Japan's ancient capital is the nation's foremost font of traditional culture. You'll find a mosaic of temples and shrines, skilled artisans and kabuki actors, and Buddhist monks and genuine geisha — especially in the neighborhoods on the east side of the Kamo River that continue to channel medieval Japan.
What We Love
The Gion: One of the "floating worlds" of medieval times, Gion continues as a geisha district well into the 21st century. The best time to spot these women is between 5:30 and 6 pm, when they depart their houses for evening appointments.
Kaiseki: Each dish is a work of art in this traditional, 14-course feast that dates back to medieval times — especially at the prestigious Kikunoi restaurant.
Best Known For
Temples: Kyoto is blessed with hundreds of temples, from modest neighborhood shrines to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and Ryoanji, with its famous zen garden.
Shopping: With so many resident artisans, Kyoto is the best place to browse and buy traditional Japanese artworks and handicrafts. Shijo-dori and Kawaramachi-dori are the main shopping streets, although Gion is also teeming with small, specialty shops. And Nishiki Market is a treat even if you're not buying fresh fruit and vegetables.
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Who It's Best For
Aficionados of Old Japan: Whether you gaze at geisha in Gion, catch kabuki at the Kyoto Minamiza Theatre, or commune with monks at Ninna-ji Temple, Kyoto presents many ways to immerse yourself in traditional Japanese culture.
Avid Photographers: With pink cherry blossoms during the spring, russet-colored leaves in the fall, snow in winter, and blue skies during summer, Kyoto is a shutterbug's dream.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
Bring Comfy Shoes: With so many temples, gardens, markets, and pedestrian zones (and hills to boot), Kyoto is often best explored on foot rather than vehicle.
Crowds Are the Norm: Take one of the world's most densely populated cities, add domestic visitors on Japanese holidays, toss in hordes of international tourists, and there's often no way to avoid the Kyoto mob scene.
Joe Yogerst is a California-based contributor to ShermansCruise who has also written for Travel + Leisure.