Kyoto’s unique blend of charming history and natural beauty makes it a lovers’ paradise. It might even inspire the ultimate romantic plunge.
Crammed with 1,200 years of history, spread across babbling streams and gushing rivers, encircled by towering mountains and sister city to Paris, Florence and Prague, Kyoto’s romantic credentials are world class. So enamoured was I on my first visit, the next time I took my girlfriend and an engagement ring.
Every season in Kyoto is distinct. Spring brings cherry blossoms and crowds who visit for a glimpse of one of nature’s most picturesque sights. Summer and autumn offer a dazzling array of vivid colours in the many gardens, parks and forests. Winter provides side trips to nearby snowfields. Regardless of the weather, couples of every type – passionate foodies, culture vultures, history buffs and adventurers – will be entertained at every turn.
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Step back in time
Kyoto is so packed with ancient temples, shrines, palaces and castles – several on the UNESCO World Heritage List – it’s almost embarrassing. One of the most impressive, with special romantic significance, is the Kiyomizu-dera Temple area, built in 778AD. It’s a narrow ascent, along streets lined with cafés and craft stores, to reach the site. But the city views from the temple’s huge wooden platform, fringed in cherry blossom when in season, easily justify the climb.
Behind the complex, the Jishu Shrine celebrates the Buddhist god of matchmaking. Couples here undertake numerous rituals to enhance their futures. Dissolve a private message in water, tie a love note to the fence, and pat the Buddha’s belly to guarantee your relationship for years. More of a gamble is to walk, with your eyes shut, between two love stones situated 18-metres apart. Make the distance, and true love is yours. Guaranteed, forever. In this fitting location, I perched nervously on a wall to steady myself, and proposed to my partner Sandra. After what felt a lifetime of stunned silence, she said, “Yes”.
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Near Kyoto’s city centre, the Gion area provides an equally romantic backdrop for strolling hand-in-hand among the tiny traditional wooden houses, tempting eateries and alluring stores. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, and this area was famous for its geishas, the highly respected entertainers of the rich and regal. They still live there and are often spotted dashing to their next gigs, in their elaborate and colourful kimonos.
Out and about
Admirers of nature and the wonders of the past can satisfy both desires in the riverside settlement of Arashiyama, without leaving Kyoto’s city limits. A natural starting point is the Tenryu-ji Temple, another World Heritage-listed site. Originally constructed in 1339, the wooden and paper buildings were rebuilt from 1899 due to fire damage, yet they still exude a timeless, calming presence. Couples sit on the Zen temple’s raised verandah and gaze out over the ornamental ponds filled with giant carp, into one of the finest gardens in Kyoto.
From the rear exit of the temple’s garden, visitors meander through a giant bamboo forest, where densely packed bamboo trunks rise into the sky and form a soaring canopy. At the other end of this tunnellike path is another fascinating attraction, the Okochi Sanso Villa. Once the home of a famous Japanese silent movie star, the drawcard is now the exquisite garden. In cherry blossom season (flowering from late March until late April) and throughout autumn, it comes alive with a tapestry of colours from the carefully choreographed trees.
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After strolling around Arashiyama, the Sagano Romantic Train (Sagano Torokko Ressha) offers an entertaining chance to rest weary legs. Billed as a must-do for couples (although as much a hit with kids), this rattling steam train makes a one-hour return trip along the Hozugawa River to Kameoka. The semi-open train provides the perfect moving platform from which to view the passing scenery. The singing train driver isn’t bad, either.
Food for thought
Hidden in Kyoto’s northern suburbs and surrounded by a miniature ornamental garden, Hosendo teahouse attracts Japanese couples of every age. They come in search of ornate sweet treats and specialist local teas. Once inside the discreet traditional wooden building, guests sit crosslegged on the tatami mats and order desserts that are made on the premises, heavy on the soybeans and completely unrecognisable to most Western visitors. For our engagement celebration, I opted for the ultimate dining experience in Kyoto: a candlelit degustation meal at Chimoto restaurant, on the banks of the Kamo River.
With an extraordinary 300 years of cooking experience and a nine-course banquet that changes monthly (even down to the crockery and table decorations), the restaurant’s goal is to ensure you feel the season with all your senses. Elegant seafood dishes featuring sea urchin, eel, giant prawn and barracuda are true works of art, served by trios of kimonoclad hosts. One of them told me that Jackie Kennedy once tried to book. Unfortunately, it was full. Her loss.
Need to know
Getting there: Qantas and Japan Airlines fly direct to Tokyo from Sydney; Jetstar flies there from Melbourne, Cairns and the Gold Coast. From central Tokyo, the shinkansen (bullet train) leaves for Kyoto every 5-10 minutes and takes around 2.5 hours. One of the most romantic and exciting ways to discover the cherry blossom trail is by train. See Rail Guru for more details.
Getting around: Many of the attractions are easily and best explored on foot. The local bus, subway and suburban systems are immaculately clean, highly efficient and fairly easy to navigate. One and two-day passes are available. Taxis are plentiful and good value for short journeys; most drivers speak a little English. A local train to Arashiyama takes about 15 minutes from the central station.
Sleep: Part of the romance of a trip to Kyoto is staying in a ryokan, a traditional guesthouse where you sleep in a paper-lined, wooden room with straw tatami mats. Every budget is catered to, with establishments across the entire city. Exceptional, highly rated luxury ryokans include: Yoshida Sanso and Hoshinoya (Arashiyama).