KYOTO, NICKNAMED JAPAN’S “Eternal City,” is the undisputed guardian of Japanese tradition. Japan’s ancient capital from 795 A.D. to 1868, the city was modeled after the elegant Chinese Tang dynasty capital Chang’an (now called Xian) and today remains awash in mossy Buddhist temples, secret Shinto shrines, and family-owned heritage businesses, some dating back to the eighth-century Heian era when the city was founded.
While Kyoto’s ancient sites remain firmly planted, a modern city has sprouted up around them. Many visitors keen on ticking off temples are surprised by the glassy towers, mega train stations, blocky malls, and contemporary landscape of this city, Japan’s ninth largest. Its population of 1.5 million is downright microscopic for a nation where heavyweight populations like Tokyo and Osaka reach a whopping 13 million and 2.7 million residents respectively. By comparison, Kyoto is tiny, but its magnificence and auspiciousness are not to be underestimated.
While it takes very little effort to find and access Old Kyoto — the Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion, Kokedera Moss Temple, and Arashiyama Bamboo Forest to name a few — visitors would be remiss to tackle them without a game plan. During the last 20 years, Kyoto has become a sort of antidote to Tokyo’s crowds and Osaka’s lightning pace, emerging as one of the most tourist-heavy cities in Japan and, ironically, the least likely place in Japan to experience authentic Japan. Getting off Kyoto’s very beaten path, making reservations in advance, and timing your visits to avoid crowds is essential. If you only temple hop, you’re not doing it right. Don’t skip the temples but opt for weekday morning or late-evening visits. Seek out lesser-known sights in outlying neighborhoods, and casual restaurants. And don’t be afraid to venture further afield — Kyoto’s riches sprawl far and wide.
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Omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) reaches its zenith in Kyoto, where sixth-generation ryokan live harmoniously alongside uber-exclusive hotels. The city added dozens of new properties just before, during, and after the pandemic, so a new flock of luxury properties awaits.
The ultimate heritage ryokan experience.
This sixth-generation ryokan is run meticulously by the Nishimura family. Like all ryokan, it’s better experienced as a destination than a crash pad. Check in, slip into your yukata robe and head for a soak in the pine ofuro tubs. After, slide open the fusuma to tranquil gardens strewn with stone lanterns and namesake holly bushes. Then settle into your tatami-mat room for a sake-heavy kaiseki meal of uni and yuba dumplings and sliced abalone with miso egg-yolk sauce served on handmade Kiyomizu ceramics. Nakahakusancho, Fuyacho Anekoji-agaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, 604-8094
Exclusive and meditative forest sanctuary.
Aman’s 26 temple-like suites lie in a forest of native cedars, Japanese camellias, and blue oaks in Kyoto’s lesser-visited Takagamine neighborhood. The serene property was the inspiration for Japan’s seventeenth-century Rinpa school of painting, its stone and moss 400 years in the making. But the hotel itself was designed in 2020 by the late Kerry Hill, whose understated touches include washi lanterns, heated stone floors, open-air onsen, and in-room hinoki ofuro tubs for two. Don't miss the communal firepit for sips of sparkling sake at dusk. No.1 Okitayama Washimine-Cho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, 603-8458
A love letter to Japanese architecture and design.
It only opened in 2020, but this understated 70-room master class in Japanese architecture is built — origami-like — in Higashiyama’s temple-dense district. The property was constructed by Takenaka, the renowned seventeenth-generation Kyoto construction company behind many of Japan’s temples, shrines, and skyscrapers. Inside is a warren of tatami-mat rooms, some with stirring views of the Yasaka Pagoda, and each featuring the designs of Tony Chi, who relied on local materials like tamo (ashwood), basalt stonework, and shoji screens made with local washi paper. Crowned atop it all is a 360-year-old wooden teahouse. 360 Kodaiji Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, Masuyacho, JP 605-0826
With the third most Michelin stars in the world (trailing only Tokyo and Paris), Kyoto delivers superb cuisine, much of it kaiseki, Japan’s signature multicourse meal. But eating kaiseki two nights in a row is a chore. Follow locals to more casual spots and micro counters. Kyoto is surprisingly famed for its ramen (kotteri-style, made with chicken bone stock), not to mention its tofu, tsukemono (pickles), and Kyoyasai — Kyoto’s heirloom fruit and vegetables, like Kujo green onions, Kintoki carrots, and Shishigatani squash. Reservations in Kyoto are a must.
