Kyoto is undeniably Japan’s cultural and historical centre, and it’s the kind of place we most expect when we visit Japan. But if you just treat it like one big Japanese theme park, you might miss the true character of one of the most charming cities in the whole country.
10 Oct 2013 - 1:01 PM  UPDATED 29 Oct 2013 - 2:13 PM

Much of Kyoto’s appeal as a tourist destination is that you get to hit many of the familiar Japanese images and experiences in one very small area. There are kimonos, red parasols, ancient temples, tea ceremonies and geisha – all the kinds of things you might find on Japan tourism posters around the world.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with just whizzing through the tourist trail. I love biking from temple to temple through Arashiyama, and I consider it one of the true highlights of any Japanese holiday. But if you want to truly experience Kyoto’s culture, you have to dig a little deeper, past the pastiche of Japanese clichés that sits on the surface.

A tea ceremony is less about a crowd of people watching a cuppa being made than it is about a unique shared experience between host and guest, created by the host of the tea party as an expression of hospitality, philosophy and art. It’s a truly moving experience that is completely missed by the tea ceremony demonstrations so popular in Kyoto.

As for modern culture, Kyoto is a wonderful city. Rather than racing from sight to sight, try grabbing a packed lunch and sitting by the Kamo River for an hour and watching life in Kyoto pass by.

The city also has an exquisite dining scene. Kyoto has the third most Michelin stars of any city in the world – behind Tokyo and Paris – and the most per capita. To put it in terms relative to Australia, it’s a city roughly the size of Adelaide that has more Michelin stars than New York! If you can't find a life-changing meal in Kyoto, you’re not trying hard enough.

Even the famous “geisha girls” in Kyoto, are not always what they seem. “Geisha”, actually called “geiko” in the dialect spoken in Kyoto are as rare as hen’s teeth. There are less than 100 qualified geisha (or geiko) in all of Japan. Most of the ladies in wigs, makeup and kimonos that you see on the streets of Gion are actually “maiko”’, apprentice geiko, but some are something else altogether.

In my last visit to Kyoto I saw a crowd of tourists lining up to take a photo with a couple of “geisha” in Gion. The strange makeup and polyester kimonos were an immediate giveaway to many, but others were gushing at their luck at the rare occurrence of finding two geisha walking along the street.

They were in fact two students from Taiwan in fancy dress, a common Kyoto holiday activity popular among tourists from Asia, and they were thoroughly enjoying the attention. As a holiday experience it was hilarious, and everyone was having a great time, including me.

The fun and frivolity of an easy holiday in Kyoto is a wonderful thing, but if you take the time dig a little deeper, there’s an even more fascinating story to be told.


Don't miss Destination Flavour Japan's Kyoto episode on Thur 31 Oct, 8pm on SBS ONE.

Watch the latest episode of Destination Flavour Japan