Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011


Japan's capital for over 1,000 years, Kyoto remains awash with remnants of its past glory. The city's stunning collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites alone would be enough to set it apart, but Kyoto also boasts a still-working geisha district, some of Japan's most exquisite cuisine, and a whole lot of Zen. Not that it's all temples and tradition: the city also hosts its share of hip cafes and modern art. Think of it as the cultural yin to Tokyo's yang, but with a sprinkling of modernity. Here's how to get a taste of it all.

1. Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion)

Be it capped by snow in winter or set against a lush green background in summer, nothing is as symbolic of Kyoto as Kinkaku-ji's golden reflection shimmering across the rippled surface of the pond before it. Not even the crowds of tourists — and they come by the thousands — can detract from Kinkaku-ji's undoubted splendor. The current gold leaf-coated reconstruction was unveiled in 1955, five years after the 14th-century original was torched by one of the temple's monks.

Kinkaku-ji is open daily from 9am to 5pm. Admission is ¥400. Take bus numbers 101 or 205 from Kyoto Station to the Kinkaku-ji Michi bus stop. If you are coming from another part of the city, you can also take the number 59 and 12 buses to the Kinkaku-ji Mae bus stop.

2. Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion)

Here's an oddity: the Silver Pavilion doesn't have a trace of silver on it. When the temple was built in the 1480s as a retirement home for the then shogun, the plan was for it to be coated in silver leaf. Scholars believe he ran out of money before they got to that part of the project. And when he died a few years later, the silver-less pavilion was converted into the Zen temple it is today. Though the temple itself is small and unassuming — a Spartan version of its illustrious golden cousin Kinkaku-ji — the reflective pond and manicured trees, the raked sand garden, and the mossy, wooded hillside to the east, from where you can see Ginkaku-ji holding back a sprawling, low-rise urban backdrop, all combine to make a spectacular whole.

Ginkaku-ji can be reached from Kyoto Station by bus numbers 5, 17 and 100. Get off at the Ginkaku-ji Michi bus stop. Admission is ¥500 and it is open daily 8.30am to 5pm (9am to 4.30pm from Dec to Feb).

3. Ryoan-ji

Ryoan-ji Temple's dry rock garden is a puzzle. Nobody knows who designed it or what the meaning is of the 15 rocks scattered across its expanse of raked white gravel. Some academics say they represent a tiger carrying a cub across a stream; others believe they depict an ocean accented with small islands or the sky dotted with clouds. There's even a theory that the rocks form a map of Chinese Zen monasteries. The only thing scholars do agree on is that Ryoan-ji is one of the finest examples of Zen landscaping in the country. You could stay there for years quietly contemplating the garden's riddles and still get no nearer to an answer, and maybe that's the point.

You can reach Ryoan-ji on the number 59 bus route. Admission is ¥500 and the temple and garden opens daily 8am to 5pm (8.30am to 4.30pm from Dec to Feb).

4. Toei Kyoto Studio Park

Yes, it's touristy, and yes, it's a bit tacky too, but dressing up as a samurai and watching TV actors hamming it up on set does hold a certain charm. Eigamura, or Kyoto Toei Studio Park to give it its English name, is a working TV and movie set that doubles as a theme park, where besides dressing up in period costume you can wander around a mock-up Edo-era samurai town and take in exhibitions of the well-known TV series and films shot here.

It's the live studio performances, however, that steal the show. The swordfights are extravagant, the facial expressions and body language overly dramatic, and the dialog at times delivered about as convincingly as an elementary school end-of-year play. It's Japanese kitsch at its finest. Quentin Tarantino would love it.

Eigamura is open daily from 9am to 5pm (9.30am to 4pm from Dec to Feb). Admission is ¥2,200, though you can get in for half that if you come dressed in a kimono. Take bus number 75 from Kyoto Station to the Uzumasa Eigamura-michi bus stop.

5. Gion

It's not the only geisha district left in Japan, but Gion, a collection of streets defined by its old wooden buildings, teahouses and exclusive Japanese restaurants, is by far the most famous. Spend an hour wandering the area and chances are you'll glimpse a geisha or two shuffling between teahouses in their cumbersome zori sandals and exquisite kimono. Much to their annoyance, you'll probably see camera-happy Japanese tourists stalking them too. Not that Gion is just about geisha. Every July, their charms are eclipsed by the Gion Matsuri, a festival that attracts in excess of a million visitors for its procession of festival floats and traditional musical performances.

