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Kyoto is one of the oldest cities in Japan, and was the country's capital for more than 1,000 years, leaving behind a fascinating historical legacy. In fact, the city's culture was saved when it was removed from the atomic bomb target list at the end of the Second World War, leaving it one of the best preserved cities in Japan.

The city is home to around 2,000 religious places (1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines), and is where the famous Japanese tea ceremony, a ritualised performance of the preparation and presentation of matcha (powdered green tea), originated. These traditions give Kyoto the reputation of a calm counterpart to Tokyo and Osaka, making it a distinctive Japanese destination.

Temples and shrines

A large chunk of Kyoto's heritage lies in its many temples and shrines, and it's hard to avoid these beautiful oases during a visit to the city. With so many options, it's difficult to know where to start in choosing which should be on your itinerary; however we think it's good to go for a mix of the most famous with some more secluded spots. Remember, even if religious buildings don't float your boat, Japanese temples and shrines often come with amazing gardens, making them well worth a visit.

A few of the most famous and unmissable:

  • Ginkaku-ji: This is a very popular temple that was originally built in 1482 as a retirement home for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa to escape the civil war, and later became a Buddhist temple after his death in 1490. The building is set over two stories, and features a famous sand garden in which a perfectly formed mound of sand is said to symbolise Mount Fuji. This temple does get very crowded, so best to visit in the early morning or later in the afternoon.
  • Kiyomizu-dera: As one of the most famous sights in the whole city, this ancient temple was first built in 798 with later additions made from 1633. Aside from the beauty of the buildings and grounds, there are many traditions you can partake in to grant you a happy and prosperous future. For example, it is believed that visitors who drink the sacred water from the Otowa-no-taki waterfall will be blessed with health and longevity, and those that spin the rock in the darkness of the Tainai-meguri get to make a wish.
  • Chion-in: This popular pilgrimage temple serves as the headquarters of the largest school of Buddhism in Japan, the Jōdo sect, and consists of a grand selection of large halls to explore. This temple is also home to the largest temple gate (two stories high) and bell in Japan (weighing 70 tonnes), so get ready to feel very tiny in comparison!

More secluded temples:

  • Hōnen-in: Just a 15 minute walk away from busy Ginkaku-ji, this off-the-beaten-track temple is hidden in the woods, and the scenic trail you have to walk to get to the main hall is part of this temple's draw. Picture this: you begin by passing through a moss-covered gate, followed by walking between two purifying sand mounds, crossing a stone bridge over a pond, and strolling through a garden blanketed in more green moss. Idyllic.
  • Nanzen-ji: Okay, so we know this temple isn't exactly lesser known as it's one of the most important Zen temples in the whole of Japan, but hear us out. This temple resides in enormous grounds, so big that there is an aqueduct, a pond garden, a rock garden and plenty of space to wander in without feeling trapped in swarms of crowds. Plus, there are many sub-temples in the grounds which are much less visited than the main hall, so there are often quieter options here.

Other things to see and do

When you begin feeling templed out (if that's even possible), there are plenty of other things to do in Kyoto.

Visit the Gion district, Kyoto's famous geisha quarter and the top entertainment area of the city. The best time to visit is in the evening when you can enjoy the street's traditional restaurants and tea houses lit up with lanterns. If you're on the lookout for a geisha, be warned that lots of tourists pay to dress up in this traditional outfit for the day, so be wary of who's authentic and who isn't!

For food, head to the Nishiki Market in the centre of town to sample some traditional Kyoto cuisine. Wandering through, you'll find all kinds of food-related products from snacks like yakitori (grilled chicken) skewers, to wasabi salt, to state-of-the-art kitchen knives.

Another place to visit is the Bamboo Forest (also known as Arashiyama Bamboo Grove or Sagano Bamboo Forest), one of the most photographed sights in Kyoto, and for good reason. A walk within the towering bamboo is a unique and serene experience that would be hard to match in any other city.

Getting there

Kyoto doesn't have its own airport, so most international visitors fly to nearby Kansai International Airport in Osaka before travelling to Kyoto. The airport is around 75 minutes away from Kyoto via the direct JR Haruka airport express train, with the cheapest way to use this service being through buying a JR West Kansai Area Pass (costing 2300 yen) which is valid for unreserved seats. Or, for the cheaper price of 1750 yen, take the Kansai airport express to Osaka station and take the regular train to Kyoto.

Alternatively, there is a Kansai International Airport Limousine Bus that frequently runs between the airport and the city. The service takes about an hour and a half and departs from right outside the airport.

It's also possible to fly to Narita International Airport in Tokyo and take the Narita Airport Express to Tokyo Station and change trains to travel on to Kyoto. This journey takes three to four hours and costs 14,000 yen, however flights to Tokyo are often cheaper than to Osaka so this can be more economical at times.

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