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Japan’s former capital can still make a claim to be its cultural soul. With 400 Shinto shrines and 1600 Buddhist temples, 17 Unesco World Heritage sites, and a highly sophisticated cuisine and art scene, it’s the city that best embodies what most visitors are thinking of when they imagine a classic Japanese city – right down to the kimono-clad geishas and cherry blossom trees.
This isn’t to say that Kyoto, with a population of around 1,500,000, is perfect. The city has suffered the same plight of most larger Japanese cities, where rampant development has trumped sensitive conservation. In the past few years, however, the local government has managed to curtail insensitive construction. Because of the city’s relatively small population (for Japan), excellent infrastructure, and pleasant gardens, it’s often considered one of the most liveable cities in the world.Read more
Historically, Kyoto was the largest city in Japan (its name means ‘capital city’) and during the Edo period, was one of three major cities in Japan and today still has many pre-WWII buildings. Kyoto’s status as an intellectual centre put it on the list of atomic bomb targets for the Americans and was only taken off the list after the American Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson (who had previously visited the city), realised its cultural significance.
Having been spared major bombing, many of the city’s traditional townhouses are still standing. Also standing are the city’s famous temples, such as the picturesque Kiyomizu-dera, the elaborate Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion and the Zen garden at Ryōan-ji. Its Shinto shrines are impressive too, such as the Heian Jingū, built in 1895 to commemorate the city’s emperors.
Art figures heavily in the cultural capital and the Miho Museum, designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei (famous for his reworking of the Louvre in Paris), with a spectacular mountain setting, features a private collection of Asian and Western antiques. In a completely different sphere of the arts scene is the Kyoto International Manga Museum, surprisingly the first of its kind in the world, devoted to these Japanese comics that now have a fanatical following worldwide.
Kyoto’s cuisine is also considered something of an art form by foodies. Called Kyo-ryori it consists of four types of cuisine, however, it’s the multi-course Kaiseki meal that most visitors come to the city to try. A series of exquisite seasonal dishes that highlight the key ingredient and are carefully presented with matched tableware, it’s the epitome of sophistication in Japanese dining – and a symbolic meal that sums up the importance of this ancient city to Japan’s culture.