Asia

Kyoto: 
A city not content

Kyoto's Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) | Photo credit: Chi King

Kyoto, the erstwhile capital of Japan, is arguably the most beautiful city in Japan. Kyoto is located in a valley, part of the Yamashiro (or Kyoto) Basin, in the eastern area of the mountainous region known as the Tamba highlands. Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the Emperor’s residence from 794 AD to 1868.

The word ‘Kyoto’ means ‘capital city’, and though the city is not the capital anymore, it has retained its name. For a millennium, Kyoto was the seat of power in Japan. Today it is the cultural heart. It is also a place of learning, for Kyoto is home to about 40 colleges and universities.

Visitors to this city can easily spend a week seeing the city’s historical attractions such as the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) and Sanjusangendo.  All sections of the city contain more than one locale well worth a thorough visit. Notably, some of Japan’s oldest traditions, such as the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and geisha schooling originated in the city.  These ancient customs, while still practiced throughout Japan, can only be observed in their original setting in Kyoto. It is in Kyoto, more than anywhere else in Japan, that the old ways of the country’s old imperial civilisation are kept alive, both in the arts and in real life. From geisha to kabuki actors, the past is still present in the old capital, and this is also reflected in the physical environment; the city has managed to retain.

This modern city, with its 1600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines, and exquisite palaces and gardens, is a centre of tradition – a worldly metropolis that treasures its heritage.

Kyoto was at the height of its glory when the Emperor ruled the country from here and its variety of architectural landmarks like palaces, temples and shrines were built mainly during this period. Over the centuries, Kyoto was destroyed by many wars and fires, but due to its historic value, the city was dropped from the list of target cities for the atomic bomb and spared from air raids during World War II. Countless temples, shrines and other historically priceless structures survive in the city today.

And if the cultural riches and street-life buzz can be overwhelming, there is always an abundance of nature nearby in the city’s gardens and parks or in the mountains and hills surrounding Kyoto.

Kyoto is not the kind of city that is simply content to remain as it is. Instead, the city continues to strive toward change and development, adjusting to meet the needs of each new generation. If it cannot succeed in this endeavour, the fire of its exciting 1200 year history would be blown out, making Kyoto just another city of past achievements. It is, and always will be, a living historical city.

Did You Know?

  • The original city of Kyoto was arranged in accordance with traditional Chinese geomancy following the model of the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an).
  • Kyoto is often called “Japan’s heartland”, and it is said that it is impossible to know the real Japan without knowing Kyoto.
  • Kyoto is well-known as a spiritual centre, noted especially for its ancient Buddhist temples, its Heian shrine ( a Shinto holy place ), and its 59-ft statue of Buddha.
  • In 1997, Kyoto hosted the conference that resulted in the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions that bears the city’s name.
  • The daily English newspaper in Kyoto is The Kyoto Shimbun News.

How to Get Here

Osaka’s Kansai International Airport (KIX) is the closest international airport to Kyoto. Kansai International Airport (KIX) is Japan’s second most important international airport. Located on a man-made island about 50 km south of Osaka, Kansai Airport was opened in 1994, taking over all international and some domestic air traffic formerly handled by Osaka’s Itami Airport. Various train and bus lines connect the airport with the nearby cities of Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and surroundings.

The quickest way to get to Kyoto from the Kansai International Airport is by the direct JR (Japan Railway Company) Haruka Limited Express (70 minutes).  The JR Airport Line and JR Kyoto Line are also available, though you must transfer at the Osaka Station, and the trip takes about 100 minutes.

By car (whether rental car, taxi, limousine or van) it takes 100-120 minutes depending on traffic. Taxis can be booked on arrival at the airport. Driving to Kyoto from the airport is straightforward – follow the main road to the north and then follow the signs to Kyoto.

The quickest way from Tokyo to Kyoto is to take the Shinkansen Nozomi (Bullet Train), which runs from Tokyo to Kyoto in 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Are there any Travel or Medical Alerts?

