Kyoto, Japan, travel guide and things to do: 20 reasons to love the city

Timelapse: Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Shrine

Take a high-speed tour of Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. This important site is famous for its thousands of bright red torii gates over trails through a beautiful hillside setting. Video: Craig Platt

1. EXPERIENCE: THE CITY

It's no wonder that Kyoto, a former ancient capital of Japan and blessed with a human scale and welcome walkability, especially in contrast to Tokyo, its megacity counterpart, has become such a cherished destination among foreigners. For first-time visitors to Japan it's a perfect, manageable and inspiring introduction to a magical country and its distinctive culture. In fact it's possible to devote a number, even several, days to exploring both the city and the myriad attractions that surround it. See kyoto.travel/en

* 2. EXPLORE: KYOTO STATION

Although it turned 20 years old this year, this true behemoth of a building still feels as modern and impressive as the day it opened. And it's likely that, as a visitor, you'll pass through it or utilise it services on at least a few occasions. Aside from being Kyoto's primary transportation hub, including as a terminal for Japan's famed bullet trains, the shinkansen, meaning "trunk line", services, it's also home to a range of excellent and affordable restaurants and cafes as well an upmarket department store. The station also hosts the Granvia Kyoto, a terrific and, terrifically convenient, five-star hotel. See kyoto.travel/en; granviakyoto.com

3. STAY: THE RITZ-CARLTON

Beside the Kamo-gawa River, which runs through the city, this low-rise boutique-like hotel, with its 134 (unusually spacious for Japan) rooms and suites, is one of the most expensive, and best-situated, hotels in Kyoto. The newly opened Ritz-Carlton is a class act, being not just a fine place to stay or visit for a meal – perhaps at its stunning Japanese restaurant or afternoon tea at its elegant lobby lounge – but also a veritable showcase of the ancient capital's craftsmanship with its plush interiors decorated with the finest contemporary local art. See ritzcarlton.com/Kyoto

4. STROLL: PONTOCHO

One of Japan's most atmospheric streets, this narrow, pedestrian-only laneway in downtown Kyoto not far from the Ritz-Carlton, runs parallel to Kamo-gawa River. Best experienced at night, Pontocho, festooned with traditional lanterns, is lined with small restaurants and bars. A favoured geisha district since the 16th century, many of the premises along Pontocho remain off-limits to foreigners but it hardly diminishes the captivating nocturnal experience. See kyoto.travel/en

* 5. STAY: MACHIYA

Aside from staying at a traditional ryokan, or inn, one of the best ways to experience the art of Japanese accommodation, Kyoto-style, is to stay in a machiya or traditional wooden townhouse, right in the middle of a typical neighbourhood. Iori Machiya Stay expertly manages a collection of self-contained, luxuriously appointed townhouses scattered throughout central Kyoto. See kyoto-machiya.com

6. EXPLORE

GION Along with the equally charming and historic Higashiyama district, if there's one part of Kyoto that conforms to the Western perception of Japan it has to be this gorgeous centuries-old pleasure district famed for its geisha and maiko, their apprentices. Full of well-preserved machiya with their characteristic burnished facades, the district is also home to some of Kyoto's finest and priciest restaurants. See kyoto.travel/en

7. VISIT: FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA SHRINE

Since its establishment in 711 AD, the Japanese have been drawn to this shrine to pray for harvests, prosperity and family. Today, it's one of Kyoto's most iconic sights. The most prominent feature of this 1300-year shrine, in the city's south, consists of a dizzying, arcade-like succession of amber-coloured gates leading all the way up and down a mountain. See inari.jp/en/

8. WANDER: THE SAKE DISTRICT

Most foreign visitors to the shrine at Fushimi head straight back to town unaware that the area is also famous for something else sacred to the nation. Even if you're not partial to sake, effectively the national drink of Japanese, a stroll around Fushimi-ku's sake district is an interesting way to spend half a day or so. Sake is still produced in this area inside centuries-old breweries which source the pristine water essential for its production. See kyoto.travel/en

9. VISIT: SHOTOKU SHUZO SAKE BREWERY

Foreigners are welcome to visit some of the breweries in Fushimi, including Shotoku Shuzo which brews premium sake using traditional methods and from water extracted from a well in the frontyard of the brewery. Shouroku, with its 370 years of history, has a cellar door, of sorts, next to the main brewery building, where the company's sakes can be tasted and bought. Depending on the time of the year, it may be possible to inspect the brewery and gain a sense of what's required to create a premium drop. See shoutoku.co.jp/en/

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10. DINE: SEIWASO

The Japanese have a legendary ability to create beauty and serenity in unexpected and confined spaces. Tucked away in the middle of suburban Fushimi, and overlooked by prosaic apartments, is the 60-year-old Seiwaso, a restaurant serving refined Kyoto cuisine. It's set around a traditional Japanese garden overlooked by a building designed in the sukiya-style that was originally used for teahouses but later also for restaurants. See seiwasou.com/en/

