Ginkakuji wooden temple in the autumn


Whoosh into Kyoto’s futuristic central station on the bullet train and you’ll be greeted by karaoke bars and concrete, not Zen gardens and mysterious shrines. But don’t let that fool you.

For over a millennium Kyoto was the capital of Japan, and during the long peace of the Edo Period its courtiers had little to do but make art, build buildings, and philosophise. It was during this flowering that traditional Japanese culture matured, leaving Kyoto with 1,600 shrines, temples, palaces and gardens charting the evolution of design from the 10th to the 19th century. Written down those may seem like dry facts, but in a way, Kyoto is at the heart of what it means to be Japanese.

Pad through the corridors of Nijo Castle and you’re just the latest of generations of feet who’ve worn these floorboards smooth. Browse the dried seafood and pickled vegetables at Nishiki Market and you’re part of a scene that’s barely changed in 400 years.

It can be hard to transport yourself back in time when you’re lost in the crowd (Kyoto welcomed almost 90 million visitors in 2019 alone), but almost all of those crowds get sucked in by Kyoto’s top 20 temples, leaving the other 1,580 almost unbelievably quiet. Just walk under the mossy, thatched gate of Honen-in and you could almost be entering a different world.

There are other places in Japan to feel lost in a time warp. That’s not Kyoto. This is where it all happened — where culture was formed and traditions codified — and Kyoto is still very much happening today.

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