"Kyoto is a city full of hidden gems; a place that will never cease to surprise you. Whether it be an immaculate Japanese garden or a fabulous kaiseki restaurant, Kyoto offers extraordinary experiences like nowhere else I have ever been"
Ruth Hubbard - Travel Consultant
There is simply nowhere more special than Kyoto. It is home to everything that you associate with traditional Japan: vermillion temples, mysterious geisha, the sacred tea ceremony, Zen rock gardens, three imperial palaces, sumptuous cuisine, glittering kimono, bamboo groves, street-corner shrines, ancient festivals and much, much more.
On first glance however, Kyoto may not live up to expectations. Most visitors arrive at Kyoto Station, a gleaming ode to futuristic architecture designed by Hiroshi Hara, before being swept out past tacky Kyoto Tower, drab concrete shops and karaoke bars. But Kyoto is Japanís seventh largest city, not a tiny rural village, and it is the juxtaposition of modern, urban life against the time-honoured traditions that make this the most fascinating of Asian cities.
Kyoto was founded in 794 as Japanís capital and the home of Emperor Kanmu. Situated in a flat plateau surrounded by mountains on three sides and bisected by the River Kamo, the city was laid out as a grid system in the tradition of Tang China. However overcrowding, plagues and natural disasters soon befell the city and a series of rituals and festivals came into being to placate the spirit world. Kyoto is now home to more than 2,000 temples and shrines including 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Kyoto culture, a unique tapestry of influences from imperial nobility, samurai warriors, silk traders and Zen Buddhists, is still fiercely defended by Kyotoites. Their traditions make much of the rhythms of nature and the changing of the seasons.
As the epicentre of Japanese culture and history, Kyoto attracts more than 40 million visitors a year. And while Kinkaku-ji, the stunning golden pavilion, and the impressive wooden stage at Kiyomizu-dera are must-see destinations, you wonít escape the tour buses in peak season. However, the real Kyoto heartbeat is lurking just around the corner for those who make the effort to get off the main tourist trail and seek it out.
For example, take the back exit from Kiyomizu-dera and youíll find yourself alone in the anicent and majestic cemetery which clings to the mountain side. Sanjusangendo is another less-visited treasure. The main temple hall is filled with 1,001 shining gold statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Thereís always a chance to flee the crowds at Fushimi Inari where thousands of torii shrine gates make a labyrinth of bright red tunnels along the mountain paths.
There are so many magic Kyoto moments that I will never forget. I thought I had Heian shrine garden to myself one Monday morning until I turned a corner and saw two geisha quietly being photographed by the lily pond. Or there was the time I stumbled across a Shinto wedding ceremony at Kamigamo Shrine. By chance I once met a festival parade in Ohara, a mountain village just outside the city. Mine was the only Western face watching the local men and boys carry portable shrines up to Sanzen-in Temple, singing as they went.
Then there are the places that are less museum exhibits more real, working Kyoto; Nishiki market where old ladies in kimono barter for mysterious ingredients, city centre sento baths or the tiny lantern lit temples set right amongst the shops in the Sanjo arcades. Kyoto is there to be uncovered and discovered, and once you have scratched the surface, it is a city sure to draw you back time and time again.