11. SEE: TEMPLE OF FIVE-HUNDRED RAKAN STONE

Kyoto, one of Japan's best-preserved cities, is home to a phenomenal number of temples but few are quirkier than this temple which features the work of Ito Jakuchu, an 18th-century Japanese artist who set about creating 500 stone statues, set in a beautiful bamboo grove that recount important stages in the life and death of Buddha. It is said that weathering of the statues from the elements over the years have rendered Buddha's expressions soft and impressive. See kyoto.travel/en

12. VISIT: KYOTO RAILWAY MUSEUM

At this railway museum at Umekoji Park, visitors can inspect shinkansen exhibits and test their driving skills on one of the immensely popular bullet train simulators. While you're waiting your turn, check out the museum's display of more than four dozen railway vehicles, including the first edition of the bullet train, which date to 1964, the year of the first Tokyo Olympics, that made the Guinness Book of World Records after reaching speeds of 300km/h. See kyotorailwaymuseum.jp/en/

13. RIDE: HOZU RIVER CRUISE

Hozugawa-kudari is considered the best river boat ride for tourists in Japan and, touristy as it can be, once you've experienced it, it's hard to disagree. Good-humoured and highly skilled boatmen guide their passengers on a 16-kilometre, two-hour journey from Tanba-Kameoka to Arashiyama in Kyoto. The journey encompasses rapids as the boat makes its way through a ravine with Japan's ubiquitous trains roaring along bridges high above you. See hozugawakudari.jp/en

14. WANDER: ARASHIYAMA

Kyoto's riverside playground, designated a national historic site and place of scenic beauty, is at the base of mountains to the west of the city. A fun way to get to and from here is to take the Randen tram through the Kyoto suburbs to Arashiyama (there are public foot-baths on the tram station platform after a hard-day's sightseeing slog). Don't miss the renowned Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, with its towering green stalks, though do try to visit in the early part of the morning to avoid the selfie-stick hordes. See kyoto.travel/en

15. VISIT MURIN-AN GARDEN

ANTA4G Zen garden at Murian Kyoto Japan SunOct29ReasonsJapan

Photo: Alamy

Kyoto has more well-known gardens but few as beautiful, intimate and serene as this Japanese villa and garden complex, tucked away near Kyoto Zoo. Murin-an was built between 1894 to 1896 by Aritomo Yamagata, an adviser to the emperor from the Meiji and Taisho period. In 1941, the Yamagata family donated Murin-an to Kyoto City and in 1951 it was designated as a national place of scenic beauty. Ueyakato Landscape, the nearly 170-year-old company who act as caretakers of the garden, and others in Kyoto, are able to arrange expert tours of Murin-an. See murin-an.jp; ueyakato.jp/en/

* 16. EXPLORE: MIYAMA

EDCC1P Thatched house, Miyama, Kyoto, Kinki, Japan SunOct29ReasonsJapan

Photo: Alamy

One of Kyoto's better-kept secrets, Miyama is a rural village 30 kilometres north of the city, famed for its traditional thatched-roof (kayabuki) houses. Despite its relative proximity to the city, the village feels wonderfully bucolic and remote with many of the houses still serving as proper houses or minshuku (bed and breakfasts) with one of the kayabuki acting nowadays as a gallery for the indigo dyeing of textiles. See miyama-kyoto.com/

17. SEE: KYOTO TOWER

Straight across the road from Kyoto Station, this is the most retro feature on the city's height-restricted skyline where buildings may not exceed temple spires. Built at the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to mark Japan's post-war emergence as a modern economy, the 132-metre-high Kyoto Tower has recently been refurbished. From its viewing platform there are views of Kyoto and its surrounding mountains and, on a clear day, nearby Osaka, Japan's third biggest city after Tokyo and Yokohama. See keihanhotels-resorts.co.jp/kyoto-tower/en/

18. STAY: KYOTO TRAVELLER'S INN

If you're on a budget but don't wish to completely sacrifice comfort, this friendly budget hotel, close to many of Kyoto's main attractions, is a good choice. The small Western-style rooms have recently been updated with the hotel decorated by a local muralist. There's also a pleasant cafe and terrace, where breakfast is served, just off the lobby. See k-travelersinn.com/english

* 19. WALK: THE PHILOSOPHER'S PATH

One of the most enjoyable, though increasingly trammelled, walks in Kyoto, the Philosopher's Path runs for roughly two kilometres from the 13th-century Nanzenji Temple to to Ginkakuji, or Silver Pavilion, in the leafy northeast of the city. It follows the cherry, maple and camellia tree-lined Shishigatani Canal and there are many teahouses and cafes along the route. See kyoto.travel/en

20. STAY: YOSHIDA SANSO

Once foreigners were less welcome at ryokans due to language difficulties and etiquette concerns. But as more and more Japanese opt for Western-style accommodation, traditional inns, including those in Kyoto, are turning to overseas guests for clientele. One such inn is the gracious Yoshida Sanso, in a peaceful neighbourhood near Mount Yoshida, the location of a 9th-century shrine. It was originally built to serve as the second residence of Prince Higashi-Fushimi, uncle of the current Japanese emperor, Akihito. See yoshidasanso.com

Anthony Dennis visited as a guest of Kyoto Tourism (kyoto.travel/en), ANA All Nippon Airways (ana.co.jp) and Experience Japan Travel (experiencejapantravel.com)

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to Japan

See also: Six of the best uniquely Japanese experiences

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