Cherry blossom petals caught on a breeze, the burble of a water fountain permeating the silence of a peaceful rock garden, a pair of elegantly dressed geisha flitting between wooden tea houses … Kyoto is the Japan of the past, the Japan of your imagination. Standing as Japan’s capital from A.D. 794 to 1868, Kyoto has thrived as a hub for Japanese culture, art and education. Given the city’s respect for its history, it’s not surprising that millions of people visit Kyoto each year for a snapshot of imperial Japan.
But no matter where you point your lens, modern-day Japan is sure to make it into the frame. Centuries-old Shinto shrines and pagodas share the city with the headquarters of companies like Nintendo and electronics manufacturer Kyocera. Kyoto’s blend of ancient and contemporary makes it a vibrant city that certainly isn’t stuck in the past. But if it’s the past you seek, Kyoto will bring your imaginings to life.
How To Save Money in Kyoto
- Travel in the winter You may miss out on spring’s cherry blossoms and autumn’s changing foliage, but a decline in hotel and flight rates might make up for it.
- Spring for a kaiseki lunch Kyoto’s signature haute-cuisine, kaiseki, is a must-try, but it can cost a small fortune at night. Instead, follow the locals to a kaiseki restaurant at lunchtime for a set menu at a more manageable price.
- Walk! Public transportation costs in Kyoto can add up quickly, so bring a pair of comfortable shoes and plan to amble. (Philosopher’s Walk in Higashiyama is especially pleasant for strolling.)
Kyoto Culture & Customs
Being the epicenter of Japan’s cultural heritage, Kyoto is certainly geared toward tourists. However, that doesn’t mean that the city is an amusement park — Kyotoites are still deeply rooted in customary Japanese etiquette and visitors should respect the rules. For example, you may be asked to remove your shoes or stow your umbrella upon entering a house, temple or shrine. Photography, eating and drinking are often prohibited within these structures, and it is polite to be silent while in a temple’s vicinity.
Photography is also a touchy subject when it comes to geisha in Gion. You can recognize geisha by their colorful traditional kimonos, elaborate hairstyles, white-painted faces and red lips. Remember that geisha are neither prostitutes (as many westerners believe) nor theme park mascots. These women are respected entertainers and keepers of ancient Japanese traditions. If you must photograph them, do so from a respectful distance or with explicit permission.
The official language in Kyoto is Japanese. However, you might hear some people in Kyoto use the Kansai dialect, which is regarded as a more elegant and formal version of the language. It diverges from common Japanese in a few ways. For example, “thank you,” in the Kansai dialect is “ookini,” while in standard Japanese it’s “arigato.” When meeting new people, it is customary to bow, though handshakes are becoming more commonplace. If you are visiting someone’s home, Japanese custom dictates you should bring a gift (a small token from your home country is usually acceptable).
Kyoto’s official currency is Japanese yen (JPY). One American dollar (USD) equals about 97 yen (JPY). And while your daily budget in Kyoto may have to be a little higher than in other cities, you won’t have to worry about tipping, since it is not customary here.