Essential guide to Kyoto

Geisha have been a familiar presence in Kyoto for more than 1000 years.
Geisha have been a familiar presence in Kyoto for more than 1000 years. Photo: Reuters

Steve McKenna shares his tips for exploring Japan's ancient capital.

STAY

Budget

Although it often appears to have one foot in the future, Japan has numerous ryokans — traditional inns that have been catering to travellers for more than a millennium. A bargain option in Kyoto is the newly refurbished Matsubaya, where guests mosey around in yukatas (cotton kimonos) and sleep on futons in tatami-carpeted rooms; singles from ¥4200, twin/double ¥7700. (Nishi-iru, Kamijuzuyamachi-dori, Shimogyo-ku, 351 3727, www.matsubayainn.com). Stereotype buster: capsule hotels aren't just for drunken businessmen. At the new Ryokan Capsule Hotel, enjoy a fusion of two Japanese icons for ¥3500 a person (204 Tsuchihashicho, Shimogyo-ku, 344 1510, www.capsule-ryokan-kyoto.com). J-Hoppers is a neat guesthouse-cum-hostel; dorms ¥2500, doubles ¥6000 (51-2 Nakagoryo-cho, Minami-ku, 681 282, www.kyoto.j-hoppers.com).

Mid-range

Watazen Ryokan has been going strong since 1830 and has a large, warm communal bath where guests can take a dip in the buff (don't be shy); rooms for two from ¥11,550 (Rokkakku-sagaru, Nakagyo-ku, 223 0111, www.kyoto-ryokan-w.com). Another highly rated ryokan, Shimizu, has 12 traditionally furnished rooms, all with en suites, priced from ¥5000 a person (644 Kagiya-cho, Shimogyo-ku, 371 5538, www.kyoto-shimizu.net). A popular chain across Japan, Hotel Monterey's Kyoto branch is a modern, downtown spot with European-style decor; doubles from ¥13,000 (3 Jyo Minami Karasuma-dori, Nakagyo-ku, 251 7111, www.hotelmonterey.co.jp/kyoto).

Luxe

Within five minutes of stepping off the shinkansen (bullet train), you can be checking into the lavish 535-room Granvia (pictured), which is attached to Kyoto's railway terminus; doubles from ¥22,100 (JR Kyoto Station, 344 8888, www.granviakyoto.com). A tiny gem of a boutique hotel near the iconic Gion neighbourhood, Mume's seven cosy rooms are decorated with antiques and artwork collected from across the world; doubles from ¥23,100 (261 Shinmonzen, Higashiyama-ku, 525 8787, www.hotelmume.com). The higher-level rooms (and bar lounge) of the towering Okura Hotel offer some of the best views of Kyoto; doubles from ¥25,600 (Kawaramachi-Oike, Nakagyo-ku, 211 5111, okura.kyotohotel.co.jp).

Lash out

Hidden in the southern reaches of the Higashiyama cultural district, the plush Hyatt Regency boasts 189 stylish, spacious rooms and suites, impeccable service, a wellness spa and three on-site bars and restaurants, serving Japanese and European-inspired dishes; rooms ¥32,000-¥118,600 (644-2 Sanjusangendo-mawari, Higashiyama-ku, 541 1234, kyoto.regency.hyatt.com). Steeped in tradition — it opened in the early 1700s — Tawaraya is a venerable family-run inn with splendidly appointed rooms, delicious meals and a delightfully serene garden. Alfred Hitchcock and Marlon Brando stayed here; doubles from ¥42,263 (Oike-Sagaru, Fuyacho, Nakagyo-ku, 211 5566).

SHOP + PLAY

To market

Kyoto has a bundle of monthly markets. A small fair, laden with traditional Japanese curios, including ceramics and kimonos, is held on the grounds of To-ji temple on the first Sunday of each month (1 Kujo-cho, Minami-ku). On the 21st, the same venue hosts the sprawling Kobo-san bric-a-brac market, where a raft of art, clothes, pottery, food and second-hand bits and bobs is up for grabs. On the 15th, Chion-ji temple (103 Tanaka-monzen-cho, Sakyo-ku) holds Tezukuri-ichi market — home to an amazing range of handcrafted jewellery, toys and furniture. Tenjin-san market offloads exquisitely preserved old ornaments, wood prints and tea ceremony paraphernalia at Kitano Tenman-gu shrine on the 25th day of the month (Bakuro-cho, Kamigyo-ku).