News from Japan National Tourism Organization

Following the British and Canadian governments’ ease on travel restrictions to Japan, on April 14, the US Department of State has reduced the travel alert to Japan only to the 50 miles radius of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which excludes major cities such as Tokyo and Yokohama, and Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda airports. As international organizations release clearer figures and assessment, the current situation has reached a reasonable safety level for international travelers.

Can We Visit Japan Today?

Yes. The majority of regions in Japan including popular leisure travel destinations are outside the areas affected by tsunami, earthquake and radiation, and received no disruption to infrastructure.  Everything in these areas continues to operate as usual.  The greater Tokyo area has already retrieved the usual condition, and there are no more periodical blackouts.  The other regions are unharmed, and safe and normal as before.

How is the Radiation Level?

NOT DANGEROUS! Except for the proximate areas near the nuclear power plants, there is no dangerous level of radiation detected in Japan.  Tokyo is not within radiation contamination concern area, located over 200km (124 miles) away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant facilities.  The radiation level in Tokyo is similar to that of New York City.  The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and other international organizations confirm that the radiation level in the atmosphere is within a reasonable safety level to human health. You can see daily updates on radiation level in major cities in Japan here.

Are Food and Water Safe?

Yes. There is no shortage of food or water, and products distributed to the public are all safe.

Is Public Transportation Working?

Yes. Japan’s sophisticated public transportation systems have been recovered to the regular service levels everywhere, except for the tsunami-affected regions.

Daily Updates

Weeping cherry trees | Photo credit: ©Kyoto Prefecture/© JNTO

Since the 3.11 earthquake, Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) continues to release updates on its website, including radiation conditions, transportation, events and other travel-related information.

You do not need to arrive in Japan with Yen in hand. When you land at Narita International, or any other airport, there are exchange counters that offer better exchange rates than what you’d get abroad, as well as ATMs. Change enough money to last several days, since exchanging money is not as convenient in Japan as it is in many other countries.

Credit cards are widely accepted in major cities. Canadian or U.S. traveller’s cheques can be exchanged at major banks and hotels. Although traveler’s checks are something of an anachronism now that ATMs have come onto the scene, they’re still useful for Japan, where ATMs for foreign-issued cards are limited. All banks in Japan displaying an Authorized Foreign Exchange sign can exchange currency and traveler’s checks. Automated banking machines are widely available, but some do not accept foreign debit cards. Visitors should be aware that banking machines are not available 24 hours a day and may not be available on weekends.

For locations of ATMs you can visit these VISA and MasterCard Web sites.

Your bank can advise if you need a new personal identification number (PIN) for overseas access to your account. Credit cards and debit cards should be used with caution due to the potential for fraud and other criminal activity. ABMs should be used during business hours inside a bank, supermarket, or large commercial building.

What will the seasonal weather be like?

Kyoto, nestled amid rolling mountains, reflects the changes of the seasons. The gaiety of Spring flowers turns to fragrant young leaves, followed by Summer, with riverside greenery providing a cool respite, changing at last to the crimson of Autumn colours.

Spring and autumn are probably the best times to visit Kyoto. Spring (March/April) and Autumn (September/October) are considered particularly good times to go for the blossoms and leafy colour. Just as spring in Japan is associated with cherry blossom viewing, autumn is the season for watching the trees turn beautiful shades of red, gold and yellow. “Momiji-gari” is the custom of making an excursion with friends, family or coworkers to see the leaves changing colours and perhaps have a picnic.

Although the summers (June-August) can be muggy, it’s still a nice time to be here. However, it rains on most days in June and August is the hottest and most humid month. Winter (December-February) can be very cold.

Getting Around

Buses, taxis, the subway, trains, and bicycles are all common ways of getting around Kyoto, however, there are a number of areas in Kyoto well-suited to sightseeing on foot. These include Higashiyama, Arashiyama, and the area around Kyoto Station. Walking will allow you an opportunity to see the city in more depth than other modes of transportation.

As Kyoto is laid out in a grid system, the city is fairly easy to navigate. It is also easy, however, to underestimate distances, so it is a good thing that the local transport network covers all parts of the city quite well. The Kyoto Subway Line is easy to use, but limited in reach. There are two lines: the inner city south-north Karasuma Line and the east-west Tozai Line, with an intersection at Karasuma Oike station. The subway cars feature announcements in English.

