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Unearth Ancient Japan in Kyoto

Escape hectic Tokyo for older and slower-paced Kyoto. We've got tips on what to see, what to eat, where to stay and more.

February 11, 2004 -- When you think of Japan, do you think of bullet trains, schoolgirl fashions and anime? Then Tokyo is on your mind. If, however, you are conjuring up geisha girls, cherry blossoms and stylish temples, you've got a bead on Kyoto. Japan's second capital long ago (it has a 1,200-year history), but still clasping the heart and soul of the country to its breast, Kyoto (the old Miyako) is where hundreds of thousands of Japanese school kids come to get indoctrinated in the history and culture of their past before they zip off to Tokyo to find a job or go to university. In short, if you want to see Japan ticking, go to Tokyo. But if you want to understand why Japan ticks in the way it does, come to Kyoto. It doesn't have 14 UNESCO World Heritage sites for no reason at all!

Japan, once a hermit empire, is easy to reach these days, with moderately-priced airfares in special sales, even reasonable all-inclusive packages, many of which we have reported about here. Recently, Kyoto put on a big traveling road show in the USA to encourage more visitors, bringing geisha, movie samurai actors and tourist industry officials to emphasize their desire to see more Americans visit the area.

Getting there can be half the fun if you take a so-called bullet train (Shinkansen) from Tokyo to Kyoto, at speeds averaging more than 100 mph. Don't worry about safety, in nearly 40 years of operation, they have carried over six billion passengers without a single serious accident. They operate six trains an hour between Tokyo and Osaka, most stopping at Kyoto. You won't soon forget the smooth ride, the quiet, the cleanliness and the service with carts of food and drink rolling down the aisle constantly, and wonder why most US trains are so lacking in all those elements.

Getting Around

Unlike Tokyo, the buses of Kyoto can be used with confidence, especially with a new Bus Navi chart in English designed for foreign visitors. In addition to nine clear neighborhood maps and one overall plan of Kyoto, it lists 14 major tourist designations with a chart showing precisely how to get from one to the other (e.g., from Kyoto Station to Nijo Castle, take buses 9, 50 or 101, alternatively the subway to Nijojo-mae). You can buy a one- or two-day Sightseeing Card good for bus and subway passage for ¥1,200 or ¥2,000 ($11 or $19, approx.) respectively, a one-day City Bus pass for just ¥500 ($4.65).

Traditional Sites & Sights

[Note: The area code for Kyoto is 75, the country code for Japan is 81.]

If you want to see geisha at work, but can't afford the big money it costs to have dinner with them entertaining you in the traditional manner, spend just ¥2,800 ($26) and enjoy their dancing at Gion Corner, daily at 7:40 and 8:40 PM from March 1 through November 29 (except August 16). You'll see demonstrations, inter alia, of Kyomai Dance, Kyogen comic play, Gagaku court music, Bunraku puppet play, Koto playing, flower arranging and the tea ceremony. Gion Corner, Yasaka Hall, Hanamikoji Street, phone 561-1119.

An especially pretty time to see Kyoto will be from March 12-21, when lanes throughout the city will be lighted by candles and lanterns, and dotted with bud vases. The path, called Lighting & Flower Lane for the occasion, runs from Kiyomizu-dera Temple in the south along the Higashiyama mountain range slopes, through Maruyama Park and its Yasaka Jinja Shrine, all the way to Shoren-in temple in the north, a distance of about two kilometers (1.25 miles). Along the way will be around 2,400 lanterns. Flowing through Maruyama Park is a small river that will have about 1,000 bamboo lanterns afloat, and in the park, on the Flower Stage, will be performances of Gagaku, Kyomai dance and other events. In addition, there will be a rickshaw parade, modern flower arranging and light-up exhibitions by students. Naturally, admission is free. The dates are subject to change, so check it out at or by phoning 212-8173.

There are plenty of free visitor maps and guides in English, nearly everywhere you turn in Kyoto. Of special interest, though, could be a personal visit to private Japanese homes. WAK Japan, the Women's Association of Kyoto, arranges this, with introductory "cultural courses" in private homes that cover such subjects as the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, origami, how to wear a kimono, tea and snacks, calligraphy, paper & fabric crafts, playing the Koto (harp), dance, home cooking, language lessons, visits to antique collectors, potters and artisans, and more. The courses last from 1.5 to 2.5 hours, and a typical course such as the tea ceremony costs ¥13,000 ($121) if just one person attends, ¥9,000 ($83) each for two persons, down to as low as ¥7,500 ($70) each for four persons or more. The executive director, Michi Ogawa, organized this group a few years ago, and the best critics have raved about it. More information is at or at 212-9993, fax 212-9994.

