The historical capital of Japan is hands down the country's best destination, worth visiting more than once: its many "obscure" attractions are just as wonderful as major tourist magnets. The city has 17 World Heritage sites, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, imperial palaces, venerable bar-lined alleys and the fabulously evocative, geisha-associated Gion district. But Kyoto also has a lively modern city centre packed with eateries, craft shops, luxe department stores and trendy fashion boutiques.
Kyoto is an outdoorsy sort of place, making it easy to overlook its museums. But for an overview of Japanese crafts – honed to perfection by 1000 years of imperial art patronage – visit Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (www.miyakomesse.jp/fureaika/), where craftspeople often demonstrate their work and apprentice geisha give dance performances. Kyoto National Museum (www.kyohaku.go.jp) provides a good collection of paintings, sculpture, lacquer and kimonos that provide context to the often empty rooms of palaces and temples.
Gion Raku Raku (www.gion-rakuraku.com) in an atmospheric old Gion street serves a fine kaiseki meal, a traditional multi-course menu that showcases seasonal flavours and the chef's artistry. North Shop (www.kitaoshoji.co.jp) specialises in soumen noodles and has a tranquil, very local atmosphere that belies its location on busy Nishiki-dori, a food-market alley where you could snack your way through grilled mackerel, chicken skewers, barbecued octopus and buns stuffed with red-bean paste.
Most visitors to Kyoto focus on its temples, but the former capital has many outstanding traditional Japanese gardens, too. Elements to appreciate include the arrangement of stones and gravel, the use of ponds and streams, stone lanterns and basins, and wandering pathways. The best views are often framed from a pavilion. Aussie expat and landscape expert Mark Hovane offers a Kyoto Garden Experience (www.kyotogardenexperience.com) if you want to understand more about this art form.
You ought to stay a week but, if you only have one day, take a slow stroll from Silver Pavilion (www.shokoku-ji.jp) along the Philosopher's Path, down past Nanzen Temple (www.nanzenji.com) and through the Higashiyama district, finishing at Kiyomizu-dera Temple (www.kiyomizudera.or.jp). The route starts along a cherry-tree-lined canal and then wanders along the flanks of the Eastern Hills where city views compete with moss-clad shrines, teahouses, noodle shops and temples galore.
Hyatt Regency Kyoto (kyoto.regency.hyatt.com) provides the town's top digs; the very contemporary hotel is convenient for wandering Gion and the temples of the Eastern Hills and has a fine Japanese restaurant. For longer lingering, Iori Machiya Stay (www.kyoto-machiya.com) provides a variety of sensitively renovated wooden townhouses (machiyia) of varying sizes, with cleaning and concierge services provided. Alternatively, traditional ryokan inns such as Nishiyama Ryokan (www.ryokan-kyoto.com) or Ryokan Seryo (www.seryo.co.jp) are an immersive Japanese cultural experience.
Kyoto is great for walking and picnicking. Pick up supplies at any number of neighbourhood shops, or plunder Daimaru department store on the city's main shopping drag, Shijo-dori, where the range and quality of takeaway goodies in the basement food hall is staggering.
The writer was a guest of Kyoto Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/).