The bus network is more comprehensive. The green Kyoto city buses are numerous and convenient and cover central Kyoto very well. The red Kyoto Bus services offer access to more outlying parts of the city. Like the subways, there are announcements in English and electronic signs displaying the name of stops in English that make it easy to know when you’ve reached your stop.

There are various passes available for the public transport network. The most relevant for visitors are the Kyoto Sightseeing Card, which is valid for one or two days and offers unlimited travel on all subway and bus services within a designated area of the city, and the City Bus All-day Pass, which offers unlimited travel on city buses within a central area outlined on the back of the pass. These passes are available at automatic subway ticket vending machines and Kyoto City Bus and Subway Information Centres.

Kyoto has a great number of taxis, and it is rarely difficult to get a taxi in the city centre. At times the entire space in front of Kyoto Station is occupied by a vast fleet of taxis.

Bicycling is popular in Kyoto, and as many of the city’s major attractions are located within cycling distance of the city centre, it can be a convenient and pleasant way of going sightseeing. There are many companies located throughout the city that rent bicycles.

There are numerous car hire companies operating in Kyoto. If you want to rent a car, free city maps are available from either a car rental agency or Tourism Kyoto, but, investing in a handheld GPS system featuring turn-by-turn voice directions could be invaluable. GPS systems today also feature points of interest that are nearby your location, and many other features that will provide a level of confidence while navigating in a foreign country.

What not to miss

World Heritage Site(s)

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world.

Currently, there are fourteen World Heritage Sites in Japan

Kyoto, located in the Kansai region of Japan, is the country’s seventh largest city.  Steeped in history, Kyoto is home to roughly one quarter of Japan’s national treasures, countless shrines and temples, and many sites recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. The UNESCO World Heritage Site Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) includes 17 locations in Kyoto, Uji in Kyoto Prefecture and Ōtsu in Shiga Prefecture. The site has been designated as World Heritage since 1994.

Temples and Shrines

Kyoto is dedicated to preserving Japan’s oldest traditions, making the city an ideal destination for visitors wanting to explore Japan’s past.  Kyoto has more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, in addition the Imperial Palace, castles, gardens, parks, museums and monuments. A thorough exploration of these cultural riches would take weeks or even months. Yet by visiting some of the most important sites, it is possible in a short time to get an impression of what Kyoto has to offer.

Here’s where to look …

Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto Gosho) was the residence of Japan’s imperial family until 1868, when Tokyo became the imperial capital. The current palace, located in the Kyoto Imperial Park, is a reconstruction dating from 1855. Visitors must fill in an application form (and show their passport) at the Imperial Household Agency’s office in order to join a guided tour of the palace. There are no restrictions on the use of the surrounding grounds, which are very pleasant. A short walk to the southwest takes you to Nijo Castle, which was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Edo Shogunate. Famous for its Momoyama architecture, ornate interiors, beautiful decorations and floors that squeak like ‘nightingales’ when walked upon (thus alerting guards against intruders), this castle is one of Kyoto’s several UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Obligatory places to visit include the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, with its thousands of Torii gates up in the hillside behind it, and the Kiyomizu Temple, with its verandas seemingly hanging in the air above the steep hillside below. Ginkakuji Temple has one of the most charming gardens in Japan, and the Path of Philosophy leading from there towards the south along the Sosui Canal is one of the nicest walks Kyoto has to offer.

The Kinkakuji Temple, with its impressive gold-leaf-covered pavilion, also has a lovely garden, as does the Heian Shrine. A different kind of garden is the main attraction at the Ryoanji Temple: a Zen garden designed to inspire contemplation and consisting entirely of raked sand, rocks and a little bit of moss.

The Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is the most important and impressive of the many Inari shrines in Japan. It is devoted to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, and it is guarded by statues of foxes, thought to be Inari’s messengers. There is a 4 km path up the hill behind the shrine, and it is straddled by no fewer than 10,000 orange-painted Torii gates standing very close to each other, making the path at times feel like a corridor.

