Kyoto is the final stop on my Kansai journey, and one of my absolute favorite places in Japan. Kyoto is truly the cultural capital of Japan, with buildings and temples that are hundreds of years old and rich history around every corner. Kyoto served as the capital of Japan for over a thousand years (until 1869) and was formerly known as Heian-kyo, or “the capital of tranquility and peace.”
Although Kyoto is only the 8th largest city in Japan, millions of tourists flock to Kyoto to check out its amazing fall foliage, spring hanami, beautiful temples, and more. With over 2000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, Kyoto is one of the best culturally preserved cities in the world.
I began my journey at Yasaka Shrine, a Shinto shrine that draws thousands of people for New Years celebrations and the Gion Matsuri, a world-famous festival and parade. Just inside its gates, you can purchase Japanese street food from a variety of vendors as you make your way to other sites.
Many people pass through Yasaka Shrine on their way to Maruyama Park, another extremely popular place to view cherry blossoms in the spring and autumn foliage in the fall. The park has dozens of beautiful walkways, ponds, and Japanese gardens, and many people come here to take pictures in kimono or traditional dress.
From Maruyama Park, you can easily walk to other temples or cultural heritage sites in the area. My favorite was the Higashiyama district, one of Kyoto’s best preserved historical areas. Between its narrow lanes, wooden buildings, traditional architecture and hundreds of small shops, you truly feel as if you are in Heian-kyo or the old capital city.
The district is based on the lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains, so the walk includes many sets of stairs and inclined walkways. However, the hundreds of traditional shops definitely make up for the physical effort. These souvenir shops, cafes, traditional goods markets, and restaurants have been open for centuries. They continue to sell many local goods- including sweets, fabric crafts, pickles, pottery, and more- today.
When walking through any part of Kyoto, you may also see young women dressed in bright and elaborate kimono, with white makeup and intricate hairstyles. These women are known as geisha, Japanese entertainers who perform traditional arts such as dance and classical music. Geisha are often regarded as one of the most famous cultural symbols of Japan, even though their numbers are severely decreasing. While there used to be over 80,000 geisha in Japan during the early 20th century, today there are less than 2,000.
However, most of the women you see dressed up on the streets are not true geisha, but tourists who pay anywhere from $100 to $500 to be dressed up, have their photo taken, and walk around. Real geisha are often swarmed by photographers as they leave their homes or entertaining sites, and carry themselves in an extremely sophisticated and professional manner. Many of the “geisha” you see on the streets in Kyoto are laughing, taking silly pictures, or are wearing accessories that aren’t appropriate for the current season. Either way, they still look beautiful!
Gion, a traditional district in Kyoto that originated during the Middle Ages, is one of the most well-known geisha districts in all of Japan. This district may sound familiar; it’s the setting for Arthur Golden’s famous novel Memoirs of a Geisha. The streets, which run along the Shirakawa Canal, have a number of traditional teahouses (called ochaya) and other entertainment venues that geisha still frequent today. We didn’t see any, but it was still an amazing experience to walk along the same streets that I had only read about before.
Although there are thousands of beautiful temples and shrines to see in Kyoto, one final point of interest that I recommend is Fushimi Inari-taisha, a Shinto shrine that is famous for its thousands of torii gates. This shrine has walking trails up a mountain that are flanked by thousands of wooden torii, which are donated by businesses and individuals. This shrine is the most important out of thousands of shrines across Japan dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice.
I unfortunately visited Fushimi Inari-taisha in the dark, but the thousands of torii were still breathtaking. I recommend visiting with plenty of daylight left, so you can climb the mountain and enjoy some spectacular views of Kyoto.
Thanks again for reading, and happy Thanksgiving!