As I traced out the four hiragana characters for the word “bijutsukan,” it all condensed for me. Bijutsukan — the Japanese word for art museum, literally ‘a place for the way of beauty.’ Yes. This is what Kyoto is for me and my wife both, and more.
There’s a timeless yet thrillingly alive beauty to Kyoto that just keeps us coming back for more: There’s the birdsong welcoming spring as I walked through the gardens of Jonangu Shrine amid a soft rain of purple plum blossom petals. The magic of the night lights reflecting on the Kamo River from the Pontocho. The opulent elegance of a gold-leaf covered pavilion set like a jewel on an emerald pond; the austere grandeur of its sister temple, the Silver Pavilion. The laughter of a river rushing down the mountain as we hiked a highland trail a mere hour from the city center, past rapids and pools overhung with maples in their orange autumn coats. The soul-expanding silence as we enter an out-of-the-way temple at dawn.
But it’s not just about the scenery or the temples; it’s also Kyoto’s people: The warmth of an old couple cheerfully serving the best tonkatsu I’ve ever tasted, from the counter of their hole-in-the-wall diner. The easy trust of our building manager Ryoko-san, who entrusted to me her only spare key when I got locked out of our flat. The helpfulness of one McDonalds manager who stepped out of his charge and walked ten minutes with me to set me on the right track when I got lost. The long and fun conversation we had with artist Mieko-san, a chance meeting at a museum.
My interest in Kyoto, and Japan in general, goes all the way back to childhood in a deluge of Japanese media. All within the span of a few years, my mom gifted me with a Walt Disney book that had articles on Japanese culture; my dad treated the family to dinner at a high-end Japanese restaurant to celebrate my brother’s graduation; and I discovered chambara films on our ancient TV. All that left me with a hunger to see Japan and more of Japanese culture. And the center of the center of that obsession was Kyoto.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, from its founding in 794 to 1868, when the Meiji Restoration saw the Emperor move to Tokyo. Over those centuries, an incredibly rich court culture developed and set the standards for the rest of Japan. Just how central? Just like Rome, all roads led to Kyoto. Some of the oldest Shinto shrines and grandest Buddhist temples are here, many of them built and kept under Imperial family patronage. The Nishijin district is a center for silk weaving, and sets the style for kimonos across Japan. The Fushimi district is one of the oldest and most famous sake brewing districts. Kaiseki cuisine, the tea ceremony, ikebana — these arts all started here. The world’s very first novel was written here — not by a scholar, but by an imperial lady-in-waiting. Kyoto is a jewel of art and culture, a gem set in the perfect setting — a bowl of forested mountains strewn with temples and hiking trails.
But Kyoto isn’t stuck in time. Not at all. Shinkansen bullet trains whiz into its main station every few hours. Skyscrapers of steel and glass raise an artificial mountain range in downtown Kyoto. Downtown may not be as huge a neon jungle as Tokyo’s Shibuya or Ginza, but it’s still very much like them, specially at night. So if you ask me, if you could go to only one place in Japan I’d say make it Kyoto. There’s certainly a lot more to see in Japan, but for me, Kyoto is hands down the best place to start. Aside from not being by the sea (unlike Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima and other popular destinations), it encapsulates all of Japan for us.
Hi, and welcome to our blog! We’re Cathy and Dariel Quiogue, freelance photographers and writers, explorers of nature and culture, and here we’ll be sharing our travel stories, photos and helpful tips from our journeys. Most of the content will be about Kyoto or other places in the Kansai region of Japan, as that’s where our hearts live now. Erm, it’s rather obvious, neh?
To support our passion, we’ve started doing seasonal photography tours and photo sessions in Kyoto, to a mix of bucket-list sites and lesser-known attractions. You can find us on Airbnb Experiences. We’d also be very happy to help you plan your trip to Kyoto, Nara or Osaka, just leave a comment on our blog or fill up our contact form so we can contact you!
Thanks, and please enjoy the blog!
Kyoto is most easily reached by flying in through Kansai International Airport (KIX), Osaka. From the airport you have a choice of trains and buses to get to Kyoto. We’ve found the JR Haruka Express train to be the most convenient; however if you’re traveling with children or seniors, or have heavy baggage, the limousine bus may work better for you. Both services take you to Kyoto Station, from where it’s easy to get a bus, train, subway or cab to your hotel.
For us, the ideal hotel locations for exploring Kyoto are:
- Shimogyo ward, near Kyoto Station;
- Nakagyo ward, between Sanjo-dori and Shijo-dori;
- Higashiyama ward, specially near Gion;
- Anywhere near the Keihan railway stations of Shichijo, Kiyomizu-Gojo, Gion-Shijo, or Sanjo
These areas have the easiest access to public transportation and are near to the greatest concentration of Kyoto’s attractions, which are between the city’s central street (Karasuma-dori) and the Higashiyama mountains.
Many shops and restaurants in Kyoto don’t accept credit cards, so make sure you always have cash.
Tripods and monopods are banned in many Kyoto attractions, as they can obstruct the narrow paths or damage the carefully preserved old wood or tatami floors. These places will sometimes allow you to bring your tripod inside, on your word of honor not to use it (please don’t!), or keep it for you at the entrance booth. Most Shinto shrines and public parks, however, allow tripods. All of inner Kyoto is a no-fly zone for drones, as are the grounds of all shrines and temples. Drones may be used in the remoter parts of Arashiyama, such as near the Hozukyo station.