I just returned yesterday from one of my most incredible trips yet- to Kyoto and Nara in the height of the cherry blossoms. Whilst in a sense I shun the whole idea of touristy places, it needs to be said that people really do go to the best spots in droves and so long as they have the right approach- as 'cultural tourists' generally do, as opposed to holidaymakers looking for a quick thrill- they can add to a place as much as they distract from it. The cherry blossom or autumn leave season is a time to see Kyoto at it's best- and vivid, beautiful colours complimented the ancient structures to be found there.
Kyoto is a city with an incredible amount of very beautiful heritage sites- I'd go so far as to say that it easily eclipses anywhere else I've been in Japan both for the quantity and quality of such offerings. Not only that, but the types of buildings and Zen-gardens to be found there are altogether to my taste. They possess the supra-modern, almost futuristic simplicity that originally attracted me to Japan like no-where else. Being here, the warmth and friendliness of many of the people, the rich variety of food (not just Japanese, hence all the Michelin stars!) and the general zaniness to be found contrasting the general copncervatism is all great to find. Yet the sheer aesthetic pleasure of a zen garden is what really does it for me- it's almost something sensual, as despite knowing next to nothing about how it cam about, I am carried away by them. If nothing else, they encourage a meditative mind like nothing else I know of.
So yes, Kyoto has a wonderful collection of places- but forget about the usual efficiency of travel in seeing them. Not only are some of the greatest ones spread so far apart that it makes no sense to even think about seeing them all in one day, but they are clustered in groups, along with pathways and interesting shopping to build up to them. Whilst in this modern age we are spared the trials of a full-on pilgrimage by foot or, if we had been lucky way back then, horseback, Kyoto tends to make up for this with both these pleasant strolls to between locations and a horrendous public transport network that makes the whole place creed along like a developing country back in the '80s.
Consider this- Japan's most important tourist spot doesn't even have a direct bus to the relevant sites, let alone between them. Yes, to get to places like Ginkaku-ji, the 'Silver Pavilion', you have to wade through traffic throughout the whole city, even during the mopst touristed times. Why the town planners don't fix this, or even develop the subway to cover the whole city, I can't fathom; but I expect some kind of laziness, corruption or more likely a severe under-appreciation of the value of the sites is responsible (apparently the hordes of taxi-drivers love the situation, which may be part of the answer, but as a single traveller they weren't an attractive option). Other places, like Kamakura, Mt Fuji, even Hakone have worked it out, so why can't Kyoto, of all places? The upside is that it means you are more likely to make the most of the areas you go to, seeing more they have to offer and also the anticipation builds as you approach. In short, it all adds up to something more like a pilgrimage than the 'tourism' you may be used to in more efficient places.
The best way to see the place is to give yourself a few days, preferably 3-5 (I only had three, which I kind of regretted, but it was hard to get anywhere more affordable to stay and of course, living here, I can return again). Think of the trip as something to divide into whole-day or half-day plans. People have their own favourite places, which to an extent reflects their taste, but a few I would say are unmissable;
Kinkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji, Ginkaku-ji, Kyomizu-dera and, especially in spring-time, a pleasant place like the Path of Philosophy or Arashiyama. The nearby town of Nara (an earlier capital) is also a wonderful place, which with it's massive deer-park and greenery is often preferred over the relative bustle of Kyoto. To my mind, it's cultural treasures arte impressive, but not nearly as inspiring as those in Kyoto, partly because they come from an early age, which seems to me to have had cruder values; there's just not the same delicacy that you see in Kyoto's works. Yet, nothing can beat a stroll with the deer, (who you can feed, if you don't mind risking your bag getting nibbled as well), past forests of trees and soothing ponds. For that alone, the place is unmissable and you can probably see everything you want there in half a day.
Many of these places are on the outskirts of Kyoto, yet if you are willing to go a little further afield, you can make it to some more rural attractions; Sanzen-in in Ohara, or the onsen town of Kurama. Sanzen-in is one of the nicest temple gardens I've ever been to and you walk up a winding road of small shops, alongside a trickling stream to get there. They are both great experiences in their own right, which is why if you can spare the time, it's better to have some for journeys like these as well.
Next, up, I'll tell you about my trip, place by place, along with photos.