Kyoto (京都) is a city of immense impact, so its small size can be surprising.
While definitely a treasure trove for culture enthusiasts and welcoming a sea of tourists every season, it’s only the 7th largest city in Japan with a population of less than 1.5 million.
Yet size never stopped Kyoto.
The historic imperial capital left a long, deep mark on the culture and customs of Japan. And a grand total of 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Some of the most charming parts of culture and most crucial parts of the Japanese identity take roots right here, among these cobbled streets.
Kyoto area may be small in size, but we could talk for days about its significance or the lovely, tranquil sights that it maintains. Here’s my best shot at putting it all together: a guide to Kyoto culture, landmarks, and cuisine in 3 parts!
By Basile Morin [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons
The many faces of Kyoto – Urban life gets integrated with the traditional façade, in some districts more than others.
The Basic Geography of Kyoto
Kyoto City (京都市) is situated on the southwestern part of Honshu, the main island of Japan. It’s a part of the large Kansai region which also includes culturally significant cities like Osaka, Nara, and Mie. Kyoto city is the administrative capital of the Kyoto Prefecture (京都府).
The city is wedged in between mountains. Conveniently, they’re called East, North, and West Mountains (Higashiyama, Kitayama, and Nishiyama respectively).
If you’re in Kyoto for a short sightseeing trip, head towards Higashiyama – that’s where you’ll find the picturesque, preserved historic districts.
The surrounding mountains provide great protection from natural disasters, but they do account for extra-chilly winters and heavy, stuffy summers.
Don’t fret, people in Kyoto know how to chill out in the summer. Restaurants erect kawadoko, tall terraces by the river, and people flock to enjoy traditional Kyoto cuisine along with the refreshing riverside breeze.
Shaped by Rivers
Speaking of rivers, as with many ancient cities, Kyoto’s rivers were key to the city’s development.
The Kamo River is the breathing heart of ancient Kyoto.
In the past, the Kamogawa (鴨川), as the Japanese call it, was a key source of food and drinking water for the Kyotoites. It also provides essential resources for local artisans and craftspeople.
Kamo stretches from north to south throughout the city, and it separates central Kyoto from the Higashiyama districts. It’s dotted with temples and shrines which were built to pray for protection against overflowing and droughts.
In the west, another major river, Katsura, leads to Kyoto’s most beautiful natural scenery – Arashiyama (嵐山).
Don’t miss out on Arashiyama if you’d enjoy a walk through a thick bamboo grove, a close-encounter with a macaque at the Iwatayama monkey park, or just soak in the scenery crossing the Togetsukyo Bridge.
Arashiyama bamboo grove
The Ancient Capital
Back in the days of feudal power and mighty warlords, Japanese territories only partly covered the islands.
With the population focused in central and southern Honshu (the largest island of Japan) and the main trading port in Kyushu, Kyoto was the obvious location for a capital – positioned in the heart of the nation.
Besides, situated in a basin surrounded by mountains, Kyoto was easier to defend against attacks and invasions, helping the city develop and last for centuries. And last it did.
For over a millennium, from 794 to 1868, Kyoto was both the administrative and cultural capital city of Japan.
For the longest time, the city was called Heian-kyo (平安京), the Capital of Peace, and it was home to the feudal lords and ladies of Japan. The Heian period (794-1185) is known as a period of peace and rapid development of the national culture.
The city was built to become a capital, modeled to resemble the capital city of China’s Tang dynasty, Chang’an (Xi’an). It follows a regular grid street pattern, so it’s quite easy to navigate.
The Kyoto Imperial Palace – the seat of power and the imperial court was located in the northeastern part, once the heart of the city, surrounded by a lush and spacious park.
With the rise of the shogun class, Japan quickly expanded northwards to Tohoku and Hokkaido, and the capital city was moved to the Eastern capital, to Tokyo.
To this day, Kyoto remains the center of traditional Japanese culture and crafts.
The Kyoto imperial palace, a nishiki-e woodblock print by Hiroshige
Heian Atmosphere in Kyoto: Aoi Matsuri
The best way to experience a dash of Heian history is through one of the city’s famous festivals. Aoi Matsuri (葵祭), the Aoi Festival, happens every May 15th.
Watch as processions of people dressed in Heian-era aristocracy walk along the Kamo River from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the Kamo shrines. Along with brilliant costumes and flowers everywhere, the procession includes carriage-drawing oxen and horses, as it would back in the day.
