Explore Kyoto: Japan’s city of gardens and geishas

For over a millennium, a venerable city in central Honshu was the heart of royal, social and religious life in Japan, home to monks, emperors and geishas. Lesley Downer roams Kyoto, the 'Capital of Peace and Tranquillity'

Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto and a mountain in the background

The most spectacular sight in Kyoto – and the ideal spot from which to begin exploring this ancient city – is Kiyomizu-dera. Founded in AD 778, pilgrims gazed into its sacred gloom and breathed the incense smoke of this Buddhist temple for over 1,000 years.

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Stand on its magnificent balcony to gaze out over the valley in which Emperor Kammu founded his capital in 794. He named it Heian-kyo – ‘Capital of Peace and Tranquillity’ – and it became studded with temples, shrines, gardens and palaces. Later it was known simply as Kyoto – ‘the capital’, as it remained until 1868.

For a glimpse of the city’s earliest days, when ox carts rumbled along tree-lined boulevards, thread your way to Heian Jingu. Built in 1895, the brilliant vermilion buildings and green-tiled roofs of this Shinto shrine are a partial replica of Emperor Kammu’s palace. In spring the gardens, lake and delicate pavilion are swathed in clouds of cherry blossom.

The present Imperial Palace forms the heart of the city. Its austere buildings, walled with wooden screens painted with tigers and leopards, are set in vast grounds covered in raked white gravel.

The shogun's palace is adorned with painted screens, friezes, and ceilings gleaming with gold

In 1603, the shogun (military dictator) Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country under his rule. He moved his government to Edo, now Tokyo, but maintained a magnificent Kyoto pied-à-terre. Nijo Castle was built at the start of the 17th century on the site of Emperor Kammu’s original palace, to underline where real power now lay. Here the shogun lived in lavish luxury while the emperor (in whose name he officially ruled) slipped into obscurity. His palace buildings are adorned with painted screens, friezes, and coffered ceilings gleaming with gold. Ever mindful of treachery, the shogun installed ‘nightingale floors’ that creak under the lightest tread to warn of intruders.

Kyoto remained the country’s cultural heart and the centre for traditional arts. For a sense of the decadent life of court nobles of that era, visit the exquisite buildings and landscaped gardens of the Katsura Rikyu (Imperial Villa), built by minor princes in the early 17th century in the leafy west. There are teahouses, moon-viewing pavilions, a music room and a veranda for watching kemari, the court football game.

But Kyoto was never simply a place for earthly pleasures. One of its most famous Buddhist temples is Daitoku-ji, in the north of the city; four of its 22 sub-temples are open to the public. Of these, Daisen-in’s Zen garden – with its rocks, sand and moss creating a whole universe in a tiny space – is deservedly renowned. Here you can enjoy a tea ceremony or taste vegetarian temple cuisine.

From Daisen-in it’s a short hop to Kinkaku-ji, the exquisite Golden Pavilion. Built in 1394 at the edge of a lily pond as a shogun’s pleasure pavilion, it is covered in gold leaf, with a golden phoenix atop its roof. Later it became a Zen temple. In 1950 it was burned to the ground; the present building is a faithful reconstruction. Nearby is Ryoan-ji, the ultimate Zen garden: 15 rocks in an expanse of immaculately raked sand encapsulating the entire universe.

In old Kyoto the river Kamo marked the boundary between the everyday world of work, family and authority, and the anarchic world of pleasure. To this day the Gion area remains the heart of the geisha district. Gion’s main street, Hanami-koji, is lined with atmospheric old restaurants and teahouses. Visit at 6pm, when lanterns gleam, lights glow behind paper windows, and geisha and maiko (trainee geisha), faces painted white and dressed in colourful kimonos, set off for that evening’s engagements.

Queens of pleasure, the geisha have always been anti-establishment. Some were the lovers of rebels who overthrew the shogunate in the great upheaval ending in 1868, when Kyoto finally ceased to be the capital even in name, and the emperor retook power and moved to Tokyo. Kyoto remains the country’s cultural centre, an incredible repository of traditional treasures and the only Japanese city to be spared American bombs in the Second World War.

Kyoto in nine sites

1: Kiyomizu-dera – Fabulous hilltop Buddhist temple

2: Heian Jingu – Spectacular Shinto shrine, a replica of the original imperial palace built in AD 794

3: Kyoto Imperial Palace – Home of the emperors of Japan for more than a thousand years

4: Nijo Castle – The shogun’s magnificent 17th-century Kyoto pied-à-terre

5: Katsura Rikyu – Princely palace, beautiful gardens, the embodiment of traditional architecture

6: Daitoku-ji – Large walled temple complex with mesmerising Zen gardens

7: Kinkaku-ji – The exquisite Golden Pavilion, epitome of Japanese aestheticism

8: Ryoan-ji – The ultimate Zen garden

9: Gion district and Hanami-koji –Home of the geisha

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Lesley Downer is a journalist and author of Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World (Headline, 2000) and The Shogun’s Queen (Bantam, 2016)