Geisha and schoolgirls in Gion, Kyoto Geisha and schoolgirls in Gion, Kyoto
Nestled among mountains in Western Honshu, Kyoto has a reputation worldwide as Japan's most beautiful city, boasting more World Heritage Sites per square inch than any other city. However, visitors will be surprised how much work they will have to do to see its beautiful side. Most visitors' first impressions will be of the urban sprawl of central Kyoto, around the ultra-modern glass-and-steel train station.
Nonetheless, the persistent tourist will soon discover Kyoto's hidden beauty in the temples and parks which ring the city centre, and find that the city has even more than meets the eye.
Kyoto offers an incredible number of attractions for tourists, and visitors will probably need to plan an itinerary in advance in order to visit as many as possible.
The Arashiyama area to the west of the city is dismissed in most Western guidebooks in a brief paragraph suggesting "other attractions". However, the area is rightfully very popular with Japanese tourists, and is well worth a visit. The walk through a forest of bamboo to Nonomiya Shrine and Okochi Sanso (a traditional house, previously occupied by a Japanese silent screen legend), is a real highlight of a visit to Kyoto. Feeding the macaque monkeys atop the mountain in Iwatayama Park, to the south of the river, is worth the entrance fee (and the demanding climb!). No admission fee for the shrine, Y1000 for Okochi Sanso (though the price includes a cup of matcha (traditional Japanese tea)) and Y500 to enter Iwatayama Monkey Park.
About twenty-minutes to the south of Kyoto is Fushimi Inari Shrine, another of Kyoto's often-overlooked jewels. Dedicated to the fox spirit, Inari, this Shinto temple has miles of red torii (gates) stretching up onto the hill behind it. A visitor could easily spend several hours walking up the hillside, taking in the beautiful views of the city of Kyoto and walking through the thousands of gates. Admission is free. Be warned, the shrine is located close to Fushimi Inari and Inari stations, but is nowhere near Fushimi station! The easiest way to get here is to take the JR Nara line from Kyoto station to Inari station, which exits immediately opposite the entrance to the shrine.
Currently, Kyoto is enjoying even more popularity than usual with Japanese tourists due to the success of Japanese TV broadcaster NHK's series 'Shinsengumi' (新選組), a historic drama following a group of samurai who kept peace in the city in the 1860s. Consequently, among the most popular souvenirs from the city at the moment are the distinctive blue and white happi (shirts) worn by this group.
More traditional souvenirs from Kyoto include parasols and carved wooden dolls.
A more unconventional but colourful (and relatively cheap) souvenir are the wooden votive tablets produced by temples, which bear an image relevant to the temple on the reverse. Visitors to the temples write their prayers on the tablets, and hang them up within the temple.
Manga and anime enthusiasts should visit Teramachi Street, a covered shopping street off the main Shijo-dori, which boasts a large manga store on two floors, as well as a two-storey branch of Gamers (a chain of anime stores), and a small two-storey anime and collectables store.