Inside Kyoto, the cultural heart of Japan

Kyoto Sunset

If you were to ask someone which city is Japan’s capital, they would rightly answer with Tokyo. However, the majority of people would not precede that question with the word ‘recent’. In fact Kyoto is the former capital of Japan with a tenure lasting over a 1000 years, compared to Tokyo’s paltry 145 years.

It is for this reason that the city of Kyoto is saturated with a purer reflection of traditional Japanese culture whereas Tokyo is arguably illustrative of a Japan with a global slant. The birth of Tokyo as a new capital in fact intertwined with the resulting modernisation that coincided with Japan’s 1868 Boshin War, a war you may be somewhat familiar with if you have happened to have seen films such as “The Last Samurai”. It is for this reason that the culture of Tokyo is recognised by the pluralism of a global modern – a modernity characterised by the efficiency of bullet trains and capsule hotels while with the eccentricity of anime and Shibuya street fashion.

The culture of Kyoto, however, is one wholly native to Japan and one that includes the universally marvelled but misunderstood world of the geisha, and the more arcane, such as the monumental shrines of Japan’s once national religion, Shintoism.

Now let us explore some of the most shining examples of Kyoto’s heritage that perpetually gleam, even in The Land of the Rising Sun.


The Kamigamo Shinto Shrine – 上賀茂神社

The Kamigamo shrine is Kyoto’s oldest Shinto monument, built in 678 AD and historically was a destination that was visited by the Emperor during his imperial pilgrimage throughout the region. Do not be fooled into thinking the shrine has exclusive access; it is in fact open to all and is located away from the city, nestled in between botanical gardens and the banks of the gentle and serene Kamo River. It is commonplace to see visitors rest and cool their feet in the stream that siphons from the Kamo River and meets the grand gate that sits at the entrance of the beautiful and calm shrine.

Kamigamo Shrine

The Kamigamo is noted for its tranquillity, distinct from the often very touristy shrines. In this sense, Kamigamo is truly indicative of the self-contained elegance and pride of traditional Japan, the historically self-contained island state of the Far East.

Shintoism teaches that all things contain a kami, or a spiritual essence that transcends a mortal life and the actions of man. Often in Shintoism, particularly potent kami are found in trees, rivers and waterfalls and in such cases, they are housed in shrines that become a sacred space in which the human world is able to interact with the spiritual world. In the case of the Kamigamo, the shrine is dedicated to a kami who is fabled to have appeared to the Tama-yori-hime No-mikoto, a daughter of the area’s ruling ‘Kamo clan’ when she was performing a purification ceremony at the Kamo River.

A tradition of Shinto shrines, and not exempting the Kamigamo Shrine, is to hold an ancient purification ceremony called ‘Nagoshi no Harae’ ever year, at the end of June. During the ceremony, people atone for their sins in a symbolic act of walking through a tall chinowa wreath, a large rings made of twisted miscanthus reeds. This cleansing act is finalised by receiving a small piece of white paper that is shaped like a person and meant to make tangible the process of catharsis and redemption.

A typical sight at the Kamigamo Shrine is the miko, a young shrine maiden, who historically acted as shamans and the mortal vessels for kami to communicate with the physical world. Miko also had further supernatural tasks of divination, exorcising evil spirits and performing sacred dances.

Two Miko Girls

Although the miko of today are more likely to be university students looking to supplement their education rather than sacred ‘chosen women’, they still assist with the shrine functions, perform ceremonial dances, and sell souvenirs.


Flower Towns – 花街

Continuing the theme of exceptional young women, Kyoto is also the traditional home of geisha. Geisha are widely misunderstood and are incorrectly believed to be the courtesans of the Far East, when in actuality they act as hostess for parties. Geisha are experts in dancing, playing traditional Japanese instruments, reciting literature and poetry to name a few. The word geisha has a literal translation of ‘art- doer’ and as paragons of the arts, their finesse and dedication is one that I am not surprised has captured the interest of Japan even into the twenty-first century. The erroneous classification of their profession is believed to root from the Second World War, wherein many American soldiers slept with Japanese prostitutes during their deployment. As the attire of the prostitutes was similarly constituted of a kimono and obi (the fold of fabric that wraps around the midriff), they confused geisha of providing the same service and unfortunately this prejudice remains in some areas of the world. In fact, geisha can be determined by an extensive list of differences, most obviously in their role but many of them also visual, such as a face of traditional make-up, a more ornate kimono, luxurious headpieces, and crucially, having their obi tied at the back rather than the front. (Having the obi tied at the front was a mark of prostitution and facilitated ease in removing one’s kimono).

