By Kensaku Onishi
When Kyoto is mentioned, is it easy to create an image in your head? Maybe. But these 7 surprising facts may change your mental image of this city, and might even encourage those who haven’t had any interest to reconsider visiting this city.
To start with, here’s a quick overview of Kyoto. Kyoto is located near the center of Japan. It was the capital of Japan for 1200 years. This historical fact is a big deal, which has attracted many people from other parts of Japan. And it has 17 World Heritage Sites in and around the city. Not only Japanese people but also people from all over the world regularly visit Kyoto. In fact, readers of the luxurious travel magazine, Travel + Leisure, chose Kyoto as the Best City in the world.
Kyoto is a mysterious place, with many legends told about it. But for now, let’s focus on surprises that will be remembered clearly by those who visit, and could even be a reason for a return trip to Kyoto.
1. Kyoto is Actually a Modernized City
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, Kyoto is a historical city. Many people visit Kyoto for traditional and cultural experiences. This is certainly true. There are countless temples and shrines established with hundreds of years of history. However, this image of Kyoto will be overthrown the minute Kyoto Station comes into sight. The architecture looks exceptionally modern, even though the layout is based on the one that Heiankyo (ancient Kyoto city) used. Kyoto station uses 4000 large panes of glass for its vaulted hall, so that the sky can easily be seen from the ground level. Kyoto Station also boasts a bustling underground station, with dozens of shops and restaurants. In addition, two hotels are connected to this station, which is definitely convenient for tourists since Kyoto Station is an excellent starting point for sightseeing plans. In a way, the many modern buildings combine with old temples and shrines to make Kyoto unique. There is actually one spot where an ancient temple stands next to a modern office building which happens to have Starbucks inside. This might sound chaotic, but this distinct surprise makes Kyoto special.
2. Kyoto Has So Many Temples & Shrines
According to one taxi driver I met, Kyoto city has about one thousand temples and shrines. That is too many to visit. Just walking down an average street for five minutes will bring a few temples in sight. Note that not all of them are equal. Many of them are for local people who ask the temple to keep the gravestone of their ancestors. But there is no need to worry, since there are still good deal of temples and shrines with historical value who welcome tourists for a small fee or for free, for example Kiyomizudera Temple, Yasaka Shrine, Kinkakuji Temple, Heian Jingu Shrine, Ginkakuji Temple, Ryoanji Temple, Tenryuji Temple, Nanzenji Temple, Kodaiji Temple and the list goes on and on.
3. Kyoto City Center is Like a Maze
Kyoto city has several different kinds of areas. The station area is a hub for traveling. The Higashiyama region has a beautiful landscape. And the city center has banks, department stores, small shops and restaurants. Seeing historical spots is most likely the first priority, and rightly so. But exploring the city center should not be left off your itinerary. From personal experience I can say that many good restaurants, cafes, and shops are gathered in this area. The street system ought to be easy to understand, since it is laid out like a chessboard. The problem is that the names of the streets are long and difficult to read, even for Japanese out-of-towners. Yanagi no bamba street, Nishi no toin street, Higashi no toin street, Takoyakushi street, Aneyakoji street… However, it is fun and rewarding to explore the central area, as it is one of the reasons to go sightseeing in the first place.
4. Kyoto is Small Enough to Explore By Foot
Kyoto is one of the biggest cities in Japan. This is pretty clear by the size of the station, which has ten or more platforms. This might make visitors wonder if using mass transit is a must. Of course, for some destinations this is true. However, many sightseeing spots are gathered together in various areas, so it is often easy to visit the next destination on foot. For those who are reluctant to use any buses or trains, there are more than five spots within walking distance of Kyoto Station. Be sure to bring good walking shoes, since you are almost certain to end up hiking around the city.
5. Kyoto is Full of Beautiful Nature
Kyoto boasts not only historical value but also beautiful scenery. At the crossroad of Karasuma Street and Shijo Street, which is the center of business and finance in Kyoto, look around. With the exception of to the south, mountains can be seen in every direction. Go to Kamogawa River (which runs through the east side) when the cherry blossoms, aka Sakura, are in full bloom. That is one of the most breathtaking views of Kyoto. Go to Tenryuji Temple and take a look at its garden. The nearby mountain is beautifully matched with its traditional Japanese garden. Kyoto is a wonderful place where historical, cultural, modern and natural go hand in hand.
6. Kyoto is the Destination for Many School Trips
Kyoto has long been the destination of school trips for Japanese students. Japanese students will usually take an out of town field trip with their class once during junior high and once during high school. Last year, according to Kyoto City agency, there were more than 1.1 million students that visited Kyoto for their school trip. In almost every season, especially during June, there are many students on their school trip. They usually enjoy sightseeing as a group of 4 to 6 students. And these days many schools hire taxis for the students, because it is easy way to chaperone them. The numbers of these students might be a surprise. But for those who happen to establish eye contact with them, more surprises may come. The students may come over and ask questions, for example “where are you from?”, “what Japanese food do you enjoy?”. This rarely comes from pure curiosity. This is usually an assignment. So, please be nice, and enjoy having a small chat with them. It might be a memorable experience for both sides.
7. Lady’s Bathrooms
This surprise is just for ladies. This issue is not just in Kyoto, but across Japan. Just like the other surprises, it is sure to be remembered … but in a different way. When waiting in line in a busy lady’s restroom, you may be waved ahead by those in front of you. This might sound good, but these people are not just being polite. There is another reason. In this scenario, 9 out of 10 times, the open toilet stall contains a Japanese style toilet. This type is very different than a western one. It has no seat. Japanese toilets may play music and automatically flush, but still require squatting over what is essentially a hole in the floor. As you might guess, even Japanese ladies are not usually fans of this style. Unless its a true emergency, it might be more comfortable to wait in line for the western option.
About the author: Kensaku Onishi is a Kyoto expert, who runs kyototraveler.net and has published Kyoto e-Guidebook, which provides the latest useful and fun information to foreign tourists planning to visit Kyoto.