Secret micro tempura joint with seasonal offerings.
Snag a seat at this immaculate 12-seat tempura counter, located inside a heritage ryokan, where the chef churns out crispy creations fried in chrysanthemum oil. Expect tempura mainstays like fish, shrimp, and lotus root served aside in-house specialties like baby corn, tomatoes, and seasonal sansai, mountain herbs foraged during spring months. Tominokoji, Oike-sagaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, 604-8093
Showy ramen joint where bowls are set aflame.
The ramen is literally set on fire at Menbakaichidai, a noodle counter known for its in-the-bowl charring techniques. Thanks to the students at the city’s dozens of universities, Kyoto is a ramen town, though this go-to in the historic Kamigyo Ward is more of a mecca for visiting noodle pilgrims. Grab a spot at the 12-seat counter to watch the chef pour molten liquid from a cast iron pot into your bowl, setting it aflame. The process chars the thin slices of pork chashu and green onions, giving the ramen a smoky unctuousness. 757-2 Minamiiseyacho, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto, 602-8153
Convivial vegetable-forward izakaya.
Vegetables play the lead at this convivial izakaya with tables spilling out of the glass-enclosed dining room onto a terrace. The chalkboard menus change daily, but Kyoto veggies typically take precedence: lotus root sprinkled with sea urchin, matsutake mushrooms sautéed in sake, and fried sweet potato with purple ice cream. Even the beverage list is plant-friendly, with an array of veggie-inspired shochu cocktails. 4215 Shimomaruyacho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-8006
Kyoto is brimming with temples, but they get unbearably crowded on weekends and during high seasons in autumn and spring. Take a spin around Kyoto’s outlying neighborhoods to experience some tranquil lesser-known sites that pack just as much spirited Japanese heritage and poetry.
Leafy distillery where Japanese whisky got its start.
A sanctuary of spirits is 12 miles from Kyoto’s city center, built on grounds shaded by maples and pines. Established in 1923, this is Japan’s oldest whisky maker, now owned by Suntory. The site is accessible via bus, taxi, or train and includes English audio tours and free samples of its range of expressions, arguably some of the world’s finest. Seek out the mizunara (Japanese oak) aged spirits, a unique note not found in single malts from anywhere else. 5 Chome-2-1 Yamazaki, Shimamoto, Mishima District, Osaka, 618-0001
This thatched cottage on the outskirts of Kyoto was once the home of Mukai Kyorai (1651–1704), a disciple of Japan’s beloved haiku master Bashō, who also visited and wrote about the site many times. Stone tablets outside the cottage are inscribed with haiku, while inside, ink-brushed poems adorn the walls. 20 Hinomyojin-cho Ogurayama Saga Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, 616-8391
A museum highlighting Kyoto artists.
Parked on a bank of the Katsura River in outlying Arashiyama, this sleek new museum opened in October 2019. Designed by architect Koichi Yasuda, the glassy verandas and cavern-like galleries showcase items from a private collection of over 1,800 artworks by major Japanese artists, emphasizing Kyoto works ranging from the Edo period (1603–1868) to today, with many pieces never displayed before. 3-16 Sagatenryuji Susukinobabacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8385
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Adam H. Graham Writer
Adam H. Graham is an American food and travel journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Afar, and more. He typically spends a few months every year in Japan, and recently spent several weeks visiting Japanese vineyards in several different prefectures.