As the ancient and spiritual capital of Japan, Kyoto affords visitors a microcosmic view of the country as a whole. Like hustling, bustling Tokyo, there are parts of the city that resemble any other Japanese metropolis, especially the downtown area, where you will find a throng of huge department stores in the vicinity of Shijo, a congregation of fine hotels around Kyoto Tower, and exciting nightlife and entertainment spots at Pontocho in the Gion district. There is, however, an important historical fact that sets Kyoto apart from other urban centers: It was never bombed during World War II. For this reason, it is possible to wander the older streets of the city and get a good idea of how life used to be in the medieval days of artisans and courtiers, merchants and samurai. You can still find streets lined entirely with wooden buildings, as in the weaving district of Nishijin, for example. Some of these structures are more than 100 years old.
Like other major cities in Japan, central Kyoto is packed with things to do and places to see. Spread across several wards, including Nakagyo-ku, Higashiyama-ku and Shimogyu-ku, visitors can find everything from high-fashion to ancient culture. Two important Buddhist temples, the Nishi Hoganji and Higashi Honganji, are located right near Kyoto Station, while elegant, Japanese style lodgings can be found at Hiiragi-ya. The popular Gion district, Kyoto's most famous Geisha district, is full of shops and restaurants, and is perfect for a stroll, particularly down Hanami-koji street, which is lined with traditional wooden merchant houses. For something more tranquil, the stepped approaches to Kiyomizudera are the ideal place to enjoy the sights and smells of cherry blossom season.
Home of the beautiful and often-photographed Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavillion) temple, Sakyo-ku covers the East and Northeast areas of Kyoto. Largely residential in the South, with strict restrictions placed on the construction of tall buildings, and mountainous in the north, this is a great destination for those that want to escape central Kyoto. The cold months of January and February bring the Setsubun Festival to Yoshida Shrine, while the Honen-in Jodo temple is a perfect place to enjoy the peace and tranquility of this ward all year. Sakyo-ku is also home to Kyoto University.
Full of beautiful scenery and many historical and religious sites, Ukyo-ku covers a large area of Kyoto to the West and Northwest. A few of the prominent sites include Jingo-ji, a Shingon Buddhist temple that dates back to 781, and Tenryu-ji, a temple of the Rinzai sect that is well-known for its dry landscaped gardens. Visitors might also want to stay for lunch at Tenryu-ji Shigetsu, where they can sample the six flavors of Zen vegetarian cooking. For hiking enthusiasts, the Atago Jinja Shrine is located atop the highest point in Kyoto's western mountain range.
Though a mainly residential area, Kita-ku still has a number of things worth seeing, including Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavillion) and the famous Daitoku-ji complex of Zen temples. But if you're visiting Kyoto in April, be sure to visit the Hirano Jinja shrine, famous for its cherry blossoms. Because of its location just north of busy Central Kyoto, seeing this part of the city is an easy and convenient diversion. Before you head back south though, finish off a trip to Kita-ku with an adventurous meal of blowfish at Uotake.