With its roaring expressways and urban congestion, Kyoto resembles other modern, midsized Japanese cities. But first impressions can’t overshadow the city’s unparalleled cultural and historical legacy. Japan’s capital for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto preserves an overwhelming catalog of treasures: thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, lavish imperial palaces and villas, teahouses and cobbled alleyways in the Gion geisha district, and jewel-like parks and gardens where springtime displays of plum and cherry blossoms and autumn’s vivid foliage enchant ardent admirers. In additional to the many historic structures, dozens of museums display the most refined examples of Japanese art, craft and technical achievement from centuries past.
When you glide in on the shinkansen (Japan's bullet train that's the major mode of transportation within the country), Kyoto may look a lot like any other Japanese metropolis. Get off the train, guidebook in hand, and hop in a taxicab and Kyoto reveals itself as one of the most magical, historical cities not only in Japan, but on the planet.
Kyoto is Japan's ancient capital (its very name means "capital") and home to more temples per square kilometer than any other Japanese city. It's perhaps for that reason that the World War II Allies extended Kyoto the courtesy of not being bombed. As such, throughout Kyoto, Japan's ancient mystery and beauty remains today much as it was half a millenium ago.
Serene, yet breathtaking, spots like Kiro Mizu Deira -- an ornate Shinto temple built on the side of a sweeping cliff -- to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion -- immortalized by Japan's greatest writer, Yukio Mishima, in his story of the same name -- transport Western visitors to worlds they never could have imagined. Few sites in Japan, anywhere, compare to Kyoto's temples.
At the same time, Kyoto hums and buzzes with business and nightlife like any other major Japanese city. If you spent your entire stay in Japan in Kyoto, you could leave feeling you've seen the country.