Land of the Rising Sun



OPENING SPREAD: Geisha walking amongst the cherry blossoms of Kyoto. BELOW: The famous red-orange gates of the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine. OPPOSITE FROM LEFT: The Japanese symbol of spring, the sakura (cherry blossom). A maiko (apprentice geisha in Kyoto) in traditional makeup. Wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) often accompany a tea ceremony.

Exploring Japan’s cultural and artistic capital of Kyoto is more like walking through an outdoor museum than a bustling city of one and a half million residents. With temples, shrines, castles, and gardens located throughout the city, Kyoto has a calming, Zen-like essence. Perhaps this is why emperors chose Kyoto as their ancient residence.


Getting around Kyoto is stress-free too. By purchasing an IC card—a prepaid transportation pass—you can take advantage of the efficient train and bus system. Most routes go through Kyoto Station, which is a modern work of art. The station is made of glass with a rooftop terrace and features a panoramic view of the city center, including the Kyoto Tower.


The importance of ritual is steeped into every aspect of the Japanese culture. From greeting with a bow and removing your shoes upon entering a home to tying a yukata (Japanese house robe) and drinking matcha (green tea) at a tea ceremony, you will find rituals at every turn.

Upon arrival at any of the temples or shrines in Kyoto, there is yet another ritual of cleansing. You must wash both hands and your mouth before pulling a rope with bells to awaken the kami (in essence, gods). Then, you throw a small coin into an offering box, bow, clap twice, bow, pray, and bow again before passing through the main torii (gate).

A spectacular first stop in Kyoto to practice this ritual is the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine with its iconic, vermillion-red gates. After a two-hour climb to the top of the hill, you will reap the benefits of another beautiful vista of Kyoto.


If you’re a first-time visitor to Japan, you may think that the food is all sushi, but that is just the tip of the culinary iceberg. From casual, standing-only izakayas (pubs) to formal kaiseki (multicourse) restaurants, the flavors of Japanese cuisine are complex, while the presentation is delicate and detailed. Favorite dishes run the gamut from land to sea, including yakitori (skewered meat), sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish), tempura (lightly battered and fried veggies or protein), ramen (wheat noodle soup), shabu-shabu (meat and vegetable hot pot), and okonomiyaki (savory wheat pancake). You won’t go hungry in Japan!

Photography by (opening spread) tawatchaiprakobkit/iStock/Getty Images Plus, lkunl/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus, Images Plus, xavierarnau/E+/Getty Images, superwaka/iStock/Getty Images Plus.


Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is a three-story temple with two stories covered in gold leaf. Alone, it is one of the most impressive historic sites in Kyoto, but the Pavilion’s beauty is amplified by its reflection in a small pond. The best times to visit and snap an Instagram-worthy moment are early morning or late afternoon before you hit the town to explore the nightlife.


Although Kyoto by day is a feast for your eyes and stomach, it has plenty to offer after dark. Gion is Kyoto’s entertainment district, where you can relax on the side of the Kamo River with an Asahi beer or walk the narrow streets in search of an izakaya. Watch for the elegantly dressed geishas wearing white makeup, kimonos, and traditional wooden-block sandals.


Kyoto is the ideal place to immerse yourself in Japanese culture, history, and cuisine; however, if you seek being closer to nature and the kami, head to the Kii Peninsula via train for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail. Amidst Japanese cedar forests, rice terraces, mountain rivers, hot springs, and waterfalls, you too can walk the Imperial Route just as the emperors once did. In fact, the Kumano Kodo—which was established to access all the peninsula’s sacred areas—is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is now time to be mesmerized. Experience the rituals, witness the beauty, and savor the flavors of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Editor’s Note

We are passionate about travel and appreciate collected experiences. A new-to-you country, town, or landscape can introduce a fresh perspective and enhance your life in unexpected ways. At press time, the world was bonding over the safety of home versus the thrill of travel. Although travel is in a state of flux, there is always value in education. Whether this article serves as research for a future trip or provides a real-time adventure from the comfort of your own home, we hope it helps you experience a new destination.

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