Go shop

Antiques and souvenir stores are strung along pedestrianised Ninnen-zaka and Sannen-zaka, near Kiyomizu Dera temple. Teramachi-dori is worth a look, too. In the 16th century, after Kyoto had been ravaged by civil war, imperial ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided to rebuild much of the city around this area. Temples were relocated here (Teramachi means temple district in Japanese) and the neighbourhood began to flourish as a trading hub. It still does to this day — a large chunk of it under a covered arcade packed with shops. There are plenty of department stores in Kyoto, including a particularly swanky one in the railway station.

Live music

Immerse yourself in the magnificent acoustics of Kyoto Concert Hall, which regularly showcases the talents of the city's world-class symphony orchestra (1-26 Hangi-cho, Sakyo-ku, 711 2980, www.kyotoconcerthall.org). Bugaku, performed to gagaku music, is Japan's oldest form of classical dance and features heavily during Shinto shrine festivals; for an up-to-date list of local shows and venues, check with the Kyoto Tourist Information Centre (2F Kyoto Station, open daily 8.30am-7pm; 343 6655). The quaint, cobbled, lantern-lit Pontocho alley is flanked with high-brow geisha houses and restaurants, including Hello Dolly, an intimate, old-school jazz bar, where the action hots up at weekends (east side of Pontocho, 241 1728).

Nightclubs

Kyoto's beautiful young things get their groove on at World, a hip, bustling club that lures top local and international DJs and plays everything from techno to salsa (Nishi-Kiyamachi-dori, Shijo-agaru, www.world-kyoto.com). Deep in the Marutamachi neighbourhood, Club Metro hosts performances from eclectic poets, jazz, rock and soul artists and also hosts quirky theme nights (BF Ebisu Building, Marutamachi-sagaru, Sakyo-ku, 752 4765, metro.ne.jp).

Many Japanese night owls prefer to belt out their own tunes at karaoke joints such as Jumbo Karaoke Hiroba Kawaramachi (29-1 Ishibashi-cho, Nakagyo-ku, 231 6777). Just as loud, and popular, 24-hour pachinko (gaming pinball) parlours are everywhere.

SEE + DO

Icons

Kinkaku-ji — known as the Golden Pavilion — is one of the city's most-visited tourist sites, for good reason. When the sun shines and glints off this striking, three-tiered Zen Buddhist temple, there are few more sublime sights in Japan. Go either early or late to avoid the crowds

(1 Kinkaku-ji-cho, Kita-ku, open daily 9am-5pm, admission ¥400). Cherry blossom season (usually late March to early April) adds another layer of beauty to Kyoto. The enormous Imperial Palace Park, Maruyama Park and the traditional tea-house stretch of Shimbashi-dori (Shirakawa, Minami-dori) are some of the best places to savour it.

Culture

With their colourful kimonos and caked-white faces, geishas have been a familiar presence in Kyoto since it became an imperial capital in AD794. You can usually spot them at night on the streets of Gion, or, if you're in the neighbourhood in April, May or November, at one of their elegant public dance performances (contact the Kyoto Tourist Information Centre for exact dates and venues). Fancy dressing up like one? If so, head to Maica, experts in maiko-henshin (geisha transformation); men can be mocked up to look like samurai warriors (4-297 Miyagawa-suji, Higashiyama-ku, 551 1661, www.maica.tv/e). Vibrant kabuki shows — Japanese dance-drama — take place sporadically at the historic Minamiza Theatre (Shijo-Ohashi Bridge, Higashiyama-ku, 561 1155).

On foot

Running beside a narrow canal, the tree-shaded Path of Philosophy meanders through one of Kyoto's most pleasant temple and shrine districts and is so called because prominent Japanese thinker Nishida Kitaro used it while meditating. Visit Arashiyama's atmospheric bamboo grove, which lies outside the north gate of Tenryu-ji temple (68 Susukinobaba-cho, Ukyo-ku). The city has dozens of fragrant, immaculately manicured, pond-strewn gardens. Ginkaku-ji (2 Ginkaku-ji-cho, Sakyo-ku, 771 5725, open daily 8.30am-5pm, admission ¥500) is a wonderful spot, while the giant Kyoto Botanical Garden is perfect for strolling and picnicking (Shimogamo Hangi-cho, Sakyo-ku, 701 0141, open daily 9am-4pm, admission ¥200).

