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Described as the cultural heart of Japan, Kyoto is best known for its dizzying array of temples, shrines, gardens and historic buildings. But this city, about a three-hour train ride from Tokyo, has more to offer than just a lesson in Japanese history. Here are some of Forbes Travel Guide editors’ must-sees on your next visit to this culturally rich city:
1. Nishiki Market. Just wandering this narrow shopping street — from Teramachi to Takakura streets in central Kyoto — is an experience. Nishiki Market, which dates back to the early 14th century, boasts more than 120 shops and stalls selling everything from pickled vegetables to fresh fishcake to baby octopus served on skewers. Commonly known as “Kyoto-no-Daidokoro,” or Kyoto’s kitchen, this pedestrian-only market spans five long blocks and is a popular stop for foodies, restaurateurs, residents and visitors. Check out the Aritsugu knife shop, which has dates back to 1560 and sells some of the most exquisite knives around.
2. Pontocho. Flanking the western bank of the Kamo River is Pontocho, a narrow, pedestrian-only walkway where you can still see geishas scurrying down the cobblestones and disappearing into wooden doorways. While many of the restaurants and teahouses are nearly impossible to get into, there are inexpensive yakitori (grilled chicken restaurants) and bars in the area. Go at night, when the street is lit by lanterns; you’ll feel like you’re walking on the set of an old samurai movie.
3. Fushimi Inari Taisha. Located at the base of Mount Inari in southeast Kyoto, this temple lures visitors with its thousands of huge, red torii (Shinto shrine gates) that line a path up the wooded hills above the temple. The walk through these gates is simply mesmerizing. Foxes are often found in Inari shrines and as they have a folklore reputation for bewitching people, superstitious folks tend to avoid this area after sundown.
4. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. This magical bamboo grove is located in western Kyoto and worth a visit. (The walk across the iconic Togetsukyo Bridge over the Oi River — famous for viewing cherry blossoms and autumn leaves — is reason, alone, to head here.) There are pleasure boats, bike trails and walking paths that cut through the thick grove of tall bamboo, which is quite enchanting during a passing breeze.
5. Kinkaku-ji. One of the most recognizable temples in Kyoto is Kinkaku-ji in northwestern Kyoto. This magnificent gold-plated Zen Buddhist temple rises above a reflecting pond and, especially during the autumn months when the trees are orange, red and gold the view is utterly breathtaking.