Kyoto is a city located in the central part of the island of Honshu, Japan. It has a population close to 1.5 million. Formerly the imperial capital of Japan for more than one thousand years, it is now the capital city of Kyoto Prefecture located in the Kansai region, as well as a major part of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe metropolitan area. Kyoto City comprises eleven wards, each with something special to explore. The centrally located wards of Nakagyo and Shimogyo are where you will find the main concentration of hotels, shopping, restaurants and nightlife. Shimogyo contains the city’s busiest shopping district, Shijō Kawaramachi plus two of modern Kyoto’s proudest landmarks; Kyoto Station and Kyoto Tower. Nakagyo is a busy neighborhood dense with amazing historic sites such as shrines and temples, as well as Nijo Castle.
To the east, Kyoto is hemmed by the Higashiyama Mountains. Being on the far side of the Kamo River, Higashiyama and Sakyo wards have been spared by many of the fires that repeatedly consumed the central areas and as such these eastern wards are home to some of Japan’s oldest and most revered historic sites. Sakyo Ward is home to the Silver Pavillion, Ginkaku-ji and the massive Nanzen-ji marking the northern and southern limits of the famous Philosopher’s Walk. The rustic Higashiyama area contains Gion district where you might see a maiko apprentice geisha skimming across the stone-paved roads heading to her teahouse. Charming cobble stoned streets are dotted with merchants peddling souvenirs and keepsakes, leading to Kyoto’s most famous cherry blossom viewing site Maruyama Park, or the famous Kiyomizu Temple, Yasaka Shrine or any number of significant sites in Higashiyama.
Kamigyo Ward, Kita Ward and Ukyo Ward occupy the northern quarters of Kyoto and are predominately residential areas. Despite its urbanization, Kamigyo is home to some of Kyoto’s most priceless landmarks, most significantly Kyoto Imperial Palace.
Kita Ward contains the Golden Pavillion, Kinkaku-ji which draws hundreds of thousands of tourists every years to view its serene setting. There’s more history to be viewed at the Daitoku-ji, an enormous compound of Zen Buddhist temples and sub-temples. Ukyo contains the splendid Arashiyama-Sagano district, an area famous for its maple tree covered hills which, during the autumn months, explode into fierce colour. Many important temples and shrines sit peacefully in compounds full of cherry blossoms, bamboo and maple trees.
Occupying the western limits of Kyoto City, Nishikyo Ward is home to a few of Kyoto’s oldest religious sites like Matsuo-taisha founded in 701, Shoji-ji Temple founded in 680 and Saiho-ji temple houses some of the oldest purely Japanese strolling gardens in existence. Southern Kyoto is home to Yamashina, Minami and Fushimi wards. Yamashina Ward lies in the south-eastern area of Kyoto City and during the 15th and 16th centuries was the site of many potters’ kilns devoted to firing the Kiyomizu-yaki pottery. Today the area is still famous for its beautiful ceramic items including pottery for ikebana flower arranging, the tea ceremony and Japanese dining utensils. Historically the area of Minami Ward has played an important role, being on the only side of the city which is not bound by mountains, the area was long the gateway to Kyoto. Fushimi Ward is a famous sake producing district, the second largest in the country, and is home to the dramatic Fushimi Inari Shrine which impressively welcomes visitors through its thousands of vermillion torii shrine gates.
Kyoto is potentially a year-round destination, although the climate is extreme: summer months are oppressively hot and humid with regular rain, and winter is surprisingly cold, with occasional snowfall. Spring and autumn are the most moderate and beautiful times of year in terms of the glorious cherry blossom (around early April) and the fiery red changing of the leaves (early November). This, however, is when Kyoto is at its busiest. Those keen to avoid the crowds should try early autumn or late spring.