Of the surging crowds making their way into Japan after a 2 year hiatus, many are now flocking into Kyoto, the country's erstwhile imperial capital and simply one of the most beguiling cities in the world.
In this great big world we live in, no two places are completely alike. More than that, some destinations are so unique and proverbially 'out of this world', they become legendary destinations etched into the memories of the world traveller. One of these spots is doubtlessly Kyoto, an enigmatic imperial city that had stood still for over a thousand years until its transition into the present era brought about a convergence of the times that rendered it resplendently modern yet breathtakingly old. As a historic site Kyoto is a living testament to the rise of the Japanese state with the many magnificent buildings still standing their ground after centuries of human strife and developments. As a modern city Kyoto is culturally dazzling with the ways and principles of the past still very much the present. The distinct geography of the city also adds to its many allures; surrounded by mountains but close to the coast, the seasonal confluxes gave rise to its legendary beauty. In winter the blanket of snow, however occasional, transforms the landscape into a medieval white haven. In spring the spectacular sakura blooms in stunning haste to herald the season of regeneration. In summer the cruel heat colludes with human ingenuity to give rise to the great matsuris and in fall the leaves shed their verdancy to form rustling seas of yellow, red and orange that simply take our breath away.
Many tourists make the uninformed choice to visit Kyoto on day trips with nearby Osaka as their base. One can visit Kyoto for years on end and still be surprised by new lessons and discoveries awaiting them on the next trip. Lest one thinks that Kyoto is a stuffy tourist outpost with old buildings and a quaint mindset, it is on the contrary a welcoming cultural bastion and historic world address roughly 1200 years in the making.
With such an amazing wealth of historic edifices within Kyoto, it would be unthinkable to not visit its many temples, many of which are UNESCO listed heritage buildings and national treasure grade buildings with very distinct characteristics and history. Over the centuries these temples have retained their relevance with the inhabitants of the city and have not devolved into forgotten relics. Some of the more famous temples in Kyoto are Kiyomizudera, a nail-less temple dedicated to the goddess Kannon raised at the foothills of Mt Otowa with a stunning view of the city, Kodaiji, another Higashiyama landmark with a serene garden that is stunningly illuminated in autumn, Kinkakuji, the world famous temple with a pavilion covered in gold and the Fushimi Inari shrine, an intriguing temple complex extending up a mountain by bright torii gates made more famous by the movie 'Memoirs of a Geisha'.
With over 2000 temples dotting the city, these sites are just some of Kyoto's best attractions and not its sole attraction. The Imperial Palace is now a park open to visitors with its famous plum and cherry groves very instagramable spots. Other royal sites like the Sento palace, Katsura and Shujakuin imperial villas are also open to visitors although it is mandatory to join guided tours (given in Japanese) in order to visit these sites. Nijo castle, the bombastic abode of the shoguns of yore, boasts of stunning cherry trees which are treated to electrifying illumination for a few days towards the tail end of the sakura season in early April each year.
Kyoto is also a city of art and learning with many museums and galleries showcasing diverse genres of arts and academia. A couple of your must-visit museums are the Kyoto National Museum which hosts a permanent gallery of cultural properties, Kyoto International Manga Museum which is dedicated to the history and development of Japanese manga, Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum which showcases pretty much everything you need to know about the art of sake making and the Museum of Kyoto which is dedicated to the history and culture of Kyoto. The KYOCERA Museum of Art is one of Japan's oldest museums and specialises in Kyoto art.
An important center for the continuation of Kyoto Artistry and aesthetics, Kyoto is where the craftsmen of distinct products like textile designs, lacquerwares, bamboo art, paper making and pottery still labour on to perpetuate their crafts. Meticulous attention and laborious processes are needed to create many of these works of art and these are the last remaining pockets of artisanal heritage makers surviving in modern Japan.
With so much to offer, the principal allures of Kyoto lie in its great beauty and also its subtle charms. One only needs to take time to get acquainted with the city on one's own terms, through its old wards and new districts, strolling along the glorious Kamogawa that cuts the great city in half, stopping for whatever scenes and sounds that catches one's attention, and know that every aspect of the city is evolutionary, unrehearsed and uniquely its own.
Text and visuals by CT