Kyoto is the city with most modern geisha, most of whom still live in traditional geisha houses called okiya, which are situated in areas called hanamachi, or ‘flower towns’. The elegant lifestyle embodied by the art of the geisha is poetically called karyūkai, ‘the world of flowers and willows’.

In contemporary society, girls make the personal decision to leave home and become a trainee geisha, a maiko, when they graduate middle school, high school or college.

Old Miko Fans

Maiko are notable for their more extravagant attire, with larger obi and headpieces than traditional geisha, but this accolade is only given after many years training in the okiya.


Gion District – ぎおん

Encountering the spectacle of the geisha, however, is still rare and the best place to do this is in Kyoto’s Gion District. Here, geisha call themselves geiko, ‘a woman of the arts’, and are a common sight due to the presence of two hanamachi, the hanamachi Kobu and the hanamachi Higashi, both of which preserve not only the custom of karyūkai but the elegant pagoda-style architecture that houses it. It is in Gion where the traditional patrons of geisha, the samurai of the feudal system and the contemporary patronage of businessmen find entertainment. The parties hosted by geisha in Gion take place in ochaya, translated as tea houses, and although this clandestine world is rather inaccessible to tourists, there are many restaurants and bars, particularly along Shijo Street where one may encounter geisha. A great way to do this is by attending the nightly performances at the Gion Corner Theatre, where one can envelop themselves in the mesmerising world of traditional geisha dance, and experience a vignette of culture that is decidedly Japanese.

Gion Odori


Noh Theatre – 能

If the enchanting experience of Shinto shrines and geisha are not enough to convince you of the mystical otherworldliness of Kyoto’s culture, I implore you to take a visit to one of Kyoto’s many Noh theatres. Japanese Noh theatre is one of the oldest forms of theatre in the world, but may be considered akin to a rather modern sense of performance in the West. This is because Noh theatre has no plot per se, but is abstract; meaning is suggested by the rhythmic movements and gestures of the Noh performer. This style of performance is not reductive and simplistic but renowned for mesmerising its audiences of, historically, Japanese samurai and aristocracy. Noh theatre is full of symbolic references to Japanese history and Shinto’s gods, demons and kami and is judged on its fuzei, the elegance and drama the performers are able to project. The fuzei is in fact aided by the accompaniment of music, where a chorus of 8 singers and 4 musicians create a sense of tension that acts as a framework for the actor’s performance.


Noh performances are frequent in Kyoto and admission is inexpensive, so it is difficult to recommend a particular theatre. However, as a whole, Noh performance is something I wholeheartedly recommend, especially if you are looking for a blend of entertainment and an insight into Japanese history.


Kabuki Theatre – 歌舞伎

Kabuki is a second form of Japanese theatre and arguably more dramatic than even Noh. Kabuki is recognisable by its even more outlandish costume, make-up and gesture. However, where Noh is hypnotic and includes the presence of symbolic masks, Kabuki is dynamic and expressive with an emphasis on showmanship. The Kabuki sense of spectacle is so strong in fact, that sets are engineered to include revolving platforms, trapdoors and footbridges leading into the audience. Kabuki also differs in its use of dialogue, an old-fashioned Japanese that is even difficult for native speakers to wholly understand.

The most prolific Kabuki Theatre and largest in Kyoto is the Minami-za Theatre, dating from 1610 and so containing all the cultural relics of the Edo period not only in its architecture but in its performances.

Kabuki Lion Bando


Kyoto is truly the cultural heart of Japan. Tokyo may be home to Japan’s modern industry and novelties but it is not technology that strikes to the heart of Japan’s national heritage.

Kyoto is a destination rich in cultural landmarks that bring to light the mysteries of the Far East and ignite the imagination of those looking for a world that cannot be replicated anywhere else.