Kyoto, Japan’s former ancient capital, does not fulfill the cliché of the sprawling concrete jungle that you come to expect from Japanese large cities. The city of 1.5 million has a distinct small-town feel, resulting from the relatively low-rise profile of its structures. Strict building regulations enforces this in order to protect the city’s natural and historic landscapes.
Kyoto’s public image is mostly determined by its numerous historic temple and shrine sites, many of them being located in its forested, green outskirts (see my favs on Google Maps). If you go there early in the morning, sidestepping the flow of tourists, you may experience a bit of the contemplative feel that is often linked to them.
Seeing geisha and cherry blossom, or respectively autumn foliage, are among the most popular activities for tourists. Foliage season is an easy target as it lasts for about 4–6 weeks per region. Provided you narrow down your trip to the main tourist areas around Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima, the second half of November is the best time to catch autumn colors. Check out the comprehensive reports from japan-guide.com for more details.
Seeing geisha and maiko (geisha in training) is a little trickier since they have become a bit of a rarity in recent years. The largest population of them remains in Kyoto’s premier geisha district Gion Kobu. Chances to spot them on the street are best in the early evenings, when they are on their way to dinner appointments with clients. Failing that, you can see them first-hand at public shows such as Gion’s Miyako Odori (dances of the capital) that features more than two dozen of geisha and maiko performing traditional dances and music.
During the day, you will see a large number of fake maiko. Dressing up as a maiko has grown into a popular activity for tourists lately. While true geisha are unlikely to ever stop for you to let you take a shot of them (they are usually on a tight schedule), fake maiko seem to be fairly relaxed about stangers taking their picture.
Of the attractions covered, cherry blossom is the most difficult to catch. The cherry’s petals are so delicate that full bloom hardly lasts for any longer than a full week. Its short existence even earned it a role in Japanese philosophy – as a symbol of the impermanence of life (mono no aware).
Meterological records from recent years suggest that full bloom hits the main tourist areas around Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Tokyo on average at the end of March. In Tokyo, the blooming starts a little earlier on average, so you could just make this your starting point and take a westward route from there. If you like to go a bit more into detail, there are even forecasts on the blossom. The reports from japan-guide.com are worth a look too.■