Kyoto is a charming city of more than 2000 Buddhist temples and 1.5 million people.
Alex Kerr is an author, art specialist, calligraphy master and an expert on traditional East Asian culture. Kerr is also the chairman of Iori Co (kyoto-machiya.com), dedicated to preserving and restoring traditional townhouses in Kyoto so that they may be used by modern-day travellers.
Many of Kyoto's temples hold monthly markets, a perfect opportunity to browse stalls for trinkets, religious paraphernalia and collectables. Plan your visit to coincide with some of the big market days; for example, antique shopping at Toji Temple is offered on the 21st day of each month.
Kerr suggests a stroll through the great hall of Sanjusangendo. This temple is famous for its 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Founded in 1164, the hall has a large statue at its centre, flanked by 500 smaller ones, creating a maze-like effect. "Penetrate to the heart of the mandala and emerge purified," Kerr says.
If it's school-holiday time, however, Kerr says it's wise to avoid Sanjusangendo and other major temples and palaces. They will be full of chattering children. Instead, make a beeline for lesser-known places equally rich with history. "Visit Rokuharamitsuji temple, with its haunting Kamakura-period statues from the 13th Century, or Chishaku-in temple, with its National Treasure ink paintings by Hasegawa Tohaku," he says. Other attractions include Marishi-ten, a tiny temple surrounded by statues of wild boar, dedicated to the god of contests.
All templed out? Visit calligraphy and painters' supply shops near Teramachi Street. Kerr says you'll find really cool clothes designed to incorporate traditional motifs at Koromo, at the corner of Teramachi and Takoyakushi streets.
Kerr says Kyoto's finest tempura can be found at Tempura Yoshikawa on Tominokoji Street. Grab a seat at the counter – there are only 12 seats, so be prepared to wait – and watch hatted chefs serve up steaming plates of deep-fried deliciousness. A fast and friendly alternative is to grab a bowl of noodles at Misoka-an Kawamichi-ya in central Kyoto.
As one of Kyoto's oldest noodle restaurants (it's almost 300 years old), it is also cheap and delicious.
Indulge in that most Japanese of pursuits: tea drinking. Enjoy a bowl of delicious green tea and Kyoto's best ice-cream and traditional sweets at Koyama-en on Nishinotoin Street.
Minami-za is the finest kabuki theatre in Kyoto. Known for its elaborate make-up and costumes, kabuki is highly stylised classical Japanese performance art. A seat at one of these performances comes highly recommended. Book as early as possible as performances often sell out.
Shinmonzen Street is the place to go for antiques and quality art. It's a quiet street of traditional wooden buildings stocking wares as charming and diverse as woodblock prints, carved figurines, antique scrolls and original paintings. Dealers here are reputable and the goods authentic.
Kerr's pick for the most fabulous meal in Kyoto? "A chic fusion dinner at Giro Giro Hitoshina will please," he says, along with a recommendation to book well in advance. If you can't get a table, try Kerr's other top choice – steak served with a baked potato at the Ashiya Steakhouse. Specialising in prized Kobe beef, the Ashiya could not be further away (in price or quality) from the $10 steak dinner on offer at your local bistro or pub. An added bonus is the appearance of a maiko (an apprentice geisha) who will dance and perform for dinner guests in a true expression of Kyoto style.
Housed in a converted warehouse, Zezekan Pocchiri on Nishikikoji Street serves Zen Buddhist cuisine in a rarified setting. Kerr also recommends it as a wonderfully ambient place to drop into for an after-dinner drink. The bar (located out the back, in the old kura or storehouse) is open until at least 11pm and also has a well-known reputation for serving Chinese-style aperitifs and European wines.
For a walk on the wild side, take a late-night hike up into the lower levels of Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine. Here you'll experience the late-night worshippers and Shinto shamans praying beside rows of red gates, surrounded by flickering candles. "It's generally very spooky, with a mystical ambience," Kerr says. "This one is not for the faint-hearted."
Kyoto has its fair share of plush hotels and cheaper hostels but for accommodation that also offers cultural insight, Kerr invites visitors to try a townhouse. The Zaimoku-cho machiya townhouse was once home to a Miyagawa-cho geisha, he says. "Located by the Kamo River, you'll wake in the morning to watch the resident egrets, hawks and cormorants fish the river for their own breakfasts."