Kyoto is Japan's Rome: The aesthetic, artistic, and culinary treasures and pleasures of the ancient imperial capital are endless. But while it is filled with centuries-old temples, shops that have existed for generations, and gardens of extraordinary beauty and tranquility, it is also a busy 21st-century city. Preservationists complain about Kyoto's ruination, and many battles have been lost to the forces of modernization—most notably the 16-story Kyoto Hotel Okura, the temple monks protested as it was being constructed (Kawaramachi-Oike, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; 81-75-211-5111; www.kyotohotel.co.jp). But Kyoto remains a repository of the old way of Japan, and an essential place to experience the soul of Japanese culture.
Lay of the land: Many of the best temples and gardens are within walking distance of one another in the foothills of Higashiyama, or East Mountain, and in the Arashiyama district. Much of the best shopping, likewise, is in and around the Gion district and just west, on the other side of the river, near the Shijo/Kawaramachi intersection in center city. You can take a taxi or public transportation to your starting point, then walk around for the rest of the day. There are good restaurants, cafés, and coffee shops literally everywhere in Kyoto, so you'll never go hungry.
WHEN TO GO
While Kyoto is lovely any time of the year, summers can be hot and humid. And though the snow falling gently on a Zen rock garden may take your breath away, a cold winter's day is no time to be padding around unheated, drafty temples in your stocking feet. Stick to fall and spring, but avoid Japanese national holidays and the peak viewing seasons for maple leaves (fall) and cherry blossoms (spring)—the crowds are impenetrable. It's a good idea to carry an umbrella 12 months of the year.
HOW TO GET THERE
Almost everyone arrives in Kyoto (usually from Tokyo, in about three hours) by Japan's famous shinkansen bullet train, which stops right in the heart of town. The closest major airport is Kansai International in Osaka (www.kansai-airport.or.jp/en). From there, a special airport express train makes the trip to Kyoto Station in about an hour and 15 minutes.
Ringed by lush, low mountains, central Kyoto, which was modeled on a Chinese imperial city, is laid out on a grid pattern that's easy to decipher. Note that Japanese addresses are exceedingly complex, including the building's name and number, the block number, the city district (machi or cho), ward (ku), the city (shi) or regional district (gun), the prefecture (todofuken), and the postal code. Thankfully, most businesses hand out little maps that you can show to your taxi driver. Cabs in Kyoto are easily available but very expensive; public transportation is clean, safe, and reliable. Don't even think of renting a car.
The Kyoto Tourist Information Center, located in the Kyoto Station complex, is a good resource for everything you'll want to know in Kyoto (9th fl.; Shiokoji-sagaru, Karasuma-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto; 81-75-344-3300). The Japan National Tourist Organization has a very useful and comprehensive website at www.jnto.go.jp. There are many general Kyoto guidebooks to choose from, some of which, including Lonely Planet ($17), outline walking tours to help organize your time. Diane Durston's specialty guide, Old Kyoto (Kodansha; $22), is pretty much indispensable, and has recently been updated. Two other excellent books are A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto, by Treib and Herman (Kodansha; $22) and Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide, by Gouverneur Mosher (out of print).View Japan Factsheet