In Travel

24 Hours In Kyoto: An Ancient City Of Prized Treasures

Some of the most treasured traditions in Japan - Kimonos, geisha, tea ceremonies and Zen Buddhism - were all created in Kyoto.

Kyoto’s cache of attractions has a little something for everyone. Kimonos, geisha, tea ceremonies and Zen Buddhism were all created in Kyoto. Considering these are some of the most treasured traditions in Japan, it’s little wonder the ancient capital is regularly ranked in Top 10 lists of the Best Cities in the World. Using its ancestral treasures as a starting point, visitors to Kyoto can thread their way from gardens lined with cherry blossoms or maple trees to frenetic food markets, underground bars, a thriving culinary scene and slick shopping strips. If you’ve got 24 hours in Kyoto, here are a few ideas on how to best spend your time.

9am: Breakfast at Kyoto Nishiki Market

The Kyoto Nishiki Market is a culinary wonderland with a dizzying array of vendors selling everything from ami jakushi (scoops with a net bottom) to pickled turnips, shichimi ice cream and octopus on a stick.

Enjoy the perfume of teriyaki as you devour skewered pieces of meat moments after they hit the grill. We also recommend a nourishing bowl of ramen or oysters shucked to order within the 400-year-old market dubbed ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’.

11am: Sightseeing at Nanzen-ji Temple

Nanzen-ji Temple Photo: Wikimedia

Visit Kyoto in autumn and you will be joined by a mix of glam Japanese couples, school groups, kimono-clad tourists and retirees admiring the sprawling Nanzen-ji Temple complex and its surrounding trees ablaze in dazzling reds, yellow and oranges. In addition to the beautifully laid out stepping stones, pebbles and cushions of moss that make the Zen gardens here so symbolic, the autumn foliage is a huge draw for visitors.

Find the road running parallel to the red-brick aquaduct and follow it into the hills to find the Nanzen-ji Okunoin, a small sub-temple hidden in a forest hollow overlooking a waterfall.

12pm: Take time for a tea ceremony

There’s something very calming about a tea ceremony. That is until the drone of a leaf blower destroys the equanimity. Our host, who is outfitted in a sombre grey kimono, maintains her composure throughout the ruckus as she gestures for us to kneel around her on the tatami mat floor in an austere room that forms part of the labyrinthine Kodai-ji Complex.

The silence, symbolism and symmetry all resonate as we observe our host’s highly stylised hand gestures, which culminate in the ritual of pouring cups of thick matcha tea. Drink it in. Breathe. Then sigh.

1pm: Lunch of Yodofu at Yachiyo

The express offering at Yachiyo. Photo: Instagram

We’re on the clock so we lunch at nearby Yachiyo, a restaurant within a ryokan (inn) near to the grounds of Nanzen-ji Temple. It’s all in the details as we sit on floor cushions around low lacquered tables overlooking gardens and ponds and a luminous green carpet of moss. After the waitress kneels beside us to explain each dish, we do as she suggests and order yudofu, Kyoto’s signature dish, a hot pot comprising silken tofu cooked in a kombu stock.

What makes this dish so exceptional is its simplicity, with the beautiful Botticelli wobble of the tofu given a friendly whack of fragrance with the addition of ginger and scallion. Take some time to appreciate the garden surrounds, which serve as a harmonious backdrop for these beautifully presented dishes.

3pm: Experience pottery making

Making a pot during an hour-long workshop at Taiken-Kiyomizu is well worth it, especially when you arrive back home to find a parcel containing the clay pot you threw on a fast-spinning wheel in a cobbled back street in Kyoto is now a smooth, glazed vessel. Like everything in Japan, the designs on the pots are seasonal, so you can acquire a piece of pottery here at a lower price point if the seasons are set to change.

5pm: Visit to Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine

The main gate of the Fushimi-Inari Shrine curves upwards and outward like the wings of a bird in this famous shrine that lures thousands of people — from pilgrims to nature lovers — through its burnished torii gates. That intersection of East and West is again evident when weaving through the thicket of selfie sticks protruding from the throngs of tourists being swept along through the vermillion torii gates.

7pm: Dinner at Yururiya Kyoto (obanzai)

Obanzai is regarded as Kyoto soul food – cuisine that sources most of its ingredients locally. Part sake bar, part hangout for the cool kids, Yururiya restaurant can be found down a narrow little lane in a burnished wood-on-wood dining room that overlooks an alcove where a single tree and stone lantern serves as the decor. Enjoy a parade of dishes such as tsukemono (pickles), saikyo yaki (miso-flavoured fish) and nasu dengaku (miso-glazed eggplant) while sipping on a selection of stellar sakes.

9pm: Whisky a-go-go at Bunkyu Bar

Dark and moody. Photo: Bunkyu Bar

Bunkyu Bar is a bunker-style bar hidden behind an unmarked door down a dingy alley. It has about 10 seats, no menu and seriously good whisky on offer. It also has one bartender, Nao, who is a real showman. Add smooth hypnotic beats, a grungy underground vibe and 5 am closing time and you may source enough material for a Lost in Translation sequel.

11pm: Stay at Hotel M’s Plus Shijo Omiya

This comfortable boutique hotel offers compact modern rooms and a convenient place to rest your head as it’s just a minute’s walk from Shijo Omiya Station. Fuel up on a Western-style breakfast of coffee and croissants in the hotel restaurant the next morning before saying sayonara to Kyoto.

Carla Grossetti was a guest of Kansai International Airport and Tobu Top Tours.

(All images by Carla Grossett, except where specified)  

Published 12 January, 2018