shiojin ryori and it is found mainly at temples. The third (and least pretentious) form is obanzai ryori, which refers to Kyoto home style cooking.
Whilst you can enjoy an excellent kaiseki dinner in some upscale restaurant, I find that on the ground of a ryokan it is a more special experience. Usually most ryokans (big enough to afford it) would have a restaurant on their grounds and if you are staying at least one night, you can also experience a typical Japanese breakfast….a feast in itself!
In the previous post 15 Things I Love About Japan at #7. Japanese food you can find some more details and pictures about both Kaiseki and Japanese breakafast 🙂
Hands down the BEST smelling incense in the world is coming from Kyoto’s Kousaido. You can find the shop on one of the pedestrian streets leading up to Kyomizu- dera temple.
10. Green tea icecream
I am not a big fan of ice-cream in general (strangely enough)! ….although once I start eating I seem to enjoy it, BUT in Kyoto I discovered THE BEST ice-cream in the world…well at least based on MY taste 🙂 ! It is the creamiest, softest, most delicate icecream I have ever tasted and it looks like this….
Phew…Done! These are my TOP 10 things I LOVE about Kyoto!
….And although this post has been really heavy on pictures all throughout I still need to add a few more. I feel as if no matter how much I would say and how many details I would give, I would still not manage to make justice to this unique place. So hopefully you will enjoy an extended virtual visit below.
You can click on a photo to see the slideshow
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