Kyoto - The Heart of Japan

There it was again. A streak of colour and a scurry in the tiny alleyway up ahead. I crept forward, treading lightly past wooden facades and unmarked doors, careful not to knock the red lanterns that cast an atmospheric glow across the cobbled path. A sharp turn to the left, and there she is: a geisha.  A quick glance over her shoulder, her white made-up face contrasting with the elaborate design of her kimono - and she's gone.

While we all know that geishas' inherent beauty, grace and charm have been admired for centuries, the same could be said of Kyoto. Like waiting for a glimpse of a shy nocturnal creature, you can wait all day for the city to reveal its secrets, and just as you're about to give up in favour of fast food and a night at karaoke, Kyoto's discrete world will reveal itself.

Unveiling Kyoto's secrets 

From the pebbled Zen gardens to a temple full of chanting monks, or noticing that the garden of Ginkakuji Temple was designed to appreciate the moonlight - once you find one pocket of beauty, you'll want to do it again.

Kyoto is centre stage for Japan's traditional culture, and where much of Japanese history was played out. The Japanese refer to Kyoto as 'the heart of Japan,' a sentiment evident by the high school students on a pilgrimage to learn about the city that was the nation's capital for over a thousand years. Needless to say, it should rank near the top of any Japan itinerary.

 That said, first impressions could be a little disappointing. Stepping into the controversial Kyoto Station for the first time, beneath the futuristic, steel beamed roof known as the Matrix, you'd be forgiven for thinking someone has been playing an elaborate tourist joke.

It doesn't become any clearer when your taxi arrives with a neon flashing heart on top that would suggest it's for driving Hello Kitty home, but stay patient. When the taxi stops and you're told to head down a small, nondescript street to your hotel, rest assured the Kyoto you're looking for awaits. 

Settle into a Ryokan

Synonymous with any trip to Kyoto is a stay in a traditional Japanese inn, known as a ryokan. Typically, a ryokan will feature a futon on top of the straw-matted flooring, communal baths, and following your bath (not obligatory although you really should), all eating and interaction with the owner and other guests are done wearing the provided slippers and yukata dressing robe.

Food served in a ryokan will be traditional Japanese kaiseki cuisine: a meal of small, varied dishes, and depending on the time of year will feature seasonal or regional specialities.

It may be around this time you realise you're adapting to the Kyoto way. Tip-toeing around in your robe, aware of the other guests' needs to share facilities, respecting the ryokan owner, and harmonising your whole being to the daily house routine. A trip to Kyoto is no longer about you - you're trying to tune in not stand out.

Tuning into tradition

Senses awoken, you're ready to explore. Leaving the ryokan you can’t go wrong by wandering the myriad streets. It's during such unscheduled walks that you're likely to pass Kyoto's artisans, and family businesses that have passed their trades through generations.

Look out for what may be a kimono fabric maker riding by on his bike, an elderly lady who has been making tofu the way her grandmother showed her, or the young men keeping the rickshaw tradition alive by pulling giggling tourists between sights.

There are five traditional entertainment districts in Kyoto. The most famous is the Glon district, although Pontocho and Kamishichiken districts are also good for teahouses, theatres and restaurants where geisha entertain. The streets here are lined with wooden two-storey buildings with reed screens in the windows to ensure the privacy of guests, and have remained this way since the 16th century. 

Just relax

There are thousands of historical temples and shrines in Kyoto, each built in harmony with the natural environment. Most temples you'll discover are purposely designed to draw the attention to the seasons, from the bright reds of the maple leaves in autumn to the delicate cherry blossoms in spring.

Although more elaborate than most, nothing exemplifies this more than Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion), a three-storey building of which the upper two are completely covered in gleaming gold leaf.

In north-west Kyoto, you can contemplate nature at Ryoan-ji (The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon), Japan's - if not the world's - most famous Zen garden.

Whether your time spent at the Zen garden will result in enlightened thinking remains to be seen, but bear in mind that, like Kyoto, a Japanese garden is a collection of subtleties and symbolic elements. More simply, showing less is showing more. The closer you look, the more there is to see - and if you look for the clues, you might catch that geisha after all.

Onsen etiquette

Being a volcanic country, Japan is home to thousands of onsens (natural hot springs). They come in various forms: indoor and outdoor, gender separated and mixed; some are multi-floored centres with saunas, restaurants and massage rooms, others can be a simple wooden tub.

Beyond the initial embarrassment of getting naked with strangers, an hour in an onsen is a hugely pleasurable experience. Not only is onsen water believed to have healing powers thanks to its mineral content, the Japanese talk of the virtues of "naked communion" for breaking down barriers and getting to know each other.

Take off all your clothes before entering the onsen area, then sit on a small bucket to wash and rinse your body entirely. Entering without cleansing first would be a huge faux pas.  Once clean you can soak in the onsen, moving between the various baths.

Geisha girls

Known as the 'flowers of the willow world', geishas are an enduring symbol of Japan. The word means 'performing artist', and although often miscounstructed geisha are simply female entertainers trained to perform traditional arts such as classical music and dance.

Numbers are in decline but Kyoto's geisha are still considered the elite of a strictly hierachical ranking. Even in the city's five geisha districts, the Gion district has long retained the highest reputation for geisha.

Wander among the tea shops here in early evening and you are likely to catch a geisha or maiko (geisha in training) walking between engagements, but getting more than a glimpse will be unlikely: Gion's geisha tend to entertain only politicians and businessmen, through personal introductions.

For a more tourist-friendly look at the world of geisha, head to Gion Corner, an art centre at Hanami-koji, where there are daily performances of a tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging), kyogen (traditional comic plays) and dances by maiko.

Five foods to try in Kyoto

Okononiyaki - A pan-fried dish particularly popular in the west of Japan. Meaning "to one's liking", simply chooose your favourite ingredients from octopus, pork, potatoes, kimichi or vegetables, throw some noodles into the batter, and cook on the grill in front of you. A must try!

Tako-yaki - A great street-side snack popular in eastern Japan, these octopus balls are baked in a soft batter, topped with a dipping sauce, bonito flakes and mayonnaise, then eaten with a cocktail stick.

Ramen - Japan's premier fast food has regional differences notable to the soup: toppings, noodle thickness and hardness, even the water. Kyoto's noodles have a strong soup, thick 'soft' noodles, and pork slices.

Dango - A traditional savoury snack of four or five small, coloured dumplings made from rice flour and toasted on a skewer with soy sauce. Kids and the older generations love them.

Yatsuhashi - A soft rice flour parcel folded to resemble triangular ravioli, filled with sweet flavours such as mango, blueberry, or the acquired taste of azuki bean paste. A popular confectionary for Japanese tourists to take back home for colleagues or friends.