A notable English-speaking guide in Kyoto is Hajime Hirooka, better known as Johnnie Hillwalker, with 42 years of experience and kudos from the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. From March 3 through November 28, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (except for national holidays), rain or shine, you can walk with Johnnie for five hours on a three-kilometer (about 1.8-mile) trek to the city's highlights, from 10 until 3. You leave Kyoto Station and end up near Kiyomizu Temple -- the cost is just ¥2,000 ($19; half price for children). No reservations needed, just show up in front of Kyoto Station, halfway to the Tower Hotel. You don't get lunch, but he does hand you a small piece of inari (tofu) sushi, and you do have a Japanese pastry with tea in an old house en route. More information by e-mail or by phoning 622-6803 or his mobile 090-18900096; website:

Should you want to practice zazen, the Zen form of sitting meditation, contact the people at Hatoya, who can arrange such for you at the Taizo-en Temple for just ¥6,300 ($59). That includes a Zen lecture, the meditation, a tour of the temple and a meal. Taizo-en is a sub temple of the famous Myoshinji Temple, both of the Rinzai sect. To stay at the Hanagokoro within the temple gardens costs ¥6,825 ($64), with breakfast at ¥1,050 ($10) and up, dinner ¥3,150 ($29) and up. Contact the coordinator, Yoriko Iwai, at (English OK), or visit the website, (in Japanese only).

Among the highlights of Kyoto, it's hard to limit must-see destinations to a few, but here they are:

(Note: Websites have English sections unless otherwise indicated.)

Where to Stay

For English-speaking guests, a stay at the Yoshi-ima Inn (in business only since 1747) can be edifying, not only because many of the staff speak our language, but because the owner talks you through the traditional tea ceremony in one of the most informative manners I have ever heard. In front of the inn is Shinmonzen Street, a famous antique and arts shopping lane. Out the rear door is Maiko Lane in Shinbashi, where you can see maiko (apprentice geisha) and geisha gliding along en route to their evening assignments around dinnertime. In this traditionally-styled old inn, we found the service impeccable, the food excellent. For the tea ceremony, you enter the traditional teahouse in the courtyard garden through a tiny door -- reducing you to crawling to emphasize that even the great among visitors are reduced to humble posture -- then listen to the owner's short lecture on Kyoto and the ceremony as his partner prepares the tea. My dining companions, first-time visitors to Japan, were as impressed by this as I, a veteran of dozens of tea ceremonies. Contact them at or phone 561-2620.

Alternatively, you might like Hotel-Iroha, (a ryokan like the Yoshi-ima Inn; click here for more information on these traditional inns) but in a modern-looking building of five floors, with 85 rooms and four large public baths (30 rooms have private bath). An eight-mat room (about 352 sq. ft.), suitable for one to three guests, with private toilet, costs ¥12,000 ($112); 10- or 12-mat rooms fitting between three to six guests with private bath, toilet and refrigerator, costs twice that. Excellent location at Sanjo Ohashi, phone 771-9181, fax 751-6848, website

There are plenty of western-style hotels in Kyoto, and if you need one, I suggest the New Miyako, right across from the Shinkansen side of Kyoto Station. Elegant and full-service (and how!), and with double rooms starting at ¥18,000 ($168). Hachijo-guchi, Kyoto Station, phone 661-7111; website:

Dining Out

If you stay at a traditional ryokan, breakfast and dinner will be included in the price, and you should always take advantage of that, especially because you will be able to enjoy foods you probably have not eaten before, always served in a beautiful and thoughtful manner in your room.

The Frommer's guides to Japan include dozens of suggestions for eating out at moderate prices, so be sure to check there when planning your day.

Should you want to celebrate and splurge, consider Misogi-gawa, a French restaurant serving its exquisite meals in the Japanese manner known as kaiseki, and with an enviable location riverside on Pontocho, in the geisha district. There's an outdoor veranda in summer overlooking the river, which can be entrancing, and you get to sit at tables, not on the floor (for that, head upstairs to where there is traditional tatami seating). The cuisine is definitely haute (think smoked salmon mousse with caviar or langouste a l'Americane, for instance). Main dishes run ¥3000 to ¥5,000 ($28 to $47), set dinners ¥12,000 and up ($112). Dinner only. Sanjo-sagaru Higashi, Pontocho, phone 221-2270.

Another elegant place to dine is at Nanzenji Junsei, which calls itself an authentic Zen-style restaurant, with a garden constructed in 1839. Located down the street from Nanzenji Temple, one of its specialties is yudofu (casserole of poached tofu). Other set dinners include a beef shabu shabu casserole meal, a kaiseki offering, and at least two other combinations, starting at ¥6000 ($56). Expensive, but you'll be dining in a complex where there are at least three "tangible national cultural properties." Contact them at 761-2311 or visit (Japanese only).


Although it's infinitely more fun to wander and buy things on your own, if you are in a hurry, there's always the Kyoto Handicraft Center, where you can watch demonstrations, have lunch, and shop tax-free (which saves you about 5%) for many kinds of items, including damascene ware, woodblock prints, dolls, kimonos and more. There's also a money exchange, shipping service, and phones, as well as a free shuttle to major hotels. It's open daily, and you can find more information at , or by calling 761-8001.

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