One of the Japanese nation’s most beloved temples, Kiyomizu Temple is perched, seemingly precariously, on a steep hillside to the east of the city centre. The temple was founded as early as 798, although most of the present buildings date from 1633. It is an impressive site that offers sweeping views of the city, but it can get a bit crowded in the summer season, so it’s a good idea to get there early.

Ginkakuji Temple is not among the most imposing temples in Kyoto, but it is definitely among the most charming and is widely considered a masterpiece. The temple and the surrounding moss garden combine to create an atmosphere that is both calm and gentle, offering a vision of natural harmony. The Path of Philosophy, which leads along the tree-lined Sosui Canal from Ginkakuji Temple to Eikando Temple, offers a pleasant walk in peaceful surroundings.

Another must see … The walk to the Jingoji Temple from the Yamashiro Takao station entails a flight of winding stairs and a rather endearing small bridge. In fact you will feel like you are in the midst of a beautiful Japanese screen painting.

Ryoanji Temple and Kinkakuji Temple These temples are located close to each other in an area to the north west of Kyoto city centre. The Ryoanji Temple contains a famous Zen garden designed for contemplation and consisting of raked sand interrupted by 15 rocks. The Kinkakuji Temple is also known as the Golden Pavilion, as the pavilion’s exterior is covered in a thick layer of gold leaf. 

A scaled-down replica of the first Imperial Palace in Kyoto, the Heian Shrine is still imposing, if perhaps not very inspiring. It was constructed in 1895 to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of the city. The real attraction is the garden to the rear of the shrine. It is beautifully laid out with a lake in the middle, a footpath with several footbridges crossing the lake, and a wide variety of plants and trees along the way.

Daitokuji Temple is a picturesque and quite temple complex that also has many sub-temples. The sight of the Zen garden with its’ backdrop of maple trees in their autumn glory, set amidst the sub-temples, may just rejuvenate your heart and soul.

Yasaka Shrine, once called Gion Shrine, is a Shinto shrine and was built originally in 656. The shrine includes several buildings, including gates, a main hall and a stage.

Byōdō-In If you happen to have a coin in your pocket, dig it out now and have a look at it. The building depicted on a 10 Yen coin is the main hall of this lovely temple. Overlooking a serene pond, the hall is one of the loveliest Buddhist structures in Japan. This temple was converted from a Fujiwara villa into a Buddhist temple in 1052. The Hōō-dō (Phoenix Hall), the main hall of the temple, was built in 1053 and is the only original building remaining. The architecture of the building resembles the shape of the bird and there are two bronze phoenixes perched opposite each other on the roof. This building is one of the few examples of Heian-period architecture. Inside the hall is the famous statue of Amida Buddha and 52 bosatsu (Bodhisattvas) dating from the 11th century and attributed to the priest-sculptor Jōchō.

Museums

The Museum of Kyoto | Photo credit: © Y.Shimizu/© JNTO

The culture of Japan originated and developed primarily under the influence of Buddhism, and the preservation of that cultural inheritance falls largely to temples. It is no overstatement to call Kyoto, the Buddhist capital, a living art museum, blessed as it is with many famous and ancient temples. The rustic beauty of Asuka, the grace of Fujiwara, the grandeur of Kamakura, the profundity of Muromachi, the splendor of Momoyama … With superb artistry from every era, the city of Kyoto faithfully preserves Japan’s precious cultural hierarchy.

Nomura Museum This museum’s exhibits include scrolls, paintings and implements used in tea ceremonies and ceramics that were bequeathed by business magnate Nomura Tokushiki. If you have an abiding interest in the tea ceremony or in Japanese decorative techniques such as lacquer and maki-e (decorative lacquer technique using silver and gold powders), this museum can be interesting.

Housed in and behind the former Bank of Japan, the Museum of Kyoto is worth a visit for those with an interest in Kyoto’s long history. The exhibits consist of models of ancient Kyoto, audiovisual presentations and a small gallery dedicated to the city’s film industry. The museum holds regular special exhibits, most of which have nothing to do with Kyoto, however, they are often excellent.

