48 Hours In: Kyoto

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The Independent Travel

Thanks to the debate on global warming, we're all familiar with the name Kyoto. But what's the city beneath the hot air actually like? Beautiful, says Derek Guthrie

Japan's ancient capital was spared intensive American bombing in the Second World War, so the original grid system of the old city largely remains, with narrow little streets lined by old wooden homes - plus some of the country's most dazzling temples.

TOUCH DOWN

Kyoto is best served by Osaka's Kansai Airport, Italian architect Renzo Piano's model of modernity and beautiful efficiency. You can fly non-stop from Heathrow with Japan Airlines (08457 747 700; www.jal-europe.com), or connect in a city such as Vienna, Hong Kong, Seoul or Dubai. The latter route is served from Birmingham, Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Glasgow by Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com). Return fares for the summer start at below £600. Direct trains run from the airport to Kyoto every half hour, taking 70 minutes for a fare of 3,490 Yen (£17.50).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

You can't miss Kyoto Station (1), 16 floors of shimmering glass and endless escalators. On the second floor is the city tourist office (00 81 75 343 6655), open 8.30am-7pm daily. The best website is the excellent, free, English-language Kyoto Visitors Guide ( www.kyotoguide.com).

On the ninth floor of the station is the regional tourist office, equally helpful for trips out of town plus the cheapest internet café in Kyoto. You can visit the top floor free: reach it by a series of outdoor escalators for a 360-degree cityscape. Kyoto's subway is simple and the buses are cheap - board by the back door and leave by the front. A Y1,200 (£6) day pass covers both services. Bike hire is plentiful and starts at Y1,000 (£5) a day.

CHECK IN

Inside Kyoto Station (1), Hotel Granvia (00 81 75 344 8888; www.granvia-kyoto.co.jp) is clean and comfortable with double rooms starting at around Y20,000 (£100). But make sure you spend at least one night in a ryokan, a traditional inn with tatami-mat floors, paper doors, wooden walls and cedar wood baths. Two of Japan's top ryokans happen to face each other over the same street, Fuyacho Street: the Hiiragaya (2) (00 81 75 221 1136; www.hiiragiya.co.jp) and the Tawaraya (3) (00 81 75 211 5566). Double rooms at both places start at Y70,000 (£350) including dinner and breakfast.

A cheaper option is the Three Sisters (00 81 75 761 6336) beside the Heian Shrine (4); doubles from Y11,270 (£56) including breakfast.

A WALK IN THE PARK

The Imperial Palace Park is a delight, is free to enter and has a carp-filled lake at the southern end. The present Palace dates from 1855. Daily guided tours in English take place at 10am and 2pm, Monday-Friday, and 10am on the third Saturday of every month. To join one, take your passport and fill out a simple form at the Imperial Household Agency (5) (00 81 75 602 8611; open 8.45am-4pm). Generally, access is granted the same day, and foreigners are given priority.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Nishiki-Koji Food Market (6) displays all the seasonality and freshness of the Japanese menu with the added bonus of a Kyoto speciality: pickled vegetables. There are lots of handy little places serving noodle, tempura (lightly battered, deep-fried vegetables and fish), and yakitori (skewers of chicken) to buy and eat as you go. Ordering is simple - most have pictures or plastic models of the dishes in the window: just point and order. Every day 10am-7pm.

WINDOW SHOPPING

The city's other covered markets surround Nishiki-Koji. Kyoto is an excellent place to dabble in the retail frenzy that characterises Japan: the Teramachi and Sanjo shopping arcades (7) sell everything from kimonos and handmade papers to the tempting Y100 (50p) shop for homewares.

AN APERITIF

In summer, beer gardens open around town in a variety of places, normally with a view. The easiest to find is on the roof of the Kyoto Tower Hotel (8). To try sake go to Bar Yoramu (9) on Nijo Dori, east of Higashi-no-toin, where the English-speaking owner will explain the subtleties of rice wine, from fruity to dry, old to new. Three glasses cost Y900 (£4.50).

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

The nightlife hub is Gion, but a more interesting experience is the narrow riverside thoroughfare Pontocho-dori (10), where hundreds of little restaurants vie for business. You might glimpse geisha girls (of which there are very few left) or their apprentices, the maiko, tiptoeing to their next assignment, entertaining rich businessmen with tea, songs and musical dexterity. Try Umi (11), which means "sea" (00 81 75 213 1860); it has an incredible range of sake, fresh fish and a lively atmosphere.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Shinto and Buddhism co-exist in Japan, and there is no shortage of temples and shrines dedicated to both. Unesco has declared 17 of these as World Heritage Sites - the highest concentration in the world. Bus 26 from Kyoto Station will take you to Ninna-ji Temple (12) (00 81 75 461 1155) in the suburbs, dating from 888. Only a few of the 60 buildings survive, but these include tea houses, a pagoda, plus the Omura cherry trees - beautiful at any time of year, not just the cherry "season" in April. It opens 9am-5pm daily, admission Y500 (£2.50). Nearby is the shimmering Golden Pavilion, covered in gold leaf; open 9am-5pm daily, admission Y500 (£2.50). Other temples are open every day with small entrance fees.

OUT TO BRUNCH

You're in Japan; take tea. At the junction of Horikawa and Imadagewa streets (13) is Tsuruya-Yoshinobu's handmade sweet shop (00 81 75 441 0105) where the red-bean paste confectionery blends beautifully with the bitterness of frothy green tea; Y700/£3.50.

Adjacent is the Nishijin-Ori Industrial Association (00 81 75 432 6131) where you can see kimonos being made on traditional hand-looms, with a free fashion show every few hours. Both open daily.

TAKE A HIKE

The Path of Philosophy (14) is a rewarding 2km canalside walk, from the imposing Buddhist temple architecture of Nanzen-ji to the profound simplicty of Zen at Ginkaku-ji, via teashops and beautiful countryside. It is named after Nishida Kitaro, a modern philosopher who used the route to contemplate while walking to work at Kyoto University.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, an eccentric but entertaining local tour guide named Johnny Hillwalker (his real name is Hiroka Hajime) offers a 3km walking exploration of backstreets and temples. The tour, at 10am from the station (1); Y2,000/£10, cash only.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Kyoto was once the so-called "Hollywood of Japan", and the film industry is honoured in the Museum of Kyoto (15), (Takakura-Dori 00 81 75 222 0888). The collection also includes model cities, recreated shops, Japanese crafts and art. It opens 10am-8.30pm daily, admission Y500 (£2.50).

WRITE A POSTCARD

The museum shop (15) is run by Benrido, who makes and sells beautiful cards. Around the corner is Café Lulu (16) Rokkaku/Tominokoji (00 81 75 211 1575), where you can write the card over a drink and then check your e-mail for free if you order a sandwich.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Missing home? Visit Miss Daisy (17) on Fuyacho Street (00 81 75 212 0151), an English tearoom where Yoshido Chicage has imported from Okehampton the perfect Devon cream tea (Y900/£4.50), complete with drop scones, plus delicacies such as flapjack and shortbread. Open 11am-8pm daily.

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