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The astonishing number of temples, shrines, and palaces that adorn the city make Kyoto's architecture its most famous feature abroad. Japan's capital for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto was the center not only for politics, but religion, philosophy, art, culture, and cuisine. Every one of Japan's refined cultural arts blossomed from seeds that were planted here, including the tea ceremony, Kabuki theater, Zen, and Tantric Buddhism. Kyoto served as Japan's capital and the emperor's residence from 794 until 1868. It is now the country's seventh largest city with a population of 1.4 million people and a modern face. Over the centuries, Kyoto was destroyed by many wars and fires, but due to its historic value, the city was dropped from the list of target cities for the atomic bomb and spared from air raids during World War II. Countless temples, shrines and other historically priceless structures survive in the city today.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a millennium, and carries a reputation as its most beautiful city. However, visitors may be surprised by how much work they will have to do to see Kyoto's beautiful side. Most first impressions of the city will be of the urban sprawl of central Kyoto, around the ultra-modern glass-and-steel train station, which is itself an example of a city steeped in tradition colliding with the modern world. Nonetheless, the persistent visitor will soon discover Kyoto's hidden beauty in the temples and parks which ring the city center, and find that the city has much more to offer than immediately meets the eye. Japan's capital for over 1,000 years, Kyoto remains awash with remnants of its past glory. The city's stunning collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites alone would be enough to set it apart, but Kyoto also boasts a still-working geisha district, some of Japan's most exquisite cuisine, and a whole lot of Zen. Not that it's all temples and tradition: the city also hosts its share of hip cafes and modern art. Think of it as the cultural yin to Tokyo's yang, but with a sprinkling of modernity. Here's how to get a taste of it all.

Kyoto is the storehouse of Japan’s traditional culture and the stage on which much of Japanese history was played out. With 17 Unesco World Heritage sites, more than 1600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shintô shrines, Kyoto is also one of the world’s most culturally rich cities. Indeed, it is fair to say that Kyoto ranks with Paris, London and Rome as one of those cities that everyone should see at least once in their lives. And, needless to say, it should rank near the top of any Japan itinerary. Kyoto is where you will find the Japan of your imagination: raked pebble gardens, poets’ huts hidden amid bamboo groves, arcades of vermilion shrine gates, geisha disappearing into the doorways of traditional restaurants, golden temples floating above tranquil waters. Indeed, most of the sites that make up the popular image of Japan probably originated in Kyoto.

That said, first impressions can be something of an anticlimax. Stepping out of Kyoto station for the first time and gazing around at the neon and concrete that awaits you, you are likely to feel that all you’ve heard and read about Kyoto is just so much tourist-literature hype. We can only advise you to be patient, for the beauty of Kyoto is largely hidden from casual view: it lies behind walls, doors, curtains and façades. But if you take a little time to explore, you will discover that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of pockets of incredible beauty scattered across the city. And, the closer you look, the more there is to see.