Follow the leader

With 17 UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites and a further 2000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, even the most tour-phobic may find a guide useful in Kyoto. JTB's one-day highlights package includes stops at Kinkaku-ji, the Imperial Palace and remarkable Sanjusangendo, home to 1001 statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy (www.japantravel.com.au). Kyoto cabbie Naoki Doi does private tours of the city in his six-seater van (phone his mobile on 90 9596 5546). A guide with 50 years' experience, Hajime Hirooka, leads popular walking tours of Kyoto's backstreets (622 6803, web.kyoto-inet.or.jp/people/h-s-love).

EAT + DRINK

Cafe culture

Part coffee shop, part grand old library, Cafe Bibliotic Hello! (650 Seimei-cho, Nakagyo-ku, 231 8625, www.cafe-hello.jp) is a trendy place designed for caffeine-fuelled chats or catching up on a bit of reading (you should be inspired by the hundreds of tomes lining the walls). The cafe at the International Manga Museum — which offers an insight into Japan's burgeoning comic-book craze — serves top cappuccinos in artistic surrounds (Karasuma-Oike, Nakagyu-ku, 254 7414, www.kyotomm.jp/english). Centuries-old Japanese tea houses (tea ceremony dishes) are found across Kyoto. Immortalised in Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, Ichiriki Ochaya is a super-exclusive, invitation-only one in Gion (make a request at ichiriki-ochaya.tripod.com; they might say yes).

Snack attack

Hectic Nishiki street market is a foodie's paradise, crawling with hundreds of fishy dishes and quirks such as tofu doughnuts (Nishikikoji-dori, between Teramachi and Takakura streets). If you're peckish and on a budget, dip inside any convenience store — including 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart — and grab one of the surprisingly tasty bento meals. There's usually a wide choice, from sushi and fish cakes to gyoza (dumplings) and fried chicken and rice (which can be warmed up in the store microwave); about ¥500.

Top tables

For some upmarket sushi, book a table at Nontaroh, whose mind-boggling menu includes octopus, conger eel and mantis shrimp wrapped in vinegared rice and seaweed. Consider plumping for the chef's evening course: a selection of sushi and side dishes for ¥8400 (Hanamikoji-dori, Shijo-agaru, Higashiyama-ku, 561 3189, www.gion-nontaroh.jp). Kichisen is a renowned pioneer of kaiseki, classic Japanese haute cuisine (5 Tadasu-no-mori, Sakyo-ku, 711 6121, www.kichisen-kyoto.com). A banquet will set you back at least ¥14,000 a person in the evenings, though lunch is almost half the price. For a down-to-earth feed, grab a stool in an izakaya, a pub-eatery where you can munch Japanese-style tapas and drink beer and sake. Yoramu is a good one (Nijodori, Higashinotoin, Higashi-iru, 213 1512, www.sakebar-yoramu.com).

By the glass

The riverside patios at the back of Pontocho alley are perfect for balmy summer-evening drinks, with Atlantis renowned for its fruity cocktails (161 Matsumuto-cho, Pontocho, Nakagyo-ku, 241 1621, atlantis-net.co.jp). Looking for a night out on the cheap? Hunt down one of the four branches of Bar Moonwalk (www.barmoonwalk.jp), where you pay an entry charge of ¥400, then afterwards, just ¥200 a drink. Set in a machiya (traditional townhouse), the Italian Wine Salon Yu-an serves more than 40 different types of Italian wine (311 Nakainokuma-cho, Kamigyo-ku, 417 4870).

Hot tip

Use Kyoto as a launch pad to explore other parts of the Kansai region. Osaka (13 minutes), Kobe (30 minutes) and Nara (45 minutes) are within easy reach on Japan's excellent rail service.

Getting there

Japan Airlines (www.jal.com) and Qantas (www.qantas.com) fly direct from Sydney to Osaka. The Shinkansen (bullet train) gets to Kyoto in 13 minutes.

Visas and currency

Australians are allowed 90-day visa-free stays. Japan uses the yen ¥.

$1 = ¥77 and, although credit cards are used, it's very much a cash-dominated country.

Calling Kyoto

The Japanese country code is +81 and 75 for Kyoto. To call Kyoto from abroad, add +8175 to the numbers listed.

More information

www.kyoto.travel, www.jnto.org.au.

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