Kyoto Modern: Things to Do in Japan's Cutting-Edge City

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Kyoto isn’t just defined by its history.

The ancient capital, the center of tradition: Kyoto is pitched as the old to Tokyo’s new. That’s the way the brochures put it, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Far from it. For Kyoto is home to high-tech companies like Nintendo, Kyocera, and Omron. It has an influential science park.

In fact, ever since the emperor left for Tokyo in 1868, Kyoto has been reinventing itself. The loss of the imperial support system left a void in the heart of the city, and today the grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace (3 Kyoto-Gyoen, Kamigyo-ku; are a people’s park. The former capital turned to modernizing, and in 1885 took on the largest construction project Japan had ever seen. It brought water from Lake Biwa 12 miles away, and the result is evident, incongruously, at Nanzenji temple (86 Nanzenji-Fukuchi-cho, Sakyo-ku;, where the brick aqueduct still stands.

Kyoto was the first place in the land to embrace cinema, building a reputation as Japan’s Hollywood. Rashomon was shot here, as were countless samurai movies. Toei Kyoto Studio Park (10 Uzumasa-Higashihachioka-cho, Ukyo-ku; celebrates this legacy. Although the film sets are still in use, the park is a kitsch equivalent of Universal Studios.

Until the 1960s, Kyoto was a city of wood, but Kyoto Tower (721-1 Higashishiokojicho, Karasuma-dori, Shichijo-Sagaru, Shimogyo-ku; changed all that. It is shaped like a candle and rises 430 feet. Its restaurant used to offer all-around views, but since 1997 it’s had to cope with a brash, futuristic neighbor, hewn out of glass and steel: Kyoto Station (901 Higashishiokoji-cho, Karasuma-dori, Shichijo-Sagaru, Shimogyo-ku; The transportation hub is a city in itself.

Kyoto’s modern architecture goes along with its modern art, and the city has in recent years acquired a reputation for the avant-garde. Establishments like the National Museum of Modern Art (Okazaki-Enshoji-cho, Sakyo-ku; exist alongside alternative galleries. Kahitsukan (271 Kitagawa, Higashiyama-ku;, for instance, adds a vibrant twist to the traditional geisha area of Gion, and the Manga Museum (Karasuma-Oike, Nakagyo-ku; makes its 300,000-item collection available to read.

The last word goes to food, for Kyoto chefs have raised the bar. Try the intimate Giro Giro Hitoshina (420-7 Nanba-cho, Shimogyo-ku; Its river fish, deep-fried and served with matcha cream sauce, is a surprising fusion of old and new—just part of the charm of modern Kyoto.