Serving as the capital of Imperial Japan for almost 1,100 years, Kyoto is a city filled to the brim with Japan’s lengthy history, from the days of shoguns until the Meiji Restoration, as well as occurrences in the present day, striding alongside the other major cities of Japan straight into the future.
From 796 to 1868, Kyoto was the centre of governmental affairs in Japan until it was finally moved to Tokyo in 1868. Due to its prior lengthy status as the governmental center of the empire, many temples, shrines and castles were built over the millennia that Kyoto held this distinction, making it a joy to visit for culture vultures.
However, those who lack familiarity with the cities’ layout may have difficulty finding these sites, as the modern city centre tends to be dominated by the concrete and steel of more recent times. The sights in question ring the downtown core, as do the older buildings that escaped harm during the Second World War, due to the lack of important targets (and no doubt, a fair bit of luck).
Therefore, don’t discount this city based on first impressions after arriving here by the train. The payoff that this old city holds is reserved for those willing to put in the effort to find them, and those who are willing to put in the time to seek out Kyoto’s historical treasures will be amply rewarded for their efforts.
Serving as the seat of the Japanese emperor up until over a century ago, the Kyoto Imperial Palace is one of the oldest structures in the entire country. Surrounded by many elaborate gates and many exquisitely designed buildings, the complex was preserved even as the capital functions were moved to Tokyo during the Meiji Restoration, and in the time after, it still served as the venue for two coronation ceremonies.
One of Japan’s best known and gaudiest Buddhist temples, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion (also known as Rokuon-ji) is an attraction that you should not miss even if you are pressed for time during your visit here.
While the building had existed for 550 years without its current coating of gold leaf, after being reconstructed in the 1950’s following a fire, the coat of lacquer used was insufficient, leading to a retrofit in the 1980’s that included the application of the attention-grabbing gold leaf.
This addition was meant to purify onlookers of any negative thoughts regarding death. This structure shines brightly during the low sun of morning and evening, presenting incredible opportunities for photography enthusiasts.
In addition to palaces and temples, the Kyoto area also boasts an outstanding fortification in Nijō Castle. Built up by contributions from feudal lords across the region, this bulwark provided the capital with a worthy defensive position until natural disasters, via a lightning strike in 1750 and a massive fire that consumed much of Kyoto in 1788, did the castle in.
Refurbished in later years, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has, apart from ornately crafted castle structures, well-manicured gardens and ponds worth strolling alongside in meditative thought.
With bathing in hot springs being a national obsession, one would naturally expect that Kyoto would have its share of bathhouses for the emperors, lords, and government officials that called this city home. Indeed, it certainly does, with Funaoka Onsen standing among them as the historic of the bunch.
NOTE: If you haven’t been to an onsen in Japan yet, know that you are expected to get naked before getting in the springs, no bathing suits allowed!
With that out of the way, be sure to note the old pictures of Japanese troops conquering far off parts of Asia while shedding your clothes in the change room, as the art work on them is quite remarkable. After getting into the bathing area, you’ll have a selection of treatment baths at your disposal, from hot baths, ice cold baths, herbal baths, and even electro baths that give you tiny electric shocks (this is Japan, so don’t act surprised!)
While the weather in July is sultry, it is worth planning a trip to Kyoto in spite of this, as one of the best known festivals in Japan, Gion Matsuri, is ongoing at this time. With events spread throughout the entire month, there will be time to take in everything from elaborate processions to cleansing ceremonies, to even open houses held by families in the old historic district.
While you are in Kyoto for this festival, be sure to attempt to spot the elusive Geisha, many of whom go to school to learn how to be a hostess and an entertainer in line with this ancient Japanese tradition. They can usually be found dashing between residences and their place of schooling/employment, with the old neighbourhood of Gion near Central Kyoto being the best place to catch a glimpse of these cultural hang-ons from the days of medieval Japan.