Shokoku-ji Temple complex.

Exploring Kyoto

Finding the true essence of Japan’s historic capital.

It’s important to slow down and really take the time to explore and truly appreciate Japan’s historic capital of Kyoto.

Brian Johnston

17 October, 2019

In a city crammed with important historical sights it’s easy to become entangled in bucket-list busyness

Historical capital Kyoto is rightly the most visited destination in Japan, but beyond its most famous sights you can still get off the tourist trail and find tranquillity.

There are two ways of visiting Kyoto. Rush through its most famous temples and sights and you’ll soon see why the ancient capital has hit the news recently for overcrowding. Do more than World Heritage stops, however, and you’ll have quite another Kyoto experience. For every shrine and temple with its surge of Instagrammers, there are a dozen others wedged peacefully into hillsides, where locals consult fortune sticks and monks chant. 

In a city crammed with important historical sights – Kyoto was Japan’s capital from 794 to 1868 – it’s easy to become entangled in bucket-list busyness. Slow down and even its busy places reveal their delicate charms, though. Sightseers rush the famed Philosopher’s Path in an hour, but take time to sit on a bench, contemplate the clouds from a temple veranda or listen to birds twitter in bamboo and you’ll appreciate the essence of Kyoto. A slower pace also allows you to stray away from beaten tracks. There are reputedly 1,500 temples and shrines in this city, and some sidestepping will unearth many an overlooked treasure. 

A maiko or apprentice geisha in the Gion district of Kyoto.
Kennin-ji Temple.
Kiyomizu-Dera Temple.

Take Nanzen-ji Temple, one of Kyoto’s busiest, as an example. Tourists flock towards the main hall, mostly oblivious to the compound’s many dainty sub-temples, the best of which is Tenju-an for its gorgeous garden. Wander away from Nanzen-ji Temple altogether and, just nearby, you’ll find silent Nanzen Okunoin grotto tucked into a wooded hillside in one direction, and the mossy gates of Hoen-in Temple in the other. This temple, magically overlooked, has leafy pond gardens and one of the city’s most beautiful Buddha images. Also nearby is Murin-an Villa, built for a nineteenth-century prime minister, where you can sometimes have the teahouse entirely to yourself.

Even in the middle of downtown geisha district Gion, you might find Kennin-ji Temple, overlooked behind high walls. It’s Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple, founded in 1202 and rich in painted scenes depicting dragons. The tiny Zen garden at its heart – raked gravel, a single tree, a circle of moss – is superb in its simplicity.

There are tranquil treasures everywhere if you only look. While the best-known sights are crammed, around the corner just as delightful destinations have scarcely a visitor. Off the busy Philosopher’s Path, tranquil Otoyo-jinja Shrine pushes up against forested hillside and is notable for its statues of guardian mice. Nearby at 12th-century Nyakuoji-Jinja Shrine, you’re likely to encounter only locals, who come to write their wishes on wooden ema boards, and quietly clap their hands in front of the altar to attract the attention of Shinto gods.

Even in the middle of downtown geisha district Gion, you might find Kennin-ji Temple, overlooked behind high walls

Shokoku-ji Temple complex.
The gardens of Heian-Jingu Shrine.

If the weather takes a turn, head indoors. Kyoto has some excellent museums that are perplexingly under-visited

Similarly, you can stroll not far beyond the gates of Tofuku-ji Temple, especially famous for its autumn foliage, and find rarely-visited Komyo-in Temple, which has a petite but marvellously presented Zen garden below a sheltering hillside of azaleas and maple trees. It isn’t a famous destination, but sometimes the best garden is the quietest garden. Sit on a tatami mat and contemplate the upright stones amid the gravel that represent Buddha preaching to his disciples, and the only thing that might disturb you is the croaking of frogs. It’s in such places, over the horizon from the tour-coach trail, that you can really appreciate the apparent simplicity and restrained elegance of Japanese garden design. 

If the weather takes a turn, head indoors. Kyoto has some excellent museums that are perplexingly under-visited. Kyoto Railway Museum is one of the best transport museums in the world. You can take vintage steam-train rides, admire train-related memorabilia and try your skills as a bullet-train driver on a simulator. The museum displays numerous shinkansen bullet trains, including one of the sleek originals from the 1960s.

On the cultural side, Kyoto National Museum displays the sculptures, paintings and lacquerware seldom seen in the often-empty rooms of the city’s temples and palaces. The textile collection features elaborate robes and kimonos embroidered with birds and flowers. Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts explains how these various arts – from kimono making to ceramics and enamelware – were honed to near-perfection over centuries. Don’t miss the section devoted to karuta playing cards; Nintendo got its start in Kyoto as a karuta manufacturer. 

Hayashi Keijiro in his incense shop.
An artist paints traditional fans.

Follow the craft trail and you get away from mainstream tourists and experience Kyoto’s living culture. At Ando Japanese Doll Shop, you’ll find superb hina dolls arrayed in shimmering silk clothing embroidered with gold and platinum thread. At Sagaraden Nomura you can take classes in mother-of-pearl inlay with a family that makes contemporary jewellery and utensils for tea ceremonies. And at Hayashi Ryushodo, you can have your own custom incense sticks made by a sixth-generation master who supplies many of Kyoto’s temples. The scent of agar and sandalwood floats around this back-alley shop, seemingly barely changed in a hundred years.

Get retro in Kyoto and it’s as if you’ve slipped through a looking glass into another world that has never heard of mass tourism. Several upmarket, big-name hotels have opened in recent years, but stay in a ryokan or traditional inn if you want to escape the tumult. Former imperial villa Yoshida-Sanso Ryokan is one of Japan’s most illustrious. It sits in a lovely corner of Kyoto surrounded by imperial tombs and Buddhist temples and exemplifies the graceful ritual and attentive hospitality of old Japan. 

Yoshida-Sanso’s minimalism of sliding doors, tatami mats and garden outlooks framed in windows should encourage your inner Zen. Guests are served elaborately presented kaiseki meals that are a form of meditation in themselves. You feel as if the mad rush of the world has stilled for a while, and that Kyoto has unfurled its true delights.

Get retro in Kyoto and it’s as if you’ve slipped through a looking glass into another world that has never heard of mass tourism

The main house and garden at Ryokan Yoshida-Sanso.
The okami (manager) and owner Kyoko Nakamura at Ryokan Yoshida-Sanso.
A visitor on the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto.