Once the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, Kyoto is filled with a wealth of cultural treasures – among them 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines. The city's religious landmarks, majestic palaces and Zen gardens, together with geishas in brightly coloured kimonos, are classic images of Japan and part of the city's lasting allure for tourists.
Kyoto is the best place in Japan to experience the shrinking world of the geisha. Meaning ‘practitioner of the arts', geishas spend many years training to sing, dance, play traditional instruments and provide stimulating conversation for affluent men who consider them the epitome of refined beauty. Before the Second World War there were as many as 80,000 geishas in Japan, but today this number is down to a few thousand - identified by their distinctive white make-up and expensive kimonos - the majority of whom live and work in Kyoto, the bastion of the tradition.
The Golden Pavilion
Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is an extravagant building with two tiers covered in gold leaf - hence its name. It was originally built as a retirement villa for a shogun, but he requested that it become a temple in his will. It's a peaceful place, with the reflection of Kinkaku-ji shimmering in the waters of a calm pond that forms part of a classic Japanese garden around the temple.
The wooded hills to the east of Kyoto form the backdrop to the celebrated Kiyomizudera Temple, a Buddhist temple that was founded beside a waterfall that divides into three separate streams. Drinking water directly from the stream is said to have different benefits depending on which stream is chosen: long life, success at school and success in love. A grand wooden stage provides visitors with pretty views across a landscape thick with cherry and maple trees. The area is particularly colourful in the spring and autumn, when the flowers of the trees first blossom, then fade to burnt orange.
Japan's most famous rock garden is housed within the Ryoanji Temple, a Zen temple that was formerly an aristocrat's villa during the Heian period. Fifteen stones laid out in small patches of moss are the focal points, although only 14 are visible at any one time, wherever you view the garden from. The rocks are set within a rectangular space covered with small pebbles. Several walking trails lead around the temple complex, one crossing a bridge to a shrine on an island in a pond.