Lonely Planet's Japan: Kyoto and Osaka, a natural fusion of the old and new
Kyoto is old Japan writ large: quiet temples, sublime gardens, colourful shrines, postcard-perfect street scenes and geisha scurrying to secret liaisons. While Osaka's grey concrete jungle is no match in terms of beauty, this fast-paced, brash city cloaked in dazzling neon packs a punch with its excellent food and nightlife scenes, and locals full of personality.
Kyoto's famed "Golden Pavilion", Kinkaku-ji is one of the world's most impressive religious monuments. The image of the gold-plated pavilion rising over its reflecting pool is the kind that burns itself into your memory. But there's more to this temple than its shiny main hall. The grounds are spacious and include another pond, a tea arbour and some lovely greenery. After visiting the gold-plated pavilion, check out the Ryūmon-taki waterfall and Rigyo-seki stone, which looks like a carp attempting to swim up the falls. Nearby, there is a small gathering of stone Jizō figures onto which people throw coins and make wishes.
Gion is the famous entertainment and geisha quarter on the eastern bank of the Kamo-gawa. While Gion's true origins were in teahouses catering to weary visitors to the nearby shrine Yasaka-jinja, by the mid-18th century the area was Kyoto's largest pleasure district. The best way to experience Gion these days is with an evening stroll around the atmospheric streets, which are lined with 17th-century traditional restaurants and teahouses. When the lanterns are all lit up, you have the best chance of glimpsing a geisha.
With seemingly endless arcades of vermilion torii (shrine gates) spread across a thickly wooded mountain, this vast shrine complex is a world unto its own. It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive and memorable sights in all of Kyoto. A pathway wanders 4 kilometres up the mountain and is lined with dozens of atmospheric sub-shrines. A good time to visit is in the first few days of January to see thousands of believers visit this shrine as their hatsu-mōde (first shrine visit of the New Year) to pray for good fortune. Don't be afraid to get lost – that's part of the fun at Fushimi.
Nanzen-ji (nanzenji.com), a complex of Zen temples and sub-temples tucked against the Higashiyama (Eastern Mountains), is the Platonic form of Japanese Buddhist temple. It's got it all: a fine little kare-sansui (dry landscape) garden, soaring main halls, great gardens and an incredibly scenic location. Nanzen-ji began its life as a retirement villa for Emperor Kameyama. Upon his passing in 1291, it was dedicated as a Zen temple. It operates now as the headquarters of the Rinzai school of Zen.
Kiyomizu-dera (kiyomizudera.or.jp) is one of the city's most popular temples. Built around a holy spring (kiyomizu means "pure water"), the temple has attracted pilgrims since the 8th century AD. In addition to halls holding fine Buddhist images, the complex includes a Shintō shrine that is associated with matters of the heart – buy a prayer plaque here to assure success in romance. This ancient temple was first built in 798, but the present buildings are reconstructions dating from 1633. As an affiliate of the Hossō school of Buddhism, which originated in Nara, it has successfully survived the many intrigues of local Kyoto schools of Buddhism through the centuries and is now one of the most famous landmarks of the city.
At the northern end of the Path of Philosophy, Kyoto's famed Silver Pavilion is an enclosed paradise of ponds, thick moss, classical Japanese architecture and swaying bamboo groves. It is unquestionably one of the most luxurious gardens in the city and belongs near the top of any Kyoto sightseeing itinerary. Visit when the crowds are likely to be thin: early on a weekday morning or just before closing. A rainy day is a lovely time to visit: the moss here is superb under a light rain.
Nishiki Market is one of Kyoto's real highlights, especially if you have an interest in cooking and eating. Commonly known as Kyoto no daidokoro (Kyoto's kitchen) by locals, it's where most of Kyoto's high-end restaurateurs and wealthy individuals do their food shopping. This is the place to see the weird and wonderful foods that go into Kyoto cuisine. The emphasis is on locally produced Japanese food items like tsukemono (Japanese pickles), tea, beans, rice, seaweed and fish. In recent years the market has been evolving from a strictly local food market into a tourist attraction, and you'll now find several souvenir shops selling Kyoto-style souvenirs mixed in among the food stalls.
A collection of soaring buildings and spacious courtyards, Chion-in (chion-in.or.jp) serves as the headquarters of the Jōdo sect, the largest sect of Buddhism in Japan. It's the most popular pilgrimage temple in Kyoto. For visitors with a taste for the grand, this temple is sure to satisfy. The oldest of the present buildings date from the 17th century. The two-storey San-mon temple gate is the largest in Japan. The immense main hall (Miei-dō Hall), which measures 35m wide and 45m long, houses an image of Hōnen and is connected with the Dai Hōjō hall by a "nightingale" floor that squeaks as one walks over it. Miei-dō Hall is under restoration and closed to the public. It's expected to be finished in 2019.
Highly photogenic Dōtombori (dotonbori.or.jp) is the city's liveliest night spot. Its name comes from the 400-year-old canal, Dōtombori-gawa, now lined with walkways and a riot of illuminated billboards glittering off its waters. Just south and parallel to the canal is a pedestrianised street, where dozens of restaurants and theatres vie for attention with the flashiest of signage. Of all the illuminated signs along the canal, the one for Osaka-based candymaker Glico – a runner triumphantly crossing a finish line – is the most iconic. It first went up in 1935; the sign was last redone in 2014 and is now lit with low-energy LEDs instead of neon. The best view of the sign is from Ebisu-bashi.
KYOTO IMPERIAL PALACE & IMPERIAL PALACE PARK
The Kyoto Imperial Palace (kunaicho.go.jp) served as the official residence of the emperor of Japan from the late 12th century until the 19th century, and the palace remains an imperial household property. The original palace was built in 794 but suffered damage after being destroyed by fire numerous times; the current building dates to 1855. These days the grand buildings no longer operate as the official residence of the Japanese emperor, though the palace and its surrounding park are the heart of Kyoto, both spatially and metaphorically. The palace recalls the city's proud heritage as the capital of the country and seat of the imperial court for over 1000 years.
NEED TO KNOW
Currency: Japanese yen (¥)
Your Daily Budget
* Business-hotel accommodation: ¥10,000
* Two midrange restaurant meals: ¥5000
* Train/bus transport: ¥1500
* Two temple/museum admissions: ¥1000
* Tipping: Tipping is not usually done in Japan.
Several months before: Make accommodation reservations if you're here in cherry-blossom season (March and April) and the autumn-foliage season (October and November).
One month before: Buy a Japan Rail Pass if you'll be travelling extensively by rail in Japan.
A few days before: Buy a pair of comfortable slip-on walking shoes (you'll be taking your shoes off a lot at temples and shrines).
This is an edited extract from the first edition of Lonely Planet's Pocket Kyoto & Osaka guidebook, researched and written by Kate Morgan and Rebecca Milner © 2017. Published this month, RRP: NZD $22.99