Numerous bus routes from Kyoto Station and other parts of the city stop at the Gion bus stop.

6. Kyo-Ryori

A waitress in kimono kneels on the tatami mat floor and silently begins placing a dozen or so small, yet picture-perfect dishes on the low dining table. Among the subtle favors and seasonal tones are a clear soup garnished with a sprig of green sanshou, slices of raw sea bream and tuna specked with tiny, delicate yellow flowers, and a simmering silver pot of off-white soy milk and tofu. Japanese cuisine doesn't get more refined than Kyo-ryori, or "Kyoto cuisine." For a quintessential Kyo-ryori experience, head to Gion and the 100-year-old Minokou restaurant, where they do an 11-course Kyo-ryori dinner for ¥15,600, as well as lunchtime sampler sets presented in shiny lacquer ware bento boxes for ¥4,000. Alternatively, try the equally traditional Kinobu, where they have a seven-course dinner for ¥12,000 and a ¥4,200 lunchtime sampler.

7. Tea Ceremony

Zen again, but this time in a tea cup. The cleansing of the tea utensils, the gentle bow as you receive your cup, the three clockwise turns before you take a sip: it's not difficult to see how deeply rooted the slow and graceful movements of the tea ceremony are in Zen Buddhism. Chado or sado, as the ceremony is known, is by no means limited to Kyoto, but with the city's rich Zen connections, it is an ideal place to experience it. Try visiting En, a small teahouse in Gion with tatami tearooms and English-speaking Kimono-clad servers. You'll find it next to Chionin Temple, a short walk from the Chionmae bus stop on route number 206 from Kyoto Station.

8. Kyoto International Manga Museum

Few museums are as hands-on as this old elementary school turned shrine to manga, or comic books, and its collection of some 300,000 comics and manga-related exhibits. Visitors can read any piece of manga they fancy from the towering wooden bookcases that line every wall and hallway. Some read propped up against the walls or sitting crossed legged on the floor; others hunker down with a coffee at the museum's wood-decked outdoor café. The eclectic and universally transfixed crowd is a testament to how much a part of mainstream Japanese culture manga has become.

The museum is a one-minute walk from Karasuma Oike Station on the Karasuma and Tozai subway lines. Admission is ¥500 and it's open from 10am to 6pm. Closed Wednesdays and New Year's holidays.

9. Shopping on Shijo-Dori

The futuristic glass and steel facade of Kyoto's train station, though not universally welcomed by locals when it was unveiled in 1997, is proof that Kyoto is not stuck in the past. So too is Shijo, Kyoto's brand-name adorned central shopping precinct. It begins near Shijo Station, with the Daimaru department store, eight floors of cosmetics, jewelry and fashion that are topped off by a restaurant floor. Fifteen minutes east, by Kawaramachi Station, the edge of the district is marked by the larger Takashimaya department store, which sits directly across from Koto + (pronounced Koto Cross), home to eight narrow floors of fashion, beauty salons and cafes aimed at a young female crowd. Inbetween you'll find brand-name boutiques like Louis Vuitton and Armani, plus several traditional Japanese craft and high-end souvenir shops. If it weren't for the wooded hills in the distance, you could easily think you were in Tokyo.

10. The Arty East End

Head east of the Kamogawa River, toward Ginkaku-ji and Kyoto University, and Kyoto begins to reveals its artistic side. Besides the extremely worthwhile National Museum of Modern Art, which focuses on local 20th-century artists, this part of town is also home to an impressive array of post Meiji-era fine art at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, as well as a collection of Japanese art and artifacts spanning the 4th to the 19th centuries at the architecturally sleek Hosomi Museum.

Yet it's the smaller, alternative places that really stand out. Tranq Room, on Shirakawa-dori, combines a small contemporary art gallery and hip, Asian fusion café-bar that sometimes turns into a live music venue. Further up Shirakawa-dori, the laidback A Womb is an even more fashionably understated place for a drink. It stands in its own minimalist grey concrete building and includes a small studio where the owners sell their own anti-brand fashions.