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Why Winter Is the Perfect Time to Visit Kyoto

Japan's former imperial capital resounds with a sense of tradition—especially in wintertime, when colors are muted and branches are weighted with snow. Don't be deceived, writes PICO LYER . Behind the historic façade lies a vibrant, beguiling modern city. Photographed by CHRISTOPHER KUCWAY.

Published on Jan 4, 2018


WHEN I MOVED TO KYOTO from New York 30 years ago, I knew something of what awaited me: Silent, snowbound statues around the city's 1,600 Buddhist temples, blond-wood plaques offering prayers in its 400 Shinto shrines. The suggestive magic of high shoes clacking down narrow lanes in the geisha district. Archers demonstrating their skill in the 400-year-old competition held at Sanjusangen-do, or the Temple of 1,001 Goddesses, each January. Everywhere, a refinement developed over the 10 centuries Kyoto was home to the Japanese court.

An apprentice geiko, or maiko
An apprentice geiko, or maiko, normally undergoes a year's training before becoming a geiko. In Kyoto, maiko start their apprenticeship as early as 15 years old, studying in the morning and performing traditional music and dance at night.

What I didn't expect was an ancient capital seasoned and savvy enough to keep itself constantly new. Since my arrival, temples have begun opening their gates after nightfall for "Light-Up" displays that project holograms across white raked-sand gardens. I glimpse more kimonos amid ever-more fashionable old wooden houses. The Super Mario Brothers were born in Kyoto, as was the bard of global suburbia, Haruki Murakami. There's an International Manga Museum four blocks away from the former Imperial Palace.

What remains unique about this city of students and master craftspeople is its ability to take in every cutting-edge trend, together with 50 million visitors a year, while always remaining itself, a portfolio of exquisite details. As I walk down one of the central shopping arcades, a clatter of pachinko parlors and fast-food outlets and dyed-blond girls in heels, signs remind me that there are still seven temples and a shrine along its 500-meter expanse.

Autumn has always been the best season for visiting, because the skies are cloudless and sharp, and the rusting leaves offer symphonies of perfectly choreographed color. Winter only deepens that classically Japanese mix of poignancy and beauty. One recent afternoon, I saw a sign in Kyoto that announced, not untypically, NOSTALGIA, BUT NEW, KYOTO WESTERN. Ah, I thought: 1,223 years old and forever young.

Autumn splashes
Autumn splashes its colors across the grounds of the former Imperial Palace, making it a perfect spot for strolling or cycling.


Kyoto's Kitchen   Manicured pine trees
Nishiki Market is also known as "Kyoto's Kitchen," and with good reason. More than 100 shops specialize in all manner of food, such as the pickled vegetables shown here.   Manicured pine trees, often called "tortured pines," around temples and castles are pruned constantly by gardeners to achieve a certain shape.


Outside Kiyomizudera Temple
Outside Kiyomizudera Temple, 13 meters above the forest floor, a group of schoolboys scans the surrounding forest of cherry and maple trees.





Fly to either Osaka or Tokyo, where there is regular rail service to Kyoto. The Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo takes about 2½ hours.

Four Seasons Centered around an 800-year-old ikeniwa (pond garden), the property is a tranquil oasis, with 123 light-filled guest rooms and suites, a teahouse and a large spa.; doubles from from ¥72,900.

A restored, century-old riverside villa in Arashiyama with woodblock-print designs, shoji sliding doors and tatami mats. Guests can see cherry blossoms from their rooms.; doubles from ¥139,396.
The Ritz-Carlton A luxury property known for its standout service and sleek rooms; request one with a river view.; doubles from ¥76,734.
Tawaraya This is arguably the best ryokan in Kyoto (if not all of Japan). The traditional rooms overlook private gardens; kaiseki dinners are served en suite. 278 Nakahakusancho; +81 75 211 5566; doubles from ¥84,525, including dinner.

Zen rock gardens
Kyoto's immaculately kept Zen rock gardens create a miniature stylized landscape, one that is meant to aid meditation about the true meaning of life.


Honke Owariya Head here for some of the finest soba noodles in town. They are made of buckwheat flour from Hokkaido and boiled to order before being placed in a tasty broth made with dried seaweed.; mains ¥800–¥3,000.
If you're looking for a quality steak, this restaurant specializes in high-grade Ohmi beef. The cuts are so tender, you won't even need a knife. 105 Nakajimacho; +81 75 241 4358; mains ¥8,500–¥11,000.
A trip to Japan wouldn't be complete without a visit to a sake bar. This one, located on Nijo Dori, is intimate (the bar seats up to nine people) and has an extensive list.

Fushimi Inari Shrine The thousands of torii at this Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto are painted bright vermillion, said to protect against evil forces.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
A 15-minute train ride away, this 500-meter path makes a tranquil day trip. Arashiyama Higashi-Ichikawa-Cho; +81 75 222 4130.


Arashiyama's bamboo grove   Fushimi Inari Shrine
Amid the solitude of Arashiyama's bamboo grove, on the western outskirts of Kyoto next to the Oi River. Early in the morning, the only sound is the wind rustling through the bamboo.   Fushimi Inari Shrine is known for its extended red torii gates, upwards of 10,000 in total, that lead to the outer shrine at the base of the mountain.

an obi
The hand-made detailing on an obi, or sash, is as stylish as the entire robe itself. A pattern with butterflies or cherry blossoms is worn in the spring.



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Fushimi Inari Shrine is known for its extended red torii gates, upwards of 10,000 in total, that lead to the outer shrine at the base of the mountain.
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