Japan specialist, Katherine, gets under the skin of the country’s cultural heartland
No trip to Japan is complete without a visit to Kyoto. Once Japan's capital, Kyoto is rich in history and tradition, and is the country's cultural heart. It survived World War II relatively unscathed — its many ancient temples, gardens and imperial residences are still intact — making it one of Japan's best-preserved cities and a wonder to behold.
Kyoto also shows off Japan's seasons at their most picturesque. An abundance of cherry blossom trees line the streets in the springtime while the vivid reds and golds of Japanese maple trees surround the city in the autumn.
Home to some of Japan's most famous festivals, refined cuisine and cultural traditions, Kyoto captures the essence of Japan perfectly.
A cycle tour is the perfect way to experience the 'real' Kyoto while still exploring key attractions such as beautiful Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion, the Bamboo Forest at Arashiyama and the tranquil stone garden at Ryoanji Temple. Discovering Kyoto by bike with an experienced guide allows you to dip in and out of the backstreets, away from the main tourist path, and is a great way to get a more authentic feel for the city without missing the classic sites.
Geisha district walk (1)
A private evening tour of Kyoto's Gion district offers a glimpse into the elusive lives of Japan's famed geisha. Seeing a geisha go about her daily business is a truly unforgettable experience. Your tour guide, Duncan Flett — a half-Japanese, half-British ex-pat — is perhaps best placed to bridge the gap between Japan and the West, with his extensive knowledge of a mysterious culture that is still very much alive in Kyoto.
Interact with the locals
Taking part in a cultural course is one of the best ways to gain an insight into Japan's traditions. From a Japanese tea ceremony to a cookery course, ikebana flower arranging and origami, there are a wealth of options, and something for everyone to try, young and old. The experiences are also a great opportunity to interact with Japanese people, as they take place at the homes of Kyoto residents who are passionate about their particular crafts and have been practising them for years.
Great value: Nozomi (2)
For sushi lovers, Nozomi is ideal. Though there are other traditional dishes on offer, there is a superb selection of sushi to choose from. A fantastic value-for-money midday option is the Tegaru Lunch Set, which includes ten varieties of sushi, a Japanese curry hot pot and a dessert.
Splurge: Yoshikawa (3)
With only nine counter seats, this exclusive tempura restaurant is a fantastic option for those looking to mark the occasion. The light and crispy tempura served here is said to be the best in Kyoto, and is cooked to order before your eyes by experienced and respected chefs. Due to the small number of seats and the popularity of this restaurant, it is essential to make a reservation in order to avoid disappointment.
Experience: Apollo Plus (4)
A short walk from the bustling shopping district of Kawaramachi, this little izakaya (Japanese-style pub) is a real gem. A wide variety of classic Japanese dishes and sake are served here making it a great option for those who want to explore all corners of Japanese cuisine in an authentic atmosphere. A firm favourite on the menu is the fillet steak — absolutely delicious!
Great value: Best Western Kyoto (5)
Don't let the name put you off! Open since April 2011 and conveniently located in the Kawaramachi district, the rooms are stylish and modern with traditional Japanese features such as shoji sliding paper screens.
Splurge: Hotel Kanra (6)
Infusing traditional Kyoto style with sleek modern design, each of the beautiful rooms comes with an aromatic cypress-wood bath. The suite here is of the utmost luxury, boasting a bath on a balcony overlooking the city.
Experience: Yoshikawa Ryokan (7)
One of Kyoto's three most prestigious ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), the Yoshikawa Ryokan is renowned for its hospitality. Every guest is treated like a family member and made to feel at home. The Yoshikawa boasts traditional tatami-mat floors, futon beds and hinoki-wood baths. Some rooms look out onto a pretty Japanese courtyard garden.
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