The festival dates back to the 6th century and is said to have its origins as a ritual for a good harvest. Over time, it evolved into a celebration of the emperor’s authority and the prosperity of the city.
What does the Aoi in Aoi Matsuri refer to?
Despite the common misconception, the Aoi (葵) that adorns feudal clothing in the procession is not hollyhock. Futaba Aoi (Asarum caulescens), which inspired Tokugawa clan’s crest, is a sort of wild ginger.
The plant is abundant during the season, it symbolizes prosperity and was believed to have purifying properties.
Aoi Matsuri, a festival that celebrates the ancient Heian period of Kyoto history. Photo by Patrick Vierthaler [CC BY-NC 2.0] via Flickr
The Cradle and Seat of Japanese Culture
From ancient crafts to modern art, from traditional cuisine to groundbreaking new combinations, with its residents’ exquisite attention to detail, Kyoto has it all.
Its historical and cultural significance is so great that the Public Agency for Cultural Affairs moved its headquarters to Kyoto from Tokyo in 2023.
Kyoto definitely has the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan, but its fundamental riches are buried deeper. Many sources cite that Kyoto’s natural blessing, consistently high-quality underground waters, was crucial in the development of many forms of culture.
Quality water has influenced the production of sake, the start of the tea-drinking ceremony, the growth of the flowers intricately arranged in ikebana, the technique of resist-dyeing kimono silk (Kyo-Yuzen), the kabuki theaterthat came into existence on the banks of Kamogawa, and a vast array of other tangible and intangible heritage.
Literacy Preserves Ancient Stories
Did you know that the world’s first novel was written in Kyoto?
“The Tale of Genji” (源氏物語) was penned by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
The book was finished around the year 1008, enabled by a recent cultural development: simplified writing.
Local writing systems popped up as an easier way to write compared to Chinese characters kanji. Combined with some kanji, hiragana quickly spread among the Kyoto elite. This new system, hiragana, was easier to learn and faster to write, so it empowered many, especially the women of the imperial court, to write freely.
While educated men took pride in writing and reading Chinese, the Heian-kyo women started building Japan’s own literary history in hiragana.
Low-rise by Design
The modern age didn’t just forget about Kyoto. The traditional look and feel of many neighborhoods is a result of preservation efforts and laws spanning generations of Kyotoites.
Many building restrictions were put in place to keep the Kyoto cityscape absolutely gorgeous (see it for yourself from the terrace of Kiyomizu-dera temple or the Kyoto Tower Observation deck).
Certain features were encouraged when building and renovating, like keeping the original coloring and materials for the distinctive tiled roofs of the old machiya (町家, townhouses).
But most notably, building height was restricted to 31 meters to preserve the views of the three mountains surrounding the city.
Construction of somewhat taller buildings was allowed in some urban districts, but the historic northern Kyoto will remain low-rise for the foreseeable future.
The glorious cityscape as seen from the terrace of Kiyomizu-dera temple
The Birthplace of Kabuki Theater
Kabuki is an ancient form of theater. Brightly colored costumes and a carefully painted stage, enriched with intricate, manually-run special effects, full of dramatic acting and expressive make-up have all inspired generations of Japanese performers.
Of course, this form of theater has its roots long ago in the heart of Kyoto.
Wonder why Kabuki actors wear exaggerated makeup?
Kabuki tends to embody classic stories with clear-cut character tropes. Visual cues reveal character traits or moods. The red and blue lines applied on the face are said to represent facial veins and muscles in various facial expressions. The colors and shapes can tell you about the character’s status, mood, or role in the story.
Ichikawa Danjuro VIII, a member of a long family line of kabuki actors, as portrayed by Utagawa Kunisada
In traditional kabuki shows, you don’t see women on the stage. Instead, men dress up in female costumes and adjust their acting to play female roles. But that was not always the case.
In fact, the very creator of early kabuki, Izumi no Okuni, was a woman. In the beginning, there wasn’t much storytelling involved – Izumi danced with her all-female troupe and props like samurai swords. Female actresses in kabuki were outlawed in 1629, due to the rising “immorality” and prostitution involving the dancers (that did not really solve the issue).
Since 1890, all-female kabuki groups are allowed to perform and have gained popularity all over the country.
You can see Izumi no Okuni’s statue near the Kamo riverbank, next to the very place she put up her first make-shift stage.
The best kabuki theatre in Kyoto, Minami-za (南座), established in 1610 and rebuilt in 1929 is nearby. Don’t miss out on the spectacle – you’ll have fun even if you don’t understand Japanese!
