Kyoto may be one of Japan’s largest cities but with a population of almost 1.4 million spread out over 830 square kilometres, it never feels crowded nor overwhelming. Discover the charms of Japan’s thousand-year capital and why it is currently one of the country’s top destinations.

1. Old Japan Feel

kyoto-machiya Kyoto was the capital of imperial Japan from the 8th to the 19th century, and is one of the best preserved cities in the country. Modern buildings may line the city’s main streets, but turn into the alleys and you will be transported to a Kyoto of yesteryear. Here you will find rows of traditional wooden townhouses (known as “machiya”) kept as residences or converted to shops and restaurants, kept atmospherically dim with only the light from these machiya to guide your path. Everyone seems to speak in muted volumes, as if to prevent breaking the magic blanket of calm that covers the streets. If you are visiting from Kyoto’s rambunctious, neon-lit cousins, Osaka and Tokyo, you may find yourself muttering, “I really love Kyoto”, under your breath, repeatedly like a mantra.

2. Geisha Hunting

Photo credit: Cassandra Wong

Photo credit: Cassandra Wong

Kyoto’s geisha are renowned throughout the country, partly due to the rigorous training they have to undergo as maiko (trainees). Geisha are skilled performers and undergo training for at least 5 years before qualifying as geiko. Today, it is estimated that there are only about 200 maiko and gaiko left in the city. To catch a glimpse into this mysterious world, you can attend dances performed by authentic geisha, if you visit at the right time. For the rest of us, our best shot of spotting these elusive cultural icons is to wait at Pontocho Alley or Gion to try to catch a glimpse of them heading to work. The best time would be just before dusk, around 5pm; if you do spot them, be respectful and keep a distance as they are usually in a hurry to reach an appointment. Do not be fooled by tourists dressed like maiko – if you see one in full dress in the middle of the day, she is likely to be a patron of one of the many henshin studios dotting the city.

3. The Food

Photo credit: Ignis [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Ignis [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( , via Wikimedia Commons

From humble street food to Michelin-starred restaurants, Kyoto is a cornucopia of delicious food. Nishiki Market, a popular covered food and shopping arcade, is a good place to begin your search for inexpensive bites. Try the grilled fresh oysters at Daiyasu, a little seafood shop at the eastern entrance of the market. Off the Market, you can find hungry patrons waiting patiently for a seat at Ramen Sen No Kaze, famous for their creamy soup ramen and flavourful char siu. For those with fatter wallets, you will be spoiled for choice at one of the city’s 174 Michelin-starred restaurants. We recommend Matsudaya in Gion, an Edo-style sushi restaurant run by the chef, his wife, and their daughter. With only 6 seats in this intimate restaurant, bookings are essential.

4. Temple Hopping

kyoto-fushimi-inari-taisha-shrine In Japan, monarchy is indivisible from religion; it is no wonder then that Kyoto, the imperial capital for a thousand years, is abounding with temples and shrines, some 2,000 to be exact. The Fushimi Inari Shrine is the top attraction in the city, and it is no wonder why. The one and a half hour hike up to the sacred Mount Inari is lined with thousands of orange gates (or “torii”), providing a stunning vermillion-shaded path for pilgrims and tourists alike. kyoto-kokedera For those looking for a more exclusive experience, the Saiho-ji Temple (more commonly known as the Kokedera or “Moss Temple”) should be at the top of your list. Kokedera is a reference to the lush blanket of an estimated 120 different varieties of moss covering the temple garden. To visit, one is required to apply in advance by post, and receive an affirmative reply. Upon arrival at the temple at the appointed time, visitors are then required to copy a Buddhist sutra in Japanese before they can enter the garden. When finally greeted with the breathtaking sight of the garden, all that trouble taken to visit it would definitely seem worthwhile.

5. Arashiyama

kyoto-bamboo-forest Arashiyama is a lovely district west of Kyoto, about 20 minutes away by train. The southern part of the town is perched alongside the Katsura River; the Hozugawa River runs through the north. Mount Arashiyama provides a picturesque backdrop for the town after which it was named. Japanese tourists have been visiting for years but the town’s popularity with international visitors has grown only in recent years thanks to its star attraction, the Bamboo Groves. kyoto-sagano-train Here, visitors walk down a path cutting through rows and rows of bamboo stalks — a surreal experience straight out of a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film set. Explore the beauty of Arashiyama further with a ride on the Sagano Scenic Railway, also known as the Sagano Romantic Train. True to its name, the steam-powered train winds its way along the scenic route from Arashiyama to Kameoka, allowing passengers breathtaking views of the mountains and the river. To return to Arashiyama, opt for the Hozugawa River Cruise, a sightseeing boat ride piloted manually by experienced boatmen that meanders leisurely through the river, expertly avoiding jutting rocks and obstacles.