Most visitors to Kyoto Japan are shocked to learn how old the city is because it still cares about its physical appearance, and doesn’t constantly complain that “things were better when it was a kid.”
Given Kyoto’s pristine condition, it’s understandably difficult to believe that the city was Japan’s imperial seat of power for over a millennium. Yet retaining the “Capital City Of The Year” title from 742CE to 1849CE wasn’t the accomplishment it seems—if any other city wanted the title, they had to take it from samurais without losing a hand.
During that 1,075-year reign, Japan’s capital city was destroyed only once, as a result of the epic-sounding Samurai Street Fighting War in 1467. (How is that not a movie yet?!? Okay, how is that not a better movie yet.) After the dust settled, Kyoto was rebuilt and has kept itself in impressive shape ever since. But it had…“help.”
The awful reason why Kyoto Japan is still in such good condition.
Kyoto Japan isn’t untainted to this day due to the ongoing efforts of a local Landmark Preservation Society or Women’s Auxiliary Club. No, Kyoto’s condition is due to the singular effort of one Henry L. Stimson, the US Secretary Of War under FDR and Harry S. Truman.
At the end of World War II, the US’ military-industrial complex was looking for potential targets upon which to unleash field-test its latest toy, the atomic bomb. The city of Kyoto headed up the military’s shortlist due to its population size and reputation as the country’s brain trust.
Fortunately for the citizens of Kyoto, Mr. Stimson objected to its inclusion on the list. He and his wife had previously honeymooned in Kyoto Japan, and had fallen in love with Kyoto’s ancient culture, its visual aesthetic, and its open-minded embrace of polygamy and courtesans.
Kyoto was bumped off the list and spared from certain nuclear annihilation. That’s why it’s one of the few Japanese cities that still has a lot of pre-World War II architecture, whereas cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki…um, don’t.
Kyoto Japan is the most Japanese city I’ve seen, and I’ve seen two of them.
Having only visited Tokyo and Kyoto thus far on my travels, it may seem presumptuous of me—even willfully ignorant—to declare Kyoto Japan “the most Japanese city in Japan,” but when has being wrong about something ever stopped me before? Still, here’s how I arrived at this conclusion.
Kyoto feels smaller than Tokyo primarily because every city is smaller than Tokyo, and smaller just feels more Japanese. The country is awash in tiny objects like ornamental boxes, bonsai trees, and subcompact economy cars. In fact, the only big thing the Japanese like is killer robots.
With a populace of only 1.45 million, Kyoto seems less hectic and more serene (at least outside of Kyoto Station, anyway). Of course, maybe it just seems that way because the buildings and landscaping that look straight out of every zen meditation book or yoga video I’ve ever seen.
Despite its smallish size, the city still has a plethora of palaces, a glut of gardens, and a ton of tea houses—many of which date back to well before I started this sentence. And sure, Tokyo has more of those same things, but Kyoto’s 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines are more historically accurate in that they lack modern amenities like beer vending machines, metal detectors, and BitCoin® ATMs.
Tips for tourists visiting Kyoto:
- Kyoto is yen-only outside the tourist areas
- Even the PASMO card takes cash (we couldn’t figure out how to tie it to our credit card)
- Get yen at ATMs inside Family Market or Lawson’s
- Avoid 7/11s because their ATMs don’t accept US credit cards
- Many banks don’t accept US credit cards, either
- Cellular coverage isn’t great, but they have public wifi everywhere, even in temples
- Always use a Virtual Private Network
Going full Ryokan in Kyoto Japan.
To get the authentic Japanese experience, we booked a stay at Sumiya Ryokan, located in the eastern part of Kyoto. Ryokans are a traditional type of family-run inn for tourists that dates back to 705 AD, long before Airbnb stole the idea.
The lobby and grounds of our rustic ryokan included a lush Japanese garden, tea ceremony rooms, and lovely antique objets d’art. Our minimalist, Mondrian-inspired room, however, consisted of a floor table, a sleeping plank, a human waste receptacle, and a private water coffin for drowning yourself after realizing how much you paid for all this nothing.
Ryokans are more expensive than many modern hotels because, much like an Embassy Suites®, breakfast and dinner are included in the price—just don’t expect an omelet bar.
Instead, you get approximately 1000 courses of tiny bite-sized Japanese dishes, none of which I’d prefer to a Moons Over My Hammy® breakfast sandwich. (Fish for breakfast? Um, no, thanks.) To be fair, my wife loved every weird bite—apparently, I’m the picky eater.
Each meal is delivered straight into your room in a manner that I found extremely uncomfortable. First thing in the morning, the house’s matriarch—an older Japanese woman dressed in traditional attire—knocks quietly and enters with a large, unwieldy tray of food. She kneels opposite the floor table, serves the course, and then leaves. After we’ve had a chance to eat the food, she comes back with another course, and then another, ad infinitum.
As you might guess, no meal is ever over quick. During the next three hours, our hostess brought an endless procession of food, guilting us into eating more than a cruise ship midnight buffet. On the plus side, you’re wearing pajamas the whole time that mercifully hide your expanding gut.
Japan is no country for tall men.
Though Ryokans exude peace and serenity, they were clearly never designed to accommodate non-Asians. Every doorway is a passive-aggressive joke played on tourists taller than six foot.
To enter our room or go to the bathroom, I had to duck a good six inches to avoid knocking myself unconscious on the hard, wooden beams. Any serenity I was feeling, got quickly replaced with pain. And cursing.
Kinkaku-ji is one of Kyoto’s best-known sights.
