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The inside guide to Kyoto's quieter side, from teahouses to temples

Big-hitting sights are easy to find in the Japanese city, but there’s also a quieter side: one of peaceful gardens, chilled jazz bars and serene temples.

By Annabelle Thorpe
Published 21 Jun 2021, 08:06 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 09:53 BST
After a long day of soaking up the city's culture, Kyoto offers many relaxing teahouses to unwind ...

After a long day of soaking up the city's culture, Kyoto offers many relaxing teahouses to unwind in. When night falls, expect jazz bars rather than throbbing clubs, with counters stacked with vinyls and bars brimming with spectacular whiskies. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Few Japanese cities can rival Kyoto for its beguiling mix of experiences, from its manga museums and traditional workshops to Buddhist temples and blossom trees. The real joy, though, is in its many quiet corners. Even at its busiest, Kyoto has no shortage of relaxing teahouses and tranquil Shinto shrines to discover — well-kept secrets where you’ll find the city’s soul.

Most visitors head straight for the historic district of Gion. Go on a weekday, when it’s quieter, and stroll along the cherry tree-lined canal on Kiyamachidori or the bar-lined Pontocho Alley which comes alive at night, but slumbers by day. Many of the neighbourhood’s machiya (traditional townhouses) are now cafes and restaurants; stop off at Ramen Muraji for a bowl of steaming noodles topped with chicken and egg.

From Gion, it’s an easy walk to the Higashiyama district, where the streets are littered with temples and historic buildings. Avoid the crowds at the famous Nanzen-ji temple and, instead, head around the corner to Honenin, a Buddhist temple with a shimmering carp pond and intricately designed garden. Art-lovers should visit Kenninji, thought to be the city’s oldest Zen temple, whose internal walls are covered with landscape paintings. If the area starts to feel too busy, hop on a bus to the Imperial Palace Park, where jade-green pines and maples form a peaceful, shady canopy.  

For a better understanding of local culture and traditions, dip into the Museum of Kyoto. As well as an annex that’s a former Bank of Japan building, it features subtitled films about the city and reconstructed Edo-period cafes and shops. Manga-lovers should head to the Kyoto International Manga Museum, which has a collection of more than 300,000 items and a portrait corner, where visitors can have their likeness drawn by a manga artist. If you want to get hands-on, the Kyoto Handicraft Center  offers English-speaking classes in everything from woodblock-printing to silk-weaving, plus six floors of craftworks to explore. 

After all that culture, unwind in one of the city’s many teahouses. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Maruyama Park, Sakamaruyama is a traditional teahouse where guests can choose both the tea and the pot. To discover more about the history of Japanese tea, head to Ippodo Tea, a shop, cafe and tasting bar run by the Watanabe family since 1717.

When night falls, expect jazz bars rather than throbbing clubs. Many visitors head to the bars in Gion’s Pontocho Alley, but for something more authentic, drop into Jazz in Rokudenashi where the counters are stacked with vinyls and the bar with a spectacular collection of whiskies. Alternatively, make your way to Jazz Spot Yamatoya, in Sakyo, where the bartender will play your choice of track from the thousands of albums that clutter the bar. 

Alongside tea and temples, Kyoto is also famous for its traditional culinary offerings, from obanzai (home-style dishes) to kaiseki (multi-course haute cuisine). At Oryori Menami, obanzai dishes come in tapas-style portions, with options such as braised oxtail and zingy aubergine salad. Hafuu, meanwhile, serves up some of the best Wagyu beef in the city. But for the ultimate culinary treat, book a table at three-Michelin-star Kikunoi Honten, where chef Yoshihiro Murata serves exquisite feasts that are as much about the art of presentation as the flavours themselves. 

For a glimpse of Kyoto at its most gracious, take the subway to the Arashiyama district, on the city’s outskirts. Most visitors head straight for the bamboo grove, but the nearby Okochi Sanso — a spectacular villa and garden, once owned by the late actor Okochi Denjiro — is a better choice. The swathes of cherry trees, azaleas, maples and pines are the stars of the show. 

Three of Saki Yamada’s favourite green spaces

Saki is the director of heritage and garden artistry at Ueyakato Landscape

1. Murin-An

Located in the Okazaki district, this is a masterpiece of modern Japanese garden design. The promenade, forest and three-stage waterfall open up to wonderful views of the Higashiyama mountains.

2. Nanzen-In

Don’t miss this quiet corner in the busy, historic Nanzen-ji temple complex. A mystical-feeling garden, It’s surrounded by woodland and dates back to the 13th century.

3. Chishaku-In

This scenic temple garden is at its most beautiful in late spring, when the rhododendrons blaze pink and purple. Don’t miss the rock garden, a classic example of Japanese design.

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Published in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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