Izumo no Okuni, the creator of kabuki.
Over 2000 Places of Worship: Shinto Shrines vs Buddhist Temples
The city may not be densely populated, but it is densely dotted with places of religious worship.
Kyoto proudly claims 1660 Buddhist temples, over 400 Shinto shrines, and about 90 Christian churches (source). Thanks to the polytheistic nature of the local Shinto religion, the Shinto and Buddhist sides of Japan found a way to work together quite well.
Just like Kyoto found a way to balance the ancient traditions with modern habits, so did the newly-introduced Buddhism get integrated into the ancient beliefs of Shinto. In fact, most Japanese people visit both Shinto and Buddhist places of worship on different occasions.
No visit to Kyoto is complete without a visit to a temple and a shrine. And no visit to a place of worship is pleasant if you don’t know what to do.
Here’s the difference between Buddhist and Shinto places of worship, and some basic rules of conduct:
- Shinto is the ancient, native Japanese religion. It’s practiced in jinja (神社), translated as a “shrine”.
- You’ll recognize a jinja by its authentic Japanese torii gates. The Shinto torii gate is simple, featuring two simple legs and a somewhat ornate top made of wood or stone and usually painted red. Thanks to the close relationship between these two religions, some Shinto shrines contain ornate, hefty gates which resemble the Buddhist sanmon. But you’ll always see a torii
- Passing through a torii gate signifies stepping on divine ground where the gods (kami, 神) dwell, so make sure to pause and bow in front of the gate, to greet the gods. Avoid passing through the very center of a toriigate, as that position is reserved for the deities – move a little to either side to show respect for the gods.
- Washing your hands when you enter is an important symbol of purification, and you’ll find a water basin with a wooden ladle somewhere near the entrance to any Shinto shrine. Sprinkling salt (like the Sumo wrestlers do) is another way to become pure according to Shinto.
- Shinto prayers are lively compared to Buddhist ones, but still performed quietly. They usually involve clapping, ringing a bell, and bowing. If there’s an offering box or well, throw in a 5-yen coin for good luck!
Japanese people often choose Shinto shrines for wedding ceremonies. Most Matsuri (祭), Japanese festivals, include lively Shinto dances, songs, and vibrant ceremonies.
- The most important Shinto shrines in Kyoto are Fushimi Inari (with its 10,000 torii gates), the Yasaka shrine in Maruyama Park, and Kitano Tenmangu.
The many torii gates near the Fushimi Inari shrine are guarded by statues of foxes, kitsune (狐), who are said to be the messengers to the god of rice, Inari.
- Buddhism is an ancient religion that takes roots in India, but it reached Japan through Korea in the 6th
- In Japanese, Buddhist temples are called tera, dera, or ji (寺). The premises often contain large gardens and ponds, so they’re worth visiting if you need an oasis of peace in the city. Pagodas are Buddhist constructions too.
- The mark of a Buddhist temple is its sanmon gate. They’re huge, elaborate gates with hefty pillars, in high-ranking temples composed of two or more stories.
Passing through a sanmon gate has its own rules too. Feel free to walk through the middle, but don’t step on the threshold of the gate. Also, it’s customary for men to enter with their left, and women with their right foot.
The glorious two-story sanmon gate of Chion-in, a temple in Gion which dates back to the 13th century.
- Prayer at a Buddhist temple is quiet and meditative. Don’t clap, but do bow. Buddhist prayer also includes purification rituals – hand washing and cleansing with jokoro incense smoke. Many Japanese purification ceremonies are based on Buddhist beliefs, including Japanese funeral customs.
- Back in the old days and still to this day, Buddhist temples are destinations of pilgrimage and places to rest during long travels. Some temples offer simple lodging called shukubo for a low fee.
- Don’t miss out on the Chion-in temple in Maruyama Park, the incredible views from the Kiyomizu-dera, and the absolute Zen of Toufuku-ji.
Kyoto – History Embedded in Every Corner
Kyoto is a city steeped in history, and has played a significant role in shaping Japanese culture over the centuries. Its many festivals, performances, temples, shrines, and historic streets are a testament to the city’s rich cultural heritage, and you’ll feel its unique atmosphere anywhere you go.
Kyoto’s charm lies in its commitment to preserving its vibrant traditions, so for those interested in experiencing the heart of Japanese culture – Kyoto is an essential destination.
Booked your flight already? Find the absolute must-see locations in the next part of our guide to Kyoto!