In an unexpected stroke of good fortune, we arrived at Kinkaku-ji (Kyoto’s “Golden Pavilion”) just as the sun was about to set, a time known to photographers and artists as the “Golden Hour,” and to normal people as “dusk.”
Even at other times of day, Kinkaku-ji still shimmers. That’s because, when it was reconstructed in 1955, the entire main hall was stamped with gold leaf. That feature, combined with the reflecting pond surrounding it, makes Kinkaku-ji a major cause of temporary flash blindness.
The original structure was built in 1397 as a retirement villa for a military dictator (aka, shōgun). Despite being a tinder-box with a long history of fires, Kinkaku-ji was nonetheless converted into a Buddhist temple.
In 1950, a young monk with unresolved anger-issues necessitated the aforementioned reconstruction by—you guessed it—burning the place to the ground.
Fushimi Inari-Taisha has way too many torii. Like, waaaay too many.
Fushimi Inari is a seemingly—and almost actually—endless procession of red shrine gates (aka, torii), the pi-shaped wooden gates you see in every martial arts movie. Construction of Fushimi’s vibrant red gates first started in 711CE, and there are now about 1,000 of them. Each gate took over a year to build, which is either a testament to craftsmanship, or a scam to guarantee job security.
The torii gates—each donated by a local business—wend their way up Inari-san mountain for about two and a half miles. People have long gathered here to pray for bountiful harvests, business prosperity, and the physical stamina to survive that two-hour hike to the top.
The Ginkaku-ji compound was built to chill.
Set at the foot of Kyoto’s eastern mountains, the “Silver Pavilion” (or, Ginkaku-ji) is another temple with glorious gardens and elegant structures, but it started its life—like a lot of these fancy Japanese palaces—as a retirement villa for a shōgun trying to escape the horrors of war, and the spirits of enemies he no doubt sliced up like tuna rolls.
Unlike the Golden Pavilion upon which its modeled, Ginkaku-ji was never stamped in silver leaf, possibly because the shōgun died during its construction or because it was never meant to be covered with silver foil, but most likely it was because the contractor didn’t have the right building permit—those Pavilion-Owners’ Associations can be extremely strict.
Take in the green, bamboo scenery at Arashiyama.
The historic, temple-crammed district of Arashiyama is famous for its “Bamboo Grove,” formally known as the Sagano Bamboo Forest. It’s a paved 6-mile walkway straight through a grove of super-tall bamboo trees planted on either side.
The gentle colliding of these sixty foot bamboo trees swaying in the breeze makes a sound reminiscent of wooden wind chimes. Or, at least that’s what I thought I heard the guide say over the chattering cacophony of excitable Insta’ influencers taking selfies in front of the trees.
There’s no shortage of temples in Kyoto Japan.
The nearby Tenryū-ji temple is artfully landscaped to incorporate features from the distant landscape into its garden setting. By co-opting the area’s rivers, lakes, and mountains into the design, the garden appears seamlessly connected. It’s a design concept known as shakkei, and definitely not plagiarism.
The rock garden test.
Tenryū-ji temple has a unique rock garden consisting of 16 strategically placed rocks so that visitors can only see 15 of them from any sitting position around the garden. One can only see all 16 if you’ve achieved a higher plane of consciousness (and are therefore viewing the rock garden from above). Or if you just stand up.
One of the main reasons we had for visiting Tenryu-ji was Shigetsu, the temple’s Michelin-starred, vegan restaurant. The restaurant owners don’t call their cuisine “vegan,” however. They call it Shojin Ryori, which means “devotion food,” aligning with the Buddhist belief of ahimsa, or non-violence toward animals. Though, it’s apparently always open season on tofu.
We ate sitting cross-legged on the floor at a low table across from several other diners. As I am not a fan of Japanese food in general, nor that many vegetables—I’m looking at you, aubergine!—the meal was a veritable minefield of potentially gross substances.
Happily, there were only a few dishes I passed over due to abject disgust. Most of the meal was delicious, and I’d highly recommend the place even to people whose idea of cuisine is Benihana, Saizeriya, or The Old Spaghetti Factory.
Specialization isn’t really my cup of tea.
As in Tokyo, my wife and I struggled to find restaurants that we both liked. For example, my wife wanted sushi while I wanted…uh, you know…food. And while there are lots of steak houses and sushi spots, there are almost none that offered both.
On our last day in Kyoto, we finally stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall joint named Kyo-no-Oheso. Not only did this neighborhood gem offer a variety of different cuisines, more incredibly, it had salad on the menu—two kinds even!
We managed to get a seat at the bar, as Kyo-no-Oheso only seats maybe 20 people and, shockingly, not all of them were tourists. We ordered beers, both salads, and two entirely different entrees. My wife’s sushi assortment was great as was my skillet-cooked beef. I wish we’d found this place sooner, because it would’ve prevented a lot of arguing and fisticuffs.
Kyoto Japan is a clash between the old ways and gentrification.
Modernization is slowly eroding the traditional Kyoto architectural style in favor of newer steel and glass buildings like Kyōto Station. It’s a massive 15-story complex and transportation hub that encompasses a huge shopping mall, hotel, movie theater, and several local government facilities.
The complex is, to be blunt, a freaking zoo. It’s hard to believe Tokyo has 36.5 million more citizens when just walking around Kyōto Station feels like getting caught in a continuous Black Friday sale.
Kyōto Station is just a depressing glimpse into a possible future of this ancient city. So see it now before they turn all their timeless temples into music venues and vape shops.