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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 Alice

Start planning your tailor-made trip to Kyoto by contacting one of our Japan specialists

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.

Map of Kyoto

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    Places near Kyoto

    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.

    • What it’s like to stay in a machiya, a traditional Kyoto townhouse
      Geisha spotted during cycling tour of Kyoto

      What it’s like to stay in a machiya, a traditional Kyoto townhouse

      What it’s like to stay in a machiya, a traditional Kyoto townhouse

      If you’re after a typically Japanese stay during your time in Japan, a ryokan isn’t your only option. Japanese specialist Clio describes what it’s like to stay in a machiya, a traditional wooden townhouse that’s a signature of Kyoto.

      4 min read

      Read this guide

    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.

    • Traditional Kyoto Cuisine Walking Tour
      A 'saka' or slope in Kyoto

      Traditional Kyoto Cuisine Walking Tour

      Traditional Kyoto Cuisine Walking Tour

      Enjoy a day of culinary delights with trips to Kyoto's Nishiki Market, Horino Sake Museum to learn all about sake production and then a traditional machiya (teahouse) for a Japanese cooking class.

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    • Kyoto Cultural Experience
      Ikebana flower arrangement

      Kyoto Cultural Experience

      Kyoto Cultural Experience

      Take the opportunity to learn more about a traditional Japanese pastime of your choice. These courses are instigated and run by the Women's Association of Kyoto and you will visit the home of one of the members.

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    • Dinner with Maiko Performance
      A Maiko and a Geiko during the Geisha Night at the Gion Hatanaka

      Dinner with Maiko Performance

      Dinner with Maiko Performance

      Maiko are trainee Geisha (Geiko in Kyoto dialect) who train for six years before becoming fully fledged Geisha. They learn skills such as dance, singing, instrument playing as well as how to entertain guests with conversation.

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    • Nara Excursion

      Nara Excursion

      Nara Excursion

      Like nearby Kyoto, Nara was once the Japanese capital and a source of enormous cultural and religious outpourings. Unlike its more celebrated neighbour, however, Nara has survived relatively untouched by modern advances and remains a relaxed town dotted with temples, shrines and parkland.

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    • Geisha District Walk
      Romon Gate, Fushimi Inari, Kyoto

      Geisha District Walk

      Geisha District Walk

      Explore around the Gion district and other parts of Kyoto to help shed some light on the exclusive and mysterious world of the Geisha and other aspects of Japanese culture.

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