Kaleidoscope Museum Of Kyoto This is just a fun – and unsual – place to visit. This one-room museum is filled with unexpected wonders. At any one time, there are 50 kaleidoscopes from a growing collection of about 150. Kaleidoscopes are fashioned by famous foreign and Japanese craftsmen, and you can make your own original kaleidoscope.

The Kyoto International Manga Museum, which is a new museum, has a collection of some 300,000 manga (Japanese comic books). Set in a building that used to be an elementary school, the museum is an introduction to the art of manga. While most of the manga and the displays are in Japanese, the collection of translated works is growing. In addition to the galleries that show both the historical development of manga and original artwork done in manga style, there are beginners’ workshops at weekends and opportunities to have your portrait drawn by manga artists. The museum hosts six month-long special exhibits yearly.

Umekōji Steam Locomotive Museum Popular with steam-train buffs and kids, this museum features 18 vintage steam locomotives (dating from 1914 to 1948) and related displays. It is in the former JR Nijō Station building, which was recently relocated here and thoughtfully reconstructed. You can even take a 10-minute ride on one of the smoke-spewing trains.

Art

The Kyoto National Museum is the site for some of Kyoto’s most important special art exhibitions. It was founded in 1895 as an imperial repository for art and treasures from local temples and shrines, and is housed in two buildings opposite Sanjūsangen-dō temple. There are 17 rooms with displays of more than 1000 artworks, historical artefacts and handicrafts.

Kyoto has been the center of Japanese art and culture since it became the national capital in the Heian Period over 1200 years ago. Though the capital was moved to Tokyo in the Meiji Period at the end of the 19th century, Kyoto has continued to fill an important role in modern cultural development. As a memorial for the enthronement ceremonies of Emperor Hirohito, which took place in Kyoto in 1928, Kansai businesses and citizens contributed to the creation of the Kyoto Enthronement Memorial Museum of Art which opened in 1933. After reopening as the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, the gallery has regularly held a great variety of exhibitions including large shows of foreign art. Since opening, gifts and purchases have contributed to the creation of a full collection that allows the museum to fill its role as a forum for modern and contemporary art.

The National Museum of Modern Art is renowned for its Japanese ceramics and paintings. There is an excellent permanent collection. The Collection Gallery exhibits selected works of nihonga (Japanese-style painting), yōga (Western-style painting), prints, sculpture, crafts (ceramics, textiles, metalworks, wood and bamboo works, lacquers and jewelry) and photography from the museum collection, rotating the works on display approximately twenty times a year.  Also exhibited are outstanding and monumental works of modern art in Japan, as well as modern and contemporary European and American art.

Kawai Kanjirō Memorial Hall This small memorial hall is one of Kyoto’s most commonly overlooked little gems. The hall was the home and workshop of one of Japan’s most famous potters, Kawai Kanjirō (1890-1966). The 1937 house is built in rural style and contains examples of Kanjirō’s work, his collection of folk art and ceramics, and his workshop and a fascinating nobori-gama (a stepped kiln).

Gardens

Every garden is a manifestation of the Japanese love for nature and their artistic sensibility. Representing nature’s grandeur within a limited space, inanimate objects may express life eternal. Placed in every corner with great attention to detail, stone lanterns and arched bridges are the perfect combination of utility and ornamentation. The full beauty of the Japanese garden may only be experienced in Kyoto. With superb aesthetic sense, the art of the Japanese garden was perfected in a seasonable climate over many long years. The old capital’s gardens are a treasure worthy of pride. Kyoto has always been special to the Japanese for its lush green parks and gardens. The city prides itself on having some of the most picturesque gardens in Japan. A visit to Kyoto Parks and Gardens is simply a must when visiting the city.

Note: If you can plan ahead, the most picturesque time to be in Kyoto is early April, when the cherry blossoms bloom.

The Imperial Park in Kyoto is famous for its vast expanse. Situated at the heart of Kyoto city this park provides refuge to thousands of birds.

