Lonely Planet Kyoto: City Guide (英語) ペーパーバック – 2008/7/15
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A comprehensive look at Japan's cultural capital, this guide includes special sections on Japanese cuisine, Kyoto's temples, shrines and teahouses. It also includes details of transport, a language section and Japanese script throughout the text.
Lonely Planet guidebooks are, quite simply, like no others.' --New York Times
Yes, the maps for the book were bad and I am thankful to the other reviewers for pointing this out so I did not unknowingly try to rely on the maps and find myself lost. Here is the good news: You can get excellent maps for free in Kyoto Station. The maps in this book were helpful for a general outline of where things are in relation to one another, but I relied almost entirely on the free maps I obtained from the tourism office in Kyoto Station. If you are traveling to Kyoto, I recommend you do the same. The maps provided in the station were up-to-date, detailed, and extremely helpful. And, best of all, free! As most people traveling to Kyoto will arrive through Kyoto Station, picking up these free maps is easy and the first thing you should do when you arrive.
Maps aside, I found this book very helpful. A friend and I traveled to Kyoto for the first time and had five and a half days in the city. Although I knew I could find resources for visiting Kyoto online, I wanted a small and informative book that I could carry with me everywhere and refer to whenever I needed it. This book provided exactly that. It was the perfect resource for a brief trip to Kyoto (combined with the free maps from Kyoto Station, of course). So if you're looking for a book that will help you find things to do while in Kyoto (as well as places to eat and sleep), I highly recommend this city guide in combination with the maps from Kyoto Station.
Maps could have been more detailed (as well as descriptions of where things were). Restaurants were shown on maps but, at best, within a block or two of where they were. Addresses for restaurants were given (doubtless accurate using Kyoto address standards) but don't describe the exact street each is on. For example, we went to Ichi-Ban (a yakitori restaurant in the Gion district) which was merely described as "3 minutes" from the "Sanjo Keihan" subway stop. The map in the book suggested it was on Sanjo-dori ("dori" means street or avenue) but the address didn't say so. The book also said it had "a" red lantern out in front (which is used by yakitori or grill restaurants). We did find it by asking a nearby florist shop, but it would have been useful if the description had said it was "on" Sanjo-dori and also that it had "several" small red lanterns and that it did not have an English name on the facade. (It was a good restaurant, incidentally, once we found it.) The same was true for Omen, a restaurant near the Silver Pavillion. No description other than it was "near" the Silver Pavillion and was shown on a very small map of the general area. A couple of local vendors directed us there. It is two short blocks south of the approach to the Temple on the street used by Bus 32. (It was a superb restaurant for lunch--I recommend it highly--as well as the sister restaurant on Shijo-dori a few feet west of the south end of Pontocho alley, a famous night location.) There were some recommended restaurants we didn't even try to find--partly because the maps and description seemed inadequate, but we found enough to satisfy us on a five day visit.
The book could have been more useful in describing the details of the bus system. The busses cover most of the city quite well and the Tourist Bureau has a good (though very hard to follow--it takes intense study) map of bus routes. The presumption in the book is that most people will start from Kyoto station to reach various tourist sites. But, in my opinon, the most useful hotels are located within a third of a mile from the intersection of Shijo and Karawamachi "dori[s]" and several useful busses do traverse this intersection but don't go to the train station. Further, though "stops" are listed on the Kyoto bus map, the actual stops are often a block or so from the "listed" intersection and different bus numbers may have different stops for the intersection For example, busses at the Karasuma-Shijo intersection that traverse Shijo-dori stop either a block West of Karasuma OR a block East of Karasuma. We figured it out, but it took a couple of days as well as intense study of the Kyoto bus route map.
(Busses are useful in reaching most tourist sites. The main exception is the Kyomizera-dera where the busses deliver people some distance away. A cab gets one much closer--though still probably a quarter mile away--and if one is not "athleticly" inclined, cabs are a useful alternative. Our cab there (from Karasuma and Shijo-dori) was a bit more than twice what a bus ticket would have cost.)
