One Day in Kyoto
A tour through the ancient wonders and modern pleasures of the City of Ten Thousand Shrines.
Boasting 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, over 1,600 historically significant Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, beautiful gardens, countless galleries and art museums, and 183 Michelin-recognized restaurants, Japan’s ancient capital is a must-visit on any trip to the country. This means crowds, but the good news is that there are many unheralded spots of great beauty, and the city is compact enough for you to visit dozens of fascinating venues within a short time.
Center yourself for a day of exploration with a stroll on the Philosopher’s Path, a 1.2-mile stone trail along a picturesque canal dotted with temples and lined with cherry trees. Starting at the southern entrance gate, Nanzenji (nanzen.net) temple in early morning is a haven of tranquility, barely changed since it was constructed in 1291. Monks chant their sutras and the aroma of incense fills the air as it has for seven centuries. Nanzenji’s famous Zen rock garden is said to resemble a mother tiger and her cub. The exquisite sliding screens were painted by the old masters of the Kano School.
A short walk north is Eikando Zenrin-ji (eikando.or.jp). Its gardens burst into golden splendor every fall, and in early morning it is blissfully free of the tourist hordes. With more than 1,100 years of history, the temple’s treasures include the hauntingly beautiful statue Mikaeri Amida (“The Looking-back Amitabha”) and the garyuro staircase.
Hōnen-in (honen-in.jp) also has few visitors, even in peak season. Don’t miss the moss garden and the secret grotto behind the Main Hall. If you are lucky enough to be here Nov. 1–7, the peak of maple-viewing season, the hall, with its lovely Buddhist statuary, is open to the public.
Great food options on or near the Philosopher’s Path include three local legends. Hinode Udon serves wheat noodles in a deeply satisfying curry sauce; this is where the great master chefs of Kyoto dine on their days off. Daigin Shokudo is a canteen-style eatery beloved by the locals, especially for its lunch courses and huge menu of hearty staples such as tempura, sukiyaki and tonkatsu. The ramen shop Masutani (kyoto-ramen-koji.com) is the originator of the powerful Kyoto-style ramen, with an addicting soy sauce broth and generous helpings of garlic.
Head back into central Kyoto for shopping and people watching in the Shijo Kawaramachi downtown area. Fans of matcha green tea and traditional Japanese wagashi sweets should head to the 300-year-old Ippodo (ippodo-tea.co.jp), where the perfectly attentive waitstaff serves some of the finest green tea in the world. At Toraya Shijo (global.toraya-group.co.jp), sample traditional sweets fit for an emperor. Literally. They’ve been making them for the imperial family since the early 16th century.
Love the manga, anime and pop stylings of 21st-century Japan? Check out the funky souvenir shops of Teramachi arcade, between Shijo and Sanjo streets, which seem to stock every Hello Kitty and Dragonball artifact ever made, or head over to the kitschy Kyoto International Manga Museum (kyotomm.jp).
Alternatively, go to where the locals shop: the depachika (underground food malls) at the department stores Takashimaya (takashimaya.co.jp) and Fuji Daimaru Tavelt (fujiidaimaru.co.jp). They are dizzying cornucopias of every taste and flavor imaginable. French-inspired luxury chocolate, $200 melons, rice crackers dusted with gold flakes, incomparable sake and more — it’s all there.
After refreshing yourself for dinner, give yourself a little more time before your reservations to walk the lamp-lit streets of the Gion or Ponto-cho districts, where you can watch immaculately made-up geisha make their way to teahouses to provide entertainment.
Kyoto’s gourmet food options are endless. Try the Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant Roan Kikunoi (kikunoi.jp), where star chef Yoshihiro Murata works culinary magic with the finest local ingredients in a classically refined setting; look for matsutake mushrooms and the sublime autumn hamo pike-conger. Hafuu (hafuu.com) has been specializing in Wagyu beef dishes for over a hundred years. The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto (ritzcarlton.com) can arrange a private geisha performance at an exclusive Gion teahouse, in conjunction with a traditionally lavish Kyo-ryori multi-course dinner with sashimi, Wagyu beef, Ise-ebi lobster and the finest seasonal fare.
For a nightcap, try the old-school-cool Tavern Simpson, famed for its robust cocktails and golden-aged waiters (most are in their 60s). Finlandia Bar (finlandiabar.com) plays upon the interesting congruence in Japanese and Scandinavian design styles with a soothing accumulation of light woods and simple lines. It would be hard to find a better place to sample Japan’s famous homegrown whiskies than a European bar in an old Gion geisha house.