Located in the Kyoto’s northern foothills, the Shugaku-in Rikyu Gardens are more ornate and feature a number of different ponds and bridges. Look for the carp carved on the cedar door in the middle of the park. This carved carp is second only to the famous “see no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil” carving on the Three Monkeys Temple in Nikko.

Pure Land Garden on the temple grounds of Byodoin is regarded as one of the very few remaining pure land gardens. It is also believed that the influence of this garden, during the Heian era, led to the spread of this type of gardens all over Japan. The garden used to contain the Uji river during the Heian period. However, the garden now includes the hills on the far side of the river as well.

Ryoanji, a Zen temple in Northwestern Kyoto, is famous for its rock garden. Unlike other Japanese lush green gardens, this garden on the temple ground is decorated with rocks, moss and gravel. Visitors often wonder about the significance of such arrangement. The reason is unknown and thus it leaves scope for personal interpretation.

Nanzenji is a Zen temple situated at the foothills of Kyoto’s eastern hills. First built as a royal residence in 1264, Nanzenji was, in 1291, converted to a temple. There are several buildings on the temple property and each building has a marvellous garden. However, the most famous among them is a rock garden which is housed in Seiryo-den, the main building of Nanzenji. This rock garden is decorated by rocks, gravel and a few patches of moss. Nanzenin is a sub temple on the same ground and its garden looks spectacular with autumn leaves strewn all over the garden floor.

Attractions

Chado or Sado (“tea ceremony” and / or “the way of tea”) is a traditional ritual influenced by Zen Buddhism. Powdered green tea (matcha) is ceremonially prepared by adding hot water and mixing it by a bamboo whisk. Then it is served to a small group of guests one by one in a Japanese tea room. A tea practitioner is normally familiar with not only the production and types of tea, but also with kimono, calligraphy, flower arranging, ceramics and a wide range of other disciplines and traditional arts. These practitioners spend many years and often a lifetime learning the tea ceremony. Participating as a guest in a tea ceremony may be possible. You can check with Tourism Kyoto for locations.

Gion is the central culture and entertainment district in Kyoto. Here the past is alive in the arts and entertainments on offer as well on street level where rickshaws and geisha can still be seen. Gion also features Gion Corner, which is a theatre where visitors can experience a variety of traditional Japanese arts such as Kyoto-style dance, tea ceremonies, puppet plays, hear Japanese harpests and watch flowers being arranged.

Operated by Toei, one of Japan’s largest movie makers, Uzumasa Movie Village or Kyoto Studio Park is the Japanese equivalent of Universal Studios. The impressive sets for historical dramas have ninja shows and provide a glimpse of bygone Kyoto with geisha in kimono accompanied by fully armed samurai warriors. You can usually see contemporary dramas and samurai epics in the making on site. There is also a theme park, hi-tech rides and computer games as well as a movie museum.

About Shopping

Kyoto’s main shopping district centres around the area where the streets Shijo-dori and Kawaramachi-dori intersect. There are several large department stores in this area of the city, and it is mainly here that you will find major fashion chain stores and high-street brands.

Fashionable shops, exclusive boutiques and trendy restaurants can also be found along elegant Kitayama Street, which stretches eastward from the Kitayama Bridge further north in Kyoto.

Kyoto is more famous, however, for its arts and crafts shops, and the most convenient of these is undoubtedly the multi-storey Kyoto Handicraft Center, which sells a wide range of handicraft products from lacquerware, porcelain, jewellery, woodblock prints and fabrics to kimonos and swords.

Another excellent craft shop can be found in the Kyoto Craft Center, which has exhibitions of textiles, ceramics and many other kinds of craft items made by local craftsmen and artists.

Kyoto has a number of shops that offer hand-made Japanese paper, and Morita Washi is the most famous, selling purified paper of the highest quality.

Japanese comics and film fans should head for Teramachi Street, one of Kyoto’s biggest shopping arcades, where there are several shops specialising in manga and anime.

Kyoto after dark…

Kyoto Gion | Photo credit: ©JNTO

Kyoto after dark provides visitors a wealth of opportunities to see and hear Japanese culture at its best. There are several large and small venues which will provide a lifetime of memories.

