Because Kyoto has so many worthwhile sights, you must plan your itinerary carefully. Even the most avid sightseer can become jaded after days of visiting yet another temple or shrine, no matter how beautiful or peaceful, so be sure to temper your visits to cultural and historical sights with time spent simply walking around. Kyoto is a city best seen on foot; take time to explore small alleyways and curio shops, pausing from time to time to soak in the beauty and atmosphere. If you spend your days in Kyoto racing around in a taxi or a bus from one temple to another, the essence of this ancient capital and its charm may literally pass you by.
Before setting out, be sure to stop by Kyoto City Tourist Information at Kyoto Station (tel. 075/344-3300) to get a detailed map of the city, a bus map, and the Kyoto's Visitor's Guide (which also contains maps).
Keep in mind, too, that you must enter Kyoto's museums, shrines, and temples at least a half-hour before closing time. Listings in this guide give numbers not only for buses departing from Kyoto Station but from elsewhere as well.
Around Kyoto Station
As strange as it sounds, the biggest tourist draw around Kyoto Station is Kyoto Station itself. Japan's second-largest station building (after Nagoya) is a futuristic-looking building with soaring glass atriums, space-age music, escalators rising to a rooftop observatory, and open stages for free concerts and other events. In a bold move to attract young Japanese (who nowadays prefer to take their vacations in more exotic or trendier climes), it also has a shopping center selling everything from clothing to Kyoto souvenirs, the fashionable Isetan department store, and restaurants galore. I see more tourists photographing Kyoto Station than any other modern building in town.
Just a 10- and 5-minute walk (respectively) north of Kyoto Station are two massive temple compounds, Nishi-Honganji and Higashi-Honganji. They were once joined as one huge religious center called Honganji, but they split after a disagreement several centuries ago. Higashi-Honganji is Kyoto's largest wooden structure, while Nishi-Honganji, headquarters for 12 million Shin Buddhists, is an outstanding example of Buddhist architecture. A 2-minute walk east of Higashi-Honganji is its garden, Shosei-en (tel. 075/371-2961). Once the private villa of Higashi-Honganji's abbot and designed in part by famous landscape architect Kobori Enshu in the 17th century, it features a pond and several buildings in a parklike setting. Although there are far more beautiful and grander gardens in Kyoto, it provides a nice respite if you're in the area. It's open daily 9am to 4pm, with a ¥500 "donation" expected.
For a personalized English-language tour that takes in Higashi-Honganji, a couple shrines, a former Geisha area, and back streets of Kyoto before ending near Kiyomizu Temple, join Johnnie Hillwalker's Kyoto Walking (tel. 81/75-622-6803; http://web.kyoto-inet.or.jp/people/h-s-love) tour, held every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10am to 3:15pm March through November (no walks on national holidays). Led by Hajime Hirooka, with 50 years guide experience, tours start from in front of Kyoto Station and cost ¥2,000 for adults, ¥1,000 for 13- to 15-year-olds, and free for children. No reservations are required; pick up his brochure at the tourist office.
Much of Central Kyoto has been taken over by the 21st century, but there are a few interesting sites worth investigating.
If you've never been to a market in Japan, take a stroll down Nishiki-Koji Dori, a fish-and-produce market right in the heart of town. A covered pedestrian lane parallel to Shijo Dori to the north and stretching west from Teramachi Dori, Nishiki-Koji has been Kyoto's principal food market for more than 4 centuries. This is where the city's finest restaurants and inns buy their food; you'll find approximately 135 open-fronted shops and stalls selling seasonal vegetables, fish, beans, seaweed, and pickled vegetables, as well as crafts and cooking supplies. Shops are open from the early morning hours until about 6pm; many close on either Wednesday or Sunday.
Refreshment for Free -- Across from the Imperial Palace is Free Café Harimaya Station, where you can help yourself to juice, coffee, and rice crackers -- all absolutely free. It's sponsored by Harimaya Honten, a major confectionary company, whose president wants you to not only enjoy his crackers but also think about the state of the environment (pick up the English-language pamphlet in the cafe or go to www.harimayahonten.co.jp/pc to read his comments). It's open daily 10am to 7pm.
The eastern part of Kyoto, embracing the area of Higashiyama-ku with its Kiyomizu Temple and stretching up all the way to the Temple of the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji Temple), is probably the richest in terms of culture and charm. Although temples and gardens are the primary attractions, Higashiyama-ku also boasts several fine museums, forested hills and running streams, great shopping opportunities, and some of Kyoto's oldest and finest restaurants. I've included two recommended strolls through eastern Kyoto in the "Walking Tours" section that will lead you to the region's best attractions as well as to some lesser-known sights that are worth a visit if you have the time.
Two of Kyoto's most famous sights are in the northwestern corner of the city.
If you're interested in learning firsthand about the tea ceremony, flower arranging, origami, Japanese calligraphy, Japanese cooking, and other cultural pursuits, you can do so with the help of the members of the Women's Association of Kyoto (WAK Japan; tel. 075/212-9993; www.wakjapan.com). Courses, conducted mostly in members' homes, run 55 minutes to 1 1/2 hours and cost ¥3,500 to ¥7,800 per person depending on the class and the number of people, including pickup from your hotel. Reservations should be made 1 day in advance, if possible.