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As I was searching for places to go for a long weekend recently, I found a great deal on a trip to Kyoto, Japan’s old capital.

I had visited Kyoto, located in central Japan, many times before, but I’d spent most of my time there drinking with friends. This time I decided that since I’m a little bit more mature (or at least I’d like to think so) and have a better appreciation for my country’s history and culture, I’d really try to take in the sights.

Kyoto, the capital of Japan from 794 until the Meiji Emperor moved the capital to Tokyo in 1869, has everything most tourists would imagine as exotic Japan: Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, Japanese gardens and geisha.

Here, you can simply turn a corner and walk into the past. From the old imperial palace to a temple where a famous monk spent his childhood hiding from the emperor’s aides, there is so much history packed into this ancient city.

The city also is packed with tourists, though a smart visitor can visit during the off-season to find a bit more solitude.

It is best to avoid Japanese holidays, such as Golden Week in late April and the Bon holidays in mid-August. But American holidays such as Memorial Day and Independence Day are a great time to travel, as they fall before and after major Japanese holidays. Traveling outside the peak times also is cheaper.

Searching online, my friend and I found a great deal from a bullet train company. We snagged a round-trip bullet train ride and an overnight stay at a hotel in central Kyoto for about the same price one normally pays for just the train ride.

Once in Kyoto, I recommend taking public buses to get around. Buses may sound confusing for those who don’t understand Japanese, but as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan, Kyoto is foreigner-friendly. Most signs are both in Japanese and English. And I’ve been told by my American friends that Kyoto locals are used to tourists and will offer directions, even in English. On buses, all stops are announced in English and a recording in English gives a short history of major historical sites.

When deciding where you want to go, try to pick sites that are clustered in one area so you don’t have to spend a lot of time traveling from place to place. That tactic also is likely to keep you on the same numbered bus.

Although it depends on how much time you’d want to spend at each place, you can probably visit two areas in a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

We had two days and one night in Kyoto. On the first day, we decided to go to Arashiyama, in northwestern Kyoto. The area is famous for its scenic view of the Togetsu Bridge over the Ooi River and beautiful bamboo forests. And it’s home to a number of temples and shrines that have appeared in old novels.

The next day we spent time going to various temples and shrines in central Kyoto. One of my favorites was the Heian Jingu shrine, which stands out because it is bright red and green. On the shrine’s grounds is a vast garden that is a photographer’s paradise.

We also visited the Nanzen-ji temple, which is famous for its national treasure gate, which appears in a kabuki act.

But Kyoto isn’t just about temples and shrines. It’s also about experiencing the culture. In Kyoto you can have a geisha makeover, meditate at temples or watch samurai movies in the making.

Kyoto also is famous for its cuisine, as recipes have been handed down from generations of imperial households, Buddhist monks and Shinto priests. I never liked tofu until I had a vegetarian meal that monks eat. It was an eye-opener to see the different ways to prepare tofu.

Only a 2½-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo, Kyoto can take you back in time to experience the Japan that you may have read about in history books.

I’m glad I took in the sights and soaked in the culture instead of soaking up the suds. I guess my maturity paid off.

Know & Go

Here are some places to check out in Kyoto. Remember, most temples and shrines charge a small fee, usually less than 1,000 yen, to visit:

Kinkakuji Temple, or Golden Pavilion, and other temples: About a 30-minute bus ride northwest from Kyoto station stands the Kinkakuji, Ryoanji and Ninnaji temples, which were placed on the World Heritage List. The three-story- high Kinkakuji Temple, or Golden Pavilion, attracts tourists with its golden tower shrines, reflected beautifully on the pond in front of it. Built as a vacation home for Muromachi-period shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the temple burned down in 1950 and was rebuilt 30 years ago. About a 15-minute walk from Kinkakuji is Ryoanji, famous for its rock garden.

Gion area and Kiyomizu temple: Extending north and south from Shirakawaminami-dori Street and Shinbashi-dori Street to Donguri-dori and west to east from Yamato Oji-dori Street to Higashi Oji-dori, the Gion area has a vestige of Edo Period (1603-1868) ochaya or geisha houses. If you’re lucky, you may run into geisha. East of Gion is Yasaka Jinja shrine. Believed to be built in 656, the shrine is one of the sponsors for the Gion Festival, a major summer festival in Japan. To the east of the shrine is the Kiyomizu-dera temple. Built in 778, the temple has attracted many visitors with its “stage-style” temple that overlooks the city. And you can really appreciate the changing of the seasons as the temple is surrounded by various types of trees and vegitation, including cherry blossom and maple trees.

author picture
Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.
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