If you had to pick one place to visit in Japan, make Kyoto your choice. The city is the heart and soul of Japanese culture, art, traditions and civilization. Kyoto has well over one quarter of all the national treasures of Japan, over 2,000 temples and shrines, world-class museums, exceptional architecture (ancient and contemporary), and vibrant quarters offering great shopping, dining, and entertainment. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years, and in many ways the rest of Japan still thinks as Kyoto as the center of the Japanese world -- not Tokyo.
You need at least three days in Kyoto, just to cover the high points. The city is very spread out, and you need to carefully plan your itinerary. I traveled with Into Japan, our destination specialist in the country, to make the best use of my limited time, and also to make possible unique experiences I could not have created on my own. Into Japan provided excellent guides when I needed them, then left me on my own to see places that are easier to navigate. Into Japan told me when to visit which temple/site and in which order, how to avoid crowds, and where to shoot the best photos. My guide also knew the ins and outs of each place, the secret shortcuts, where to get the best vantage points, and of course, provide the commentary to help me interpret each place and get the most out of each visit.
Temples: You can only see so many temples, so here are 3 suggestions: First, Sanjusangen-do. This temple, almost 900 years old, surprises you by its sheer size. The main hall is 400 feet long, and divided into 33 bays (*san ju san in Japanese, hence the name) to represent the 33 times the Kannon, goddess of mercy, changed to rescue mankind. The second surprise is seeing the 1,001 life-sized statues of Kannon facing you. It is said that 80 artists worked for a century to create all the statues, and when you see this site, you believe it. Go early in the morning as the temple gets crowded. Also, the morning is the best chance to see a Buddhist monk chant prayers in front of the main statue, which is very moving. My second choice is Daitoku-Ji, an immense enclosure housing 22 separate buildings, 4 open to the public. Most tourists skip this site, which makes the place even more interesting. Do not miss the Ryogen-in (abbot's living quarters) and the Daisen-in, strikingly beautiful. My third choice, for the temple, walk, and views, is Kiyomizu-Dera temple, a series of 7 pavilions built on a hill with the best view of Kyoto. The temple is notable also for its Otawa waterfall, which is holy to believers. Do not miss the huge terrace, overlooking the city and the mountains.
Shrines and special sites: My favorite shrine is Fushimi Inari, Southeast of the city. The shrine is built on the side of a hill, with a path winding its way through 2 miles of hundreds of bright red torii gates. Japanese have been worshipping here since the 700s, so the site welcomes hundreds of pilgrims daily. Another must-see site, symbol of the city, is the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the most photographed places in the country. The Golden Pavilion is set in a stunning garden, and the original was built around 1400. The pavilion you see now is an exact copy of the original, which unfortunately was burned down by a deranged monk in the 1950s.
Gardens: Kyoto has many wonderful gardens: Moss gardens, Landscaped gardens, flower gardens, and -unique to Japan- 'dry gardens', or gardens with only rocks and gravel. The most famous 'dry garden', by a mile, is Ryoan-ji, next to the temple of the Peaceful Dragon. The garden was created about 600 years ago and is about 80ft X 33ft. It is the ultimate 'zen' garden, so the purpose of the garden is to make you think and contemplate. The raked gravel suggests the sea, where 15 rocks 'float' in various clusters.
A very special place: If your clients have time, have Into Japan arrange a visit to the Katsura Villa. You need to apply for a permit in advance to gain access. The villa goes back over 300 years, is a series of pavilions scattered around a beautiful garden. The minimalist architecture belonged to the royal household, and have had enormous influence on all modern architects from the 1940s to today. All modern Japanese architecture (and much of the world's) quotes elements from Katsura.
Day trip: The other 'must' during your visit to Kyoto is to visit Nara, Japan's first capital, which is about 40minutes away by train. Nara is much smaller than Kyoto, and moves at a slower pace. Do not miss the Todai-ji, the building that houses an enormous Buddha statue, housed within the biggest building made of wood in the world. The proportions are enormous, and the site is magnificent. My other recommendation is the Kasuga Taisha shrine, at the foot of two sacred mountains,
Unique experience: Into Japan arranged for me to meet one of the leading experts on Japanese architecture and design. I spent the day with this acclaimed architect ,which was by far the highlight of Kyoto for me.
Walks: Take time to visit the Gion district, especially 6-8pm, so you can catch glimpses of geishas going to work, all dressed up. The other great neighborhood is the Pontocho area. If you have time, walk all or part of the 'Philosopher's Path' in the Eastern end of Kyoto.