When I finished the first edition of our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan and showed it to Sarah, her first reaction was whoa, that’s long. Her second was that it was highly personal in nature, with the first section being a love letter to our favorite city in the world.
As usual, she was absolutely right. Nevertheless, it was a challenge for me to condense down the opening. I wanted to articulate the spirit of Kyoto, our timeline of visiting, and what makes Kyoto so special that it’s our favorite city in the world. Accomplishing this all in a few concise paragraphs would be a tall order for even an adept writer, let alone someone as verbose as me.
For those who have already decided to visit Kyoto and have their airfare booked, such a sales pitch might be superfluous. Others already planning a trip to Japan, but unsure of whether to venture beyond Tokyo, might need some nudging. Then there are travelers still plotting their next adventure, and such travelevangelizing might be necessary. This post–an expanded version of what used to be our Kyoto Planning Guide’s intro–is for those of you in the first two camps…
A succinct description often eludes those seeking to explain Kyoto’s allure. It’s the ancient capital of Japan and the cultural heart of the country. Both apt and befitting of the city, but still failing to capture its elusive spirit. I’d liken Kyoto to the mist that often clings to the mountains surrounding the city; mysterious yet beautiful, inspiring yet obscure. More to the point, Kyoto is a sublime, spiritual experience; a city that has the rich culture of a major metropolis and the quiet intimacy of a small town.
What Kyoto is not is traditional or like stepping back in time. Many visitors arrive with a romanticized notion of an “Old World Japan” only to find themselves disappointed. While there are certainly elements of this in the temples, shrines, and even flashes of it in the architecture, Kyoto is at once traditional and modern. It’s the graceful details of the Buddhist pagoda of Yasaka, but also the modern lines of Kyoto Tower and Station visible in the distance.
Kyoto is not like the quaint villages of Europe, some of which feel like contrived time capsules existing solely for the bemusement of tourists. There are places where Kyoto is downright ugly.
A jumble of power lines and dreary concrete facades, the result of a post-war boom undertaken haphazardly without a master plan. In other locations, Kyoto’s contradictions are laid bare. You see the cold glow of a vending machine illuminating a torii gate, both symbols of Japan in their own ways.
For us, the city’s gritty reality, and the juxtaposition between these extremes makes the beauty of Kyoto even more pronounced. It all gives Kyoto an aura of authenticity. Just as Kyoto changes dramatically with the passing seasons, its atmosphere can change in an instant when you turn the corner from one street to another.
Kyoto is a real place, filled with real people employed in a range of occupations. Kyoto happens to be one of the most popular travel destinations in the world thanks to its traditional soul that features a strong mix of history and culture, but the flow of tourists could slow to a trickle tomorrow, and Kyoto would continue to thrive.
Our first visit to Kyoto was 5 years ago, for only a few days as we tried to experience a checklist of the city’s highlights as quickly as possible. Upon arrival, we immediately realized it was a stark contrast to the modern metropolis of Tokyo that we had explored prior to taking the Shinkansen to Japan’s Kansai region.
Time moved a little slower in Kyoto, and while still a bustling place, it was meant to be slowly savored. Tokyo and Kyoto are often described as the yin & yang of Japan, and we fully agree with that. They are two parts of a whole–integral companion experiences of any visit to Japan.
Early on our first morning in Kyoto, we visited Fushimi Inari. During our hike up through the thousands of torii gates, we had the mountainside to ourselves, and were immediately smitten. It felt like we were peeling back layers with every step, catching glimpses of inconspicuous details along the way.
It was a fitting way to start our visit, as a crowd-free Fushimi Inari exemplifies the best of Kyoto (and to this day, remains our favorite place in all of Japan). Once we returned home, I wrote a few articles here, eager to share our experiences. We were also eager to return to Kyoto, knowing there were still innumerable layers to peel, and we had only seen the touristy highlights.
We’ve done exactly that every year that has followed, with visits to Kyoto becoming necessary staples of our regular trips to Japan. Realizing that we were barely peeling anything during our week-long trips to Kyoto, we decided to stay in Kyoto for one full month, and then another, and so on.
We set goals to visit over 100 temples (check!), eat over 50 different ramens (check!), see every season (check!), and dine at every Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant in the city (still a work in progress). Even as we experienced and accomplished so much, we realized our lists of things to do in Kyoto were only growing; much to our delight, Kyoto is a boundless feast.
After gaining more experience and a greater appreciation for the city’s rich culture and heritage, we began writing about Kyoto more passionately. We made emphatic pleas that those making the trip to Japan also visit one of the world’s greatest cities. For us, Kyoto has felt like a spiritual slow burn; the more time we spend in the city, the more our appreciation for it grows, and the deeper our understanding of its traditions becomes.
Prior to our first month-long stay, we made a concerted effort to learn more about Japan in general, and Kyoto, specifically. Whenever working at home, we’d put the NHK app on in the background (it’s better than cable news!) and found a wealth of programming that offered cultural insights. We read more, from blogs to books (fiction and non).
Our first month-long stay in Kyoto was intended as a chance to live like locals. We wanted to absorb more of Kyoto, and to see it in a different light. While our views on Kyoto definitely evolved, it wasn’t exactly the tranquil “local” experience we envisioned. We logged 20,000+ steps per day in the name of researching the city, and our quest to visit every major point of interest.
For our second month-long stay, we actually did follow-through on our intention of living like locals. We developed habits, paying nightly visits to the same grocery store, regularly stopping at the same coffee shop, and just generally slowing down our pace. We would linger at temples and Zen gardens in quiet contemplation, and wander with absolutely no agenda (which led to some great discoveries).
All of this, in turn, has given us a greater appreciation for Kyoto, and led us to want to learn even more about the city and experience more of it. Now we want to return for obscure special events, to continue our never-ending “food crawl” of Kyoto, and to see snow covering our favorite temples.
All of this might seem immaterial to you if you’re only spending a few days in the city, but it’s a way of stressing the depth of Kyoto, and just how much of its charm, beauty, and culture lies beyond the typical guidebook ‘best of’ lists. Of course, you’ll want to see the heavy-hitters, but Kyoto is such a “heavy-hitting” city on a cultural level that even things that only receive passing guidebook mention–or no mention at all–would make the ‘best of’ list for other places.
Suffice to say, Kyoto has stolen our hearts. It feels like a second home, and it’s a place we want to share with others. I could pen a novel about what makes Kyoto resonate so deeply with us, but that’s the basic gist of it. Much like we’ve written countless articles on Disney Tourist Blog trying to convince Disney fans to visit Tokyo Disney Resort, we want to implore everyone to visit Kyoto. Here’s hoping we’ve made a good “sales pitch” or that you’re already convinced and just need some help planning.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Kyoto? What did you think of the experience? Are we overselling it…or is that even possible when it comes to Kyoto? Would you recommend a stay in Kyoto to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions about Kyoto trip planning? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!