While Kyoto is home to many famous attractions and UNESCO world heritage sites, it’s also rich in hidden treasures, many of which are easily overlooked. No matter how many times I visit Kyoto, I discover something new about the city’s little-known secrets. Here are a few of my favorite tips for exploring this ancient capital city.
Stick to the best
When exploring the cobblestone streets of Gion, you might come across a noodle shop or cafe with a cluster of stickers stuck to a corner. It wasn’t mischievous teenagers--this means you’ve discovered a geisha hangout. Geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) carry business cards with them, which they also like to stick to their favorite places. Unlike conventional business cards, the geisha’s business card is narrower, listing only her name and house.
Fountain of beauty
Kyoto is called “the city of two thousand temples,” and the most famous ones are featured in the travel guides. A lesser-known shrine I love is tucked away within another (the Yasaka Shrine) in Gion. It is the Utsukushi Gozensha, a shrine to beauty of the heart and body. Next to it is a small fountain of “beauty water” you can sprinkle on your face. It’s said that maiko, geisha and women from all over Japan go to this shrine. You can also purchase small wooden plaques, called ema, to write your beauty wishes on and hang beneath a small pavilion.
Something in the water
There’s more than beauty water in Kyoto—all of the city’s water is considered to be one of its greatest natural assets. Kyoto’s exceptionally pure water, called nansui, flows from nearby rivers and is filtered by surrounding mountains. Nansui is ideal for Japanese cuisine, highlighting exquisite flavors of tea and sake. Some of Japan’s greatest tea masters call Kyoto home for its pristine water.
From above, Kyoto is just as beautiful. A Japanese scholar once described the bird’s eye view of Kyoto as “gorgeous mountains in the purple haze and clear waters.” It wasn’t until more recently that I had the chance to take in this view for myself, at Shogunzuka Seiryuden Temple. Here, you can feel the rolling hills protecting the city beneath tranquil clouds. Kyoto proves you don’t need skyscrapers for an amazing city view (although pagodas help).
Found in translation
If you’re a movie-lover, you’ll want to visit Kyoto’s Heian Shrine. One of my favorite films, Lost in Translation, has an iconic scene in which Scarlett Johansson's character takes a shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. At the Heian shrine, she makes her way across a pond with stepping stones. The gardens in the back are breathtaking, blooming with irises and lotus flowers in spring and early summer. Still relatively unknown, this shrine is a must-visit if you yearn for a quiet moment away from the hustle and bustle of bigger attractions.
Do you have any favorite discoveries from your travels? I would love to hear what pearls of wisdom you’ve found along the way.