Japan is famed for its commitment to both progress and tradition. These two positions are perfectly encapsulated in Kyoto, a city on the island of Honshu and the country's cultural heart. Filled with temples, shrine, and beautiful architecture, the city is also a center for the geisha tradition of ceremonial hospitality. Although its mild climate makes it a great year-round destination, Kyoto is undeniably Japan's city of the spring. Annually, in late March through April, people flock from around the world to take in the surreal beauty and delirious scent of thousands of cherry trees in blossom.
There are several spots to admire the blooming cherry trees in Kyoto, but the best one is Maruyama Park, Kyoto's oldest public green space. Viewing the blossoms xis a revered annual event and prompts pop-up food stations and lighting displays around these trees. Another great venue to drink in the beauty of the cherry blossoms is the Philosopher's Path, a canal-side pathway lined with hundreds of trees leading from the Ginkakuji temple's Silver Pavilion.
From traditional kabuki theatre shows to wishing upon the Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine’s magical stone, stopping at waypoints in the quaint streets of Gion District can fill up an entire day or night. As Kyoto's entertainment and shopping district, Gion has many cafes, tea houses, food stalls, and photogenic traditional townhouses to explore along the way.
Up in the hills surrounding Kyoto, trails, traditional country inns, and natural hot springs await to inspire and soothe. Many prefer the facilities on Mt. Kurama for its famous hot springs and commodities. You can hike from the quaint town of Kurama to a Buddhist temple at the summit, or take the cable car part way to conserve energy for the journey up. The geothermal waters at Onsen Kurama are said to alleviate any number of ailments.
Cheeky monkeys rule the forests and hillsides of Iwatayama Park, not far from the Kamo river winding through Kyoto. Seeing a large troop of wild macaques running about can be entertaining, and you can feed them with food supplied on-site. Like monkeys everywhere, however, these nimble primates can be unpredictable. Hang on to items like sunglasses and cameras and keep your bags zipped close. These monkeys can be a mischievous bunch.
The Kinkakuji Temple, also known as Rokuonji or The Golden Pavilion, is one of the most beautiful religious sites in and around Kyoto. The Zen Buddhist complex was formerly a private family villa and temple, parts of which date back to the era of the shoguns in the 13th century. The top floors of the main pagoda are covered in gold leaf, which is striking against the greenery of the surrounding deer park and Zen gardens.
The tea ceremony is a lengthy ritual that can be enjoyed pretty much everywhere in Japan. Kyoto is its birthplace, so it is not hard to find a beautiful spot to participate in the hour-long ceremony in a very traditional manner. Those wishing to look deeper into the centuries-old practice can even study at one of three major schools in the city, or take a lesson at one of the well-established tea houses in the Gion district.
The Shinto god of rice, Inari, is honored at the much-photographed Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine in the south of the city. Notable for its many fox statues—said to be Inari's messengers—and the striking red tori gates, the site is one of Kyoto's most loved photo ops. Enter the numerous winding trails crisscrossing Mount Fushimi and watch for the many vista lookouts with benches for resting as you descend the hills.
If you've played Pokemon, watched Sailor Moon, or just have an appreciation for manga, then Kyoto's Manga Museum is an attraction you can't miss. Stuffed with shelves of mangas, the museum has plenty of nooks for reading as well as temporary exhibits featuring artists from around the world. Programming includes regular lectures and workshops with Japan's leading manga artists.
Only five blocks long, Kyoto's most famous market is a foodie's favorite spot in Japan. Score free samples, grab specialty ingredients for a homemade dish, or settle into one of its ad hoc restaurants stalls for vegetarian shojin ryori or other dishes containing Kyoto's signature soft tofu. Keep in mind that eating while you are walking around the market is considered bad manners, as well as dangerous.
Kyoto is full of mystical spots for those seeking spiritual enlightenment or a change in fortune. The Otowa Waterfall, which is part of the Kiyomizu-dera Temple complex, is one of these special spots. Fed by three streams, the waterfall is said to fulfill your wishes in love, life, or wealth when you drink from its waters. At the nearby Jishu shrine, two stones are placed 18 meters apart from each other; visitors who can successfully walk this distance between them with their eyes closed are sure to find love.