Japan is considered one of the world’s most elegant cultural, historical, and creative hubs. Known for everything from its debonair cherry blossoms and culinary ingenuity to an embattled, complicated history, its magnetic allure makes for an easygoing but educational trip.
The country’s seventh-largest city, Kyoto, is Japan’s entertainment and lifestyle playground. Located on Japan’s island of Honshu and with a population close to 1.5 million, Kyoto’s resilience is world-renowned. Throughout the centuries, Kyoto was destroyed by dozens of natural and manmade disasters, from brutal fires to debilitating wars. Due to its historic value, the city was even spared from the atomic bomb during World War II. It’s now home to preserved temples, shrines, and priceless Asian structures found nowhere else in the world, being dubbed the “city of a thousand temples.” It’s also considered a premier fall foliage location, touting beautiful crimson and orange forests that divinely shroud constructed holy sites. While anyone could get lost in all Kyoto has to offer, first-time visitors should take time to check out some of the city’s most memorable sites.
Built in 1603 and used as an imperial palace for hundreds of years, Nijo Castle was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994. This flatland castle is considered Japan’s best example of Feudal Era architecture. It was constructed for Japan’s militant shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and used as his Kyoto office and residence until the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867. Castle grounds are surrounded by stone walls and deep moats, which served as a defense during the city’s most tumultuous years . Home to more than 400 cherry trees and a modish plum orchard typically used for traditional tea ceremonies, the castle and surrounding palace estate features Kyoto’s most pacific views.
Located in the heart of downtown and colloquially known as “Kyoto’s pantry,” Nishiki Market is unrivaled in the city’s traditional food market. Being Kyoto’s largest open-air market, the variety of fresh Japanese cuisine and ingredients are omnipresent. From fresh tofu, fish, and vegetables to wagashi (sweets) and tea, Nishiki caters to all palettes. The market’s breezy aesthetic welcomes both tourists looking grab a bite at one of many sit-down restaurants, or locals picking up a few homegrown basics for an evening dish.
On the helm of the prolific Higashiyama mountains is one of Japan’s most coveted and respected temples. It is the leading school within the Rinzai sect of Buddhism. The grounds were once home to an emperor’s self-commissioned retirement chateau in the 13th century, all of which were leveled during the Muromachi Period’s civil wars. Although most of the active lecture halls in Nanzenji are off limits to the public, visitors are welcome to explore the temple’s famous brick aqueduct, as well as the many sub-temples including Nanzen-in Temple, where you’ll find the mausoleum of Emperor Kameyama and a memorial garden in his honor.
Fushimi Sake District
Kyoto’s premier Sake distribution center offers dozens of elaborate brewery buildings and stunning tree-plaited canals — and don’t forget fresh sake from the source. Fushimi, or “underground water,” is most famous for its mellow, delicate springs ideal for sake production. Believed to be a particularly delicious complement to traditional Kyoto dishes, the Japanese rice wine made in Fushimi is famed not only for its undiluted taste, but its support of local business and the Kyoto way of life. After trying it for yourself, head over to the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine, a tribute to, fittingly, the god of rice. The walk to the shrine’s peak yields unparalleled views of Kyoto and its neighboring mountain regions.