The capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, KYOTO is endowed with an almost overwhelming legacy of ancient Buddhist temples, majestic palaces and gardens of every size and description, not to mention some of the country's most important works of art, its richest culture and its most refined cuisine.
For many people the very name Kyoto conjures up the classic image of Japan: streets of traditional wooden houses, the click-clack of geta on the paving stones, geisha in a flourish of brightly coloured silks, and the inevitable weeping cherry. While you can still find all these things, and much more, first impressions of Kyoto are invariably disappointing. For the most part it's a sprawling, overcrowded city with a population of 1.5 million and a thriving industrial sector. The die-straight streets certainly simplify navigation, but they also give the city an oppressive uniformity which you won't find among the tortuous lanes of Tokyo. And, perhaps not surprisingly, Kyoto is a notoriously exclusive place, where it's difficult for outsiders to peek through the centuries-thick layer of cultural refinement into the city's secretive soul.
However, there's plenty for the short-term visitor to enjoy in Kyoto. In fact, the array of top-class sights is quite mind-boggling: more than 1600 Buddhist temples, hundreds of Shinto shrines, two hundred classified gardens, a clutch of imperial villas and several first-rate museums. With so much choice, the biggest problem is where to start, but it's perfectly possible to get a good feel for Kyoto even in a couple of days. Top priority should go to the eastern, Higashiyama district, where you can walk north from the famous Kiyomizu-dera to Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, taking in a whole raft of interesting temples, gardens and museums on the way. Or you could head for the northwestern hills to contemplate the superb Zen gardens of Daitoku-ji and Ryōan-ji, and then gorge on the wildly extravagant Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. With more time, you can visit some of the central sights, of which the highlight is Nijō-jō, a lavishly decorated seventeenth-century palace, while nearby Nijō-jin'ya is an intriguing place riddled with secret passages and hidey-holes. Try also to visit one of the imperial villas, such as Shūgaku-in Rikyū or Katsura Rikyū, or the sensuous moss gardens of Saihō-ji, all located in the outer districts. And it's well worth making time to wander off the beaten track into Kyoto's old merchant quarters. The best of these, surprisingly, are to be found in the central district north of Shijō-dōri and across the river in Gion. Here you'll find the traditional crafts shops and beautiful old ryokan for which the city is justly famous.
Kyoto's festivals tend to be more stately than rumbustious. The most famous feature grand costume parades, esoteric ritual and elegant geisha dances, and take place in spring and autumn. These two seasons are undoubtedly the best time to visit Kyoto, though also the busiest; after a chill winter, the cherry trees put on their finery in early April, while the hot, oppressive summer months (June– Aug) are followed in October by a delightful period of clear, dry weather when the maples erupt into fiery reds.