Cabs are in general a reasonable alternative both in terms of time saved and for those for whom walking isn't an ideal alternative (we are in our 70-s and though young in spirit do have some limitations which makes excessive walking less desireable if it can be avoided). Except for distant locations a cab ride will be between 600 and 800 yen and a bus ride for two is 440 yen and takes much longer. (Our maximum cab ride bill was 1300 yen but it was for a long distance with bad traffic. A daily pass on busses is 500 yen each.) Avoid a cab if you are going to traverse the area surrounding the Karasumi-Shijo intersection in the evening. It is VERY crowded and a cab will take many, many minutes to traverse the area (with the meter running.) But to the Golden Pavillion or the Silver Pavillion a bus ride is substantially cheaper than a cab. A cab would be even more expensive to Arashyiama--and the Kiefuku railroad (old fashioned streetcars) is much cheaper--and gets one to the center of things, unlike the Japan Rail alternatve.
The hotel recommendations seemed to be useful. We stayed in the Karasuma hotel, near the Shijo-Karasuma intersection and it was a decent and not outrageously priced hotel and a convenient location--less than a third of a mile from the epicenter of evening "action." Hotels near the Karawamachi-Sanjo intersection might be slightly closer to the "action" but they are substantially more expensive.
The book recommends most of the main tourist attractions. We were most interested in gardens and it did a decent job of describing them. We found the "Sento Gosho" the "retired emperors" palace in the old Imperial Palace grounds to be the "best" garden we visited--it is in the "stroll garden" category--vistas appearing as one "strolls" through the garden. It is better than the actual old "Imperial Palace" which has a much smaller garden (and the tour of it concentrates on the buildings rather than the garden). One needs to go to the Imperial Palace office and show a passport but it can be done shortly in advance of the visit (there are two tours a day of the Sento Gosho, the first at 11am). The Golden Temple and the Silver Temple are three star attractions, but the Ryoan-ji (the most famous of the Zen gardens) is being renovated and part of the famous "garden" is obscured. It is still worth a visit, however--though it will be closed for a couple of months in winter 2010-11. Nanzin-ji in the eastern sector of Kyoto is almost as spectacular as a Zen garden and Konchi-in in the Nanzen complex is close behind. (There are four temples in the Nanzen complex worth visiting--a real treasure trove for those who love Japanese gardens.) We didn't get to Daisen-in complex of gardens not far from the Golden Pavillion which also has famous Zen gardens but judging from pictures, they are worth a visit, time permitting, if Zen gardens (as opposed to Stroll Gardens) are of special interest. We also didn't get to the Katsura garden, reportedly a spectacular "stroll garden" in the suburbs (it also requires permission from the Imperial Palace office) partly because it is difficult and time consuming to reach and partly because the "Gardens of Kyoto" book, mentioned immediately below, suggested that the tour is so "fast" as to substantially reduce the pleasure of visiting it. If we'd had a couple more days we would have visited it (and the Daisen-in complex), but time didn't permit.
Other useful books if you are going to be in Kyoto for a substantial amount of time: Treib and Herman "The Gardens of Kyoto"; Clancy "Exploring Kyoto" (on foot in Kyoto); and Durston "Old Kyoto" (authentic shops and restaurants in Kyoto). The last is useful mainly if one is interested in purchasing "authentic" Kyoto products but it also has some restaurant and Ryoken reviews.
One almost final point: If you are going to be in Kyoto in autumn--aim for the fourth week in October. We were there in the second week and some trees were beginning to turn to Autumn colors, very beautiful but not spectacular. The third week would have been better than the second week and some guide books recommend November. On one visit I can't judge, but even in the second week dusk came shortly after 5pm (as best as I can tell, there is no daylight savings time in Japan) and by November dusk would be a lot earlier. I don't know about the Spring. Cherry blossoms are, apparently, capricious in when they bloom but I'm sure in many gardens of Kyoto they are spectacular.
The final point: We didn't get to Nara, nearby--partly because it appears not to have spectacular gardens (which was our primary interest) but I suspect it is worth a trip, time permitting. Somewhat further afield, Himeji Castle (in Himeji) is spectacular, described (I think accurately) as the finest extant castle in all of Japan--one can climb to the top; and Korakuen, a garden in Okayama--"classified" as one of the "three best" in all of Japan is worth a visit. So is Kurashiki, a short distance west of Okayama, with an extremely attractive well preserved "feudal warehouse" area (including a museum with, of all things, a lovely El Greco painting--and a few Impressionist paintings as well). Kanazawa, north of Kyoto has another of the "three best" gardens, but we didn't get there.