At night, you can stroll through Pontocho, the traditional night time entertainment spot. This narrow little street may be the most romantic street in Japan. You might even see a geisha (or a maiko, a young apprentice) scurrying to a theatrical performance or a local bar. Fans of Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha might like to stroll around the Gion neighbourhood, where the story was set. It’s also possible to be dressed and made up as a geisha in studios catering (mostly) to Japanese women. You can contact Tourism Kyoto for details.

Kyoto’s most famous theatre and one of the city’s cultural landmarks is the Minamiza Kabuki Theatre in Gion. It is the birthplace of kabuki, one of Japan’s most famous traditional performing art forms, which combines high drama, dance and music in an extremely stylized manner. Not only kabuki plays, but also concerts and rakugo (traditional comic storytelling) performances are held here. Kyoto also has its own noh theatre, the Kongo Nohgakudo (Kongo Noh Theater).

The Gion Corner Theatre, located at Yasaka Hall, is also a great way to experience the traditional Japanese arts. Performances are held throughout the year from March through November.

Kyoto Concert Hall is where the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra performs. The theatre has a very modern, exterior design and excellent acoustics. Classical music performances are also given at the Kyoto Kaikan Hall, a culture and conference centre with several big assembly halls, the largest of which can seat more than 2,000 people.

An excellent performing arts venue for music, dance and theatre is the 560-seat Kyoto Prefectural Citizen’s Hall.

Local Customs and Etiquette

Greetings in Japan are very formal and ritualized. It is important to show the correct amount of respect and deference to someone based upon their status relative to your own. If at all possible, wait to be introduced. It can be seen as impolite to introduce yourself, even in a large gathering. While foreigners are expected to shake hands, the traditional form of greeting is the bow. How far you bow depends upon your relationship to the other person as well as the situation. The deeper you bow, the more respect you show. A foreign visitor (‘gaijin’) may bow the head slightly, since no one expects foreigners to generally understand the subtle nuances of bowing.

Saving face is crucial in Japanese society. The Japanese believe that turning down someone’s request causes embarrassment and loss of face to the other person. If the request cannot be agreed to, the response may be “it’s inconvenient” or “it’s under consideration”. Face is a mark of dignity and means having status with peers.

Gift-giving is ritualistic and meaningful. The ceremony of presenting a gift and the way it is wrapped is as important – sometimes more important – than the gift itself. The gift need not be expensive, but take great care to ask someone who understands the culture to help you decide what type of gift to give. Good quality chocolates or small cakes are good ideas. Do not give lilies, camellias or lotus blossoms as each are associated with funerals. Do not give white flowers of any kind as they are associated with funerals. Do not give potted plants as they encourage sickness, although a bonsai tree is always acceptable. Give items in odd numbers, but not 9. If you buy the gift in Japan, have it wrapped. Gifts are not opened when received.

If you are invited to a Japanese house, remove your shoes before entering and put on the slippers left at the doorway and leave your shoes pointing away from the doorway. Arrive on time or no more than 5 minutes late if invited for dinner. If you must go to the washroom, put on washroom slippers and remove them when you are finished.

Dining Etiquette

Wait to be told where to sit. There is a protocol to be followed. The honoured guest or the eldest person will be seated in the centre of the table the furthest from the door. The honoured guest or the eldest is the first person to begin eating. Never point your chopsticks. Do not pierce your food with chopsticks. Chopsticks should be returned to the chopstick rest after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak. Do not cross your chopsticks when putting them on the chopstick rest. It is acceptable to ask what something is. Don’t be surprised if your Japanese colleagues slurp their noodles and soup. If you do not want anything more to drink, do not finish what is in your glass. An empty glass is an invitation for someone to serve you more. When you have finished eating, place your chopsticks on the chopstick rest or on the table. Do not place your chopsticks across the top of your bowl. If you leave a small amount of rice in your bowl, you will be given more. To signify that you do not want more rice, finish every grain in your bowl. 
Conversation at the table is generally subdued. The Japanese like to savour their food.

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