Kyoto See And Do
Tel: 81 75 491 0019
A vast, walled-in Zen temple complex dating to the 16th century. There are about two dozen sub-temples here, and eight of them—and their gardens—are open to the public. You could spend a few hours wandering, and easily believe you've gone back in time. Admission to the complex is free, but each individual temple charges an entrance fee. A few also serve macha, whisked green tea, which you can sip while you sit and quietly contemplate the garden.
Open daily 9 am to 4:30 pm.
Tel: 81 75 771 5725
The Silver Temple is almost as popular as its golden cousin, but many aficionados consider it far superior. Breathtakingly modern though half a millennium old, its sculpted sand garden would transport anyone into a Zen state (if not for the crowds). Ginkaku-ji is along Kyoto's "Philosopher's Path," a pedestrian stroll that follows a cherry tree–shaded canal and leads past a handful of interesting temples and gardens.
Tel: 81 075 352 0211
Sure, Kyoto's temples and shrines are must-sees. But to truly gain an understanding of Japan's history and culture, it's important to graduate from observing to participating. For more than 30 years, the Iori Origin Arts Program has connected Japanese cultural masters with tourists for hands-on classes in traditional arts such as Noh drama, aikido, tea ceremony, calligraphy, and Zen meditation. It's best to arrange for a full-day class, which covers four different arts, often culminating in group performances or parties at the center's Noh theater stage. (Half- and multiday programs are also available.) The Iori staff is also a great resource for more contemporary aspects of Japanese culture. Play your cards right, and they'll give you the inside track on the city's best karaoke megaplexes and whiskey-soaked jazz bars.—Colleen Clark
Tel: 81 075 211 1215
Built in the 17th century for an imperial prince, Katsura Rikyu is widely thought to be one of the best examples of how Japanese residential design masterfully integrates nature with architecture. As you walk through the villa, the views of the garden—which incorporates images from the classic Tale of Genji—change with each step. You must make reservations far in advance through the Imperial Household Agency. Instructions are on the agency's website, though you may ask your travel agent or hotel to handle arrangements for you, or stop by the Imperial Household Agency headquarters in Kyoto (3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto). Childreneven teenagersare not allowed, and tours are only in Japanese, though you can slip on a pair of headphones and listen to a pre-recorded audio tour in English. If you want to understand why traditional Japanese building techniques and aesthetics continue to influence architects and designers worldwide, it's worth the effort.
Tel: 81 075 254 7414
The Kyoto International Manga Museum is one of the few museums in the world where you're encouraged to get up close and handle the exhibits. You'll see locals perusing any of the 50,000 volumes that make up the Wall of Manga, three floors of comics free for the reading. In that way, the museum feels a bit like a library. Exhibits explain the history of the art form (which some say dates back as far as the Heian period, 794-1192), its expression abroad, and its use in animation. Interactive exhibits enable you to mix and match different eyes, noses, and mouths on characters or learn how to paint anime dolls and models. Live performances of manga-related street art feature storytellers that show illustrations in purpose-built frames(translations are provided). In short, the museum is the perfect answer to temple fatigue.—Colleen Clark
Open Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays through Sundays 10 am to 5 pm.
After World War II, most Japanese didn't have baths in their homes, and the neighborhood bathhouse, or sento, served not only as a hygienic necessity but as a social place, where you could soak in the big communal tub and visit with your neighbors. The number of bathhouses has been plummeting, so visit while you still have the chance. It's a unique cultural experience, and a great way to relax. Many have saunas as well. For a small fee, you can buy a towel, soap, and shampoo to wash before you enter the baths—rinse carefully, if any soap gets in the tubs they must be drained and then refilled. And no, they're not coed. Girls go in one entrance, boys in the other. Ask your hotel or inn for directions to the neighborhood sento. Most are open from mid-afternoon until late at night, and all day on Sundays. Entrance is usually around $3. Two of Kyoto's best known are Funaoka Onsen (82-1 Minami-Funaoka-cho, Kuramaguchi-dori, Murasakino, Kita-ku; 81-75-441-3735) and Goko-yu (590-1 Kakimoto-cho, Goji-agaru, Kuromon-dori; 81-75-841-7321).
56 Jingatani-cho, Matsuo
Tel: 81 75 391 3631
Converted into a Zen temple in 1339, Saiho-ji Temple, in the southwestern outskirts of Kyoto, is justly renowned for its large and lush moss garden, which blankets the varied terrain with multihued green and blue fuzz. The effect is beautiful and rather otherworldly. To visit this World Heritage Site, you must reserve ahead of time by snail mail; the process is slightly complicated (you need a Japanese return address), so ask your travel agent or contact the tourist office for help a few weeks before you leave home. Visitors must be over 18. When you do arrive—at the assigned date and time—you'll be required, along with everyone else, to sit and chant sutras or else copy them out with ink and brush before the monks will allow you into the garden. It's all part of the fun.