The best of Kyoto

The one-time Japanese capital - it was the seat of government from the ninth to the 19th century - draws huge numbers of foreign tourists every year.

The one-time Japanese capital - it was the seat of government from the ninth to the 19th century - draws huge numbers of foreign tourists every year.

Yet what the brochures don't tell you is that much of antique Kyoto has been devastated by bad planning or is hidden behind veils of secrecy. The best traditional inns (ryokans) and restaurants frequently refuse to serve foreigners and the city has recently closed its only tourist office. Don't let this put you off. Kyoto is incredibly rewarding, but you'll need to persevere to unlock its secrets.

Best hotel

Every visit should include a stay in a ryokan. One of the finest is the elegant Hiiragiya Ryokan, Anekouji agaru, Fuyamachi (00 81 75 221 1136; www.hiiragiya.co.jp). Hiiragiya's 33 tatami-mat rooms, complete with paper latticework, lacquered furnishings and comfy futons, are set amid serene gardens in an original 19th-century wooden building. There are en-suite facilities, a communal same-sex ofuro (hot bath) and the per-person rate, 30,000-60,000 yen (£150-£300), includes two kaiseki meals (Japanese haute cuisine). The excellent and cheaper Motonago Ryokan, 511 Washio-cho, Kodaiji-michi (00 81 75 605 0072; www.japaneseguesthouses.com) charges Y10,000-Y20,000 per person (£50-£100). For Western-style accommodation, Kyoto's top ranked hotel, the Westin Miyako, Sanjo, Keage (0081 75 771 7111 www.westinmiyako-kyoto.com), offers doubles from Y26,500 (£133).

Best restaurant

Kyoto is famed for its kyo-ryori kaiseki dining. Nishisaka, Gion Hanami Komichi, (00 81 75 533 2433) serves superb kyo-ryori - several courses of soup, tempura, fish and tofu - Y4,000-Y9,000 (£20-£45) per head. Another version of kaiseki is shojin-ryori (temple food). You'll find the best in the calming environs of Chosho-in, a sub-temple of the great Zen Buddhist Nanzen-ji temple ( www.nanzenji.com). A set lunch of tofu, fu (wheat gluten) and mushrooms is Y3,000 (£15).

The Ponto-cho entertainment district is where you'll find dozens of cheap noodle bars and izakayas (pubs with food). There are two Y120 (60p) per plate kaiten (conveyor-belt) sushi bars at the junction of Kawaramachi-dori and Sanjo-dori.

Best cultural attraction

Kyoto is the crucible of many of Japan's traditional arts - there's no better place to sample the refined culture of kabuki (theatre) and the geisha (performer). The Gion district is the home of Minami-za (00 81 75 561 1155), Japan's oldest kabuki theatre.

The atmospheric back streets of Gion are where you're likely to see geishas and maikos (apprentice geishas). Kyoto Sights and Nights (00 81 90 5169 1654 www.kyotosightsandnights.com) can arrange private engagements with geishas or maikos for Y20,000 (£100).

Best shopping

The main shopping precinct is found at the junction of Shijo-dori and Kawaramachi-dori. There are dozens of craft shops just west of the river on nearby Sanjo-dori. In east Kyoto, pottery and antiques are sold in the lanes leading up to Kiyomizu-dera temple. Kyoto specialities are lacquerware, silk brocades, pottery, hair ornaments and bamboo utensils.

Best sightseeing

Start in Kyoto's heart at the Imperial Park (open daily, dawn to dusk, free) where there are perfect expansive lawns and the austere Imperial Palace (tours only, 10am and 2pm, Monday-Friday, free, bring ID to apply for permission before entry). Nearby is the more impressive Nijo-jo castle (daily, 9am-5pm, Y600/£3), the opulent home of Shogun Ieyasu. Head east for the celebrated sand gardens of the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuju Temple) (daily, 9am-4.30pm, Y500/£2.50) then follow the Path of Philosophy to the Zen gardens of Nanzen-ji temple (daily, 8.30am-4.30am, Y500/£2.50). Take the tracks at the back of Nanzen-ji into tranquil forests filled with Shinto and Buddhist shrines.

Further south is the awe-inspiring Sanjusangen-do (daily, 9.30am-5pm, Y420/£2) filled with 1,001 gilded statues of the 1,000-armed Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon. The shimmering Golden Temple (daily, 9am-5pm, Y400/£2) is in the north-west and, nearby, the Daitoku-ji temple complex houses the famous Zen stone gardens of Daisen-in (daily, 9am-4pm, Y400/£2).

Best nightspot

The Gion and Pontocho districts are stuffed with bars and clubs. But in traditional izakayas, foreigners are often greeted with suspicion and may not get served. The less traditional haunts are more welcoming. Just north of Sanjo-dori is the pan-Asian Katsuryoku-ya isakaya - great for nibbles and a beer. An alternative is 1950s-inspired Kentos, Hitosujime nishi-iru, and for British beer there's the Pig and Whistle, 115 Ohasi-cho.

Best way to get there

Finnair (0870 241 4411; www.finnair.co.uk) flies three times a week from Manchester and London Heathrow via Helsinki to Osaka, 60 miles south-west of Kyoto. Return fares from £600 until 30 May. JAL, Japan Airlines, (08457 747 700; www.jal.com) also flies from Heathrow to Osaka.

There are direct trains, Y3,500 (£17.50) for a 75-minute journey, and two shared limo-van services which take you anywhere in Kyoto for Y3,000 (£15), a two-hour journey. Japanese National Tourist Organisation (020-7734 9638; www.seejapan.co.uk).

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