“Almost every visitor to the ancient Japanese capital, home of geisha and tea-ceremonies and kimono and 2000 temples–is shocked by the first view,” Pico Iyer, the well-known writer who spends most of his time in Japan, introduces Kyoto. He also describes his home, Nara, as the place where Japan begins– “a city filled withrolling hills, ancient temples, and 1,200 entitled Bambis roaming its old streets.”
Let these two beautiful descriptions guide you to Japan’s top ancient cities. Kyoto was Japan’s capital for more than 1000 years and Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital. These two ancient cities are connected by a short train ride and there’s so much to enjoy and savor in these historic cities. Check out our recommendations below to experience the highlights of Kyoto and Nara.
What to see and eat in Kyoto
Kyoto boasts a wealth of historical buildings like temples and gardens to keep you busy for more than a month. Kyoto is filled with gorgeous temples like Kiyomizudera that attracts visitors all year round as it’s one of the best spots in the city to view cherry blossoms and autumn leaves. Other popular sites include Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), Ryoanji Temple, Higashiyama, andGion. Venture further out and explore areas like Arashiyamaand its famous bamboo groves, Fushimi Inari Shrine and its series of torii gates, and hidden gems like Kibune andKurama.
Kyoto is a gastronomical center of Japan as the old imperial city has a diverse range of cuisine with rich culinary traditions. Kyoto is well known for Kaiseki Ryori, the epitome of Japanese fine dining. This refined multi-course meal is made with the premium seasonal ingredients and culinary finesse. Shojin Ryori, Buddhist-inspired vegetarian cuisine is another type of traditional food found in Kyoto. Other must-try dishes are Yudofu, silky tofu served in hot water, Wagashi, elegantly designed and tasty Japanese sweets, and the high quality Kyoto-made Tsukemono, Japanese pickles.
What to see and eat in Nara
Considered the birthplace of Japan, Nara is home to Japanese’s top cultural treasures and numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites. While Nara is usually a day trip destination from Kyoto, you’ll find so much to experience and enjoy if you spend more time here. Start your tour with the Todaiji Temple, its impressive wooden building houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha. Other must-visit places include Kasuga Taisha, the beautiful shrine famous for its lanterns, Horyuji Temple, one of Japan’s oldest temples with ancient wooden structures, Kofukuji Templewith its five-storied pagoda, and of course the Nara Park with Nara’s famous residents–the adorable deer.
The former capital of Japan offers a wide variety of specialty food made using fresh local products. Tuck into a bowl of Miwa Somen, soft and chewy noodles that can be enjoyed as a hot or cold dish, and a bowl of Chagayu, rice porridge cooked in fragrant tea. Narazuke, Nara-style pickled dishes with a long history, is a delicacy you must have in Nara. Another interesting Nara food to try is Kakinohazushi, a special sushi with lightly pickled fish like mackerel or salmon wrapped in a persimmon leaf. Don’t leave Nara without tasting their famous desserts, Kuzu Mochi and Kuzu Kiri, jelly-like sweets served with brown sugar syrup and kinako, roasted soybean flour.
About the author:
Wendy writes about her travel experiences to escape from her city life in Singapore. Her content creator’s journey started when she had the opportunity to live and teach in Okinawa and circumvent the world with Peace Boat. A compulsive-obsessive traveler and culture enthusiast, she believes that when we know more, we travel better. Or in true foodie spirit, when we eat more, we travel better.