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Kyoto is the Japan of the imagination: a city of grand palaces, Shinto shrines and exquisite gardens, mercifully spared from the bombing of World War II that razed other Japanese cities. While Kyoto is an undeniably modern city, pockets of historic Japan linger here, where kimono-clad geisha still shuffle along narrow, lamp-lit streets.

Having been the capital of Imperial Japan for over 1,000 years, Kyoto has built up an impressive collection of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. In southern Kyoto, Fushimi Inari Shrine has so many red torii gates — each one donated — that they create vermillion tunnels between individual shrines and the honden (prayer hall).

Golden Pavilion, KyotoTo the north, Kinkaku-ji (golden pavilion) is a Zen Buddhist temple set in a traditional strolling garden. The top two tiers are covered in a thick layer of gold leaf that glows yellow against the surrounding greenery. Nearby you can visit Ginkaku-ji (silver pavilion). Modelled on its gilded cousin, it was built by shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as his retirement villa. Without a slither of silver in sight, it’s thought that he ran out of money, but it’s also suggested that at night rays of moonlight hit the pavilion, making it shine silver.

Many temples sit in carefully curated gardens, an art form that was refined in Kyoto. So much so that the definition can be questioned at Ryoanji Temple’s Zen garden. Here, you can sit and reflect while resting your gaze on an arrangement of rocks and raked gravel.

If you like your gardens green, Joruri-ji is a short train ride away in Nara. This 11th-century paradise garden is a concept from Pure Land Buddhists, who built the gardens around a pond which represents the ocean separating birth from death. As you walk the neatly-raked paths, you’ll pass ancient juniper trees, lichen-stained rocks and boughs of wisteria.

The refinement of arts, crafts and pastimes has made Kyoto Japan’s cultural hub, bringing together artists, academics, geisha and artisans. The Women’s Association of Kyoto have established a range of short introductions to various aspects of Japanese culture, craft and cookery that invite visitors to visit a Japanese home and try their hand at traditional skills. Courses are run by women eager to share their hobbies with visitors, including ikebana flower arranging, calligraphy, paper crafts and the tea ceremony.

The tea prepared during a tea ceremony is likely to come from Uji, in south Kyoto. You can visit a tea factory to learn more about the process — the revered matcha tea is grown under three layers of shade to encourage chlorophyll production.

For a stronger tipple, some of the breweries in the Fushimi Sake District offer tastings. Attracted by the clear-flowing Horikawa River, some have been here since the 17th century and still brew in huge timber barns. The Gekkeikan brewery also has a museum which shows the brewing process through glass-sided vats.

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Audley Travel Specialist Hannah

Start planning your tailor-made trip to Kyoto by calling one of our Japan specialists on 01993 838 210

Suggested itineraries featuring Kyoto

Our itineraries will give you suggestions for what is possible when you travel in Kyoto, and they showcase routes we know work particularly well. Treat them as inspiration, because your trip will be created uniquely by one of our specialists.

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    Our expert guides to exploring Kyoto

    Written by our specialists from their own experiences of visiting Kyoto, these guides will help you make the most of your time there. We share both our practical recommendations and the best ways to appreciate Kyoto at its best.

    Accommodation choices for Kyoto

    We’ve selected a range of accommodation options for when you visit Kyoto. Our choices usually come recommended for their character, facilities and service or location. Our specialists always aim to suggest properties that match your preferences.

    Ideas for experiencing Kyoto

    Our specialists seek out authentic ways to get to know the places that could feature in your trip. These activities reflect some of the experiences they've most enjoyed while visiting Kyoto, and which use the best local guides.