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Kyoto, the grandest city in all Nippon! It was built as Heiankyo, the sparkling capital city of Emperor Kanmu, in 794 AD, and ever since then, Kyoto has been the cultural capital of Japan. It is the hub of Japanese Buddhism and Shinto, the birthplace of No and Kyogen, the setting of the Tale of Genji. If you're looking for a floating world in modern-day Japan, you're gonna find it somewhere in Kyoto.

Kyoto is modeled after classical Chinese cities, although its design has changed greatly over the years. Much of the original city was destroyed in the Angen Fire of 1177, and the rest was whittled away by the Minamoto, Fujiwara, Taira, Toyotomi, and Tokugawa families in their seemingly endless wars over the next 400 years. Since the mid-Edo period, however, Kyoto has remained relatively untouched, broken down only by modernization. American B-29's spared it during the closing months of World War II, realizing that it was one of Japan's last great cultural heritages.

Sights in Kyoto include:

Nijo Castle: The fortified residence of the Shogun when he came to Kyoto, complete with a famous "nightingale floor." Nijojo is open to the public for tours, and you can see what living conditions were like during the heyday of the Edo bakufu. It is located near JR Nijo Station.

Toji: A Buddhist temple with the tallest pagoda in Japan. During the weekends, there is a flea market there, and you can find some interesting merchandise at excellent prices. I bought a haori there once for 1,000 yen. It is located next to JR Kyoto Station.

Kiyomizudera: Another temple, located on a hill just outside the old city. The architecture of Kiyomizudera is absolutely astounding: you'll want to get photos of the stone statues there. Unfortunately, it's usually swamped with tourists. The closest train station is Keihan Gojo: you'll have to walk for about 1km.

Kinkakuji: Yet another temple, in the northwest corner of the city miles away from trains. But this, friends, is the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. As in, the one that Yukio Mishima supposedly burned down in the novel of the same name.

Ryoanji: In case you haven't caught on yet, Kyoto is good for temples. Ryoanji happens to have the most famous Zen garden in Japan, and it's not too far away from Kinkakuji, so if you go to one, it basically behooves you to visit the other.

Imperial Palace: The palace in Kyoto is still owned by the Imperial family, although they now live in their bigger palace in Chiyoda Ward of Tokyo most of the time. You can get a tour by calling in advance. It is located by the Kyoto City Subway Marutamachi station.

Kyoto Tower: Located adjacent to JR Kyoto Station, it's the highest vantage point in the city, and from the top you can get an excellent view of everything.

The city is divided into the wards of Fushimi, Higashiyama, Kamigyo, Kita, Minami, Nakagyo, Nishigyo, Sakyo, Shimogyo, Ukyo, and Yamashina.

In addition to being one of Japan's largest cities, Kyoto is also a prefecture with a population of 2.6 million. The largest cities in Kyoto Prefecture are:

  1. Kyoto 1,390,000
  2. Uji 184,000
  3. Maizuru 94,000
  4. Kameoka 94,000
  5. Joyo 85,000
Kyoto's sister cities are Paris, Boston, Cologne, Florence, Kiev, Xian, Guadalajara, Zagreb and Prague... an excellent array of history and culture-enriched cities from across the globe.

Getting to Kyoto: The closest airport is Kansai International Airport: the Haruka limited express train will take you directly to Kyoto Station in about one hour. From Tokyo, take the Tokaido Shinkansen train: travel time is anywhere from two to three hours, depending on which train you take. From Osaka, take JR, Hankyu, or Keihan express trains. From Nara, take JR or Kintetsu. The city has an excellent bus system, but unless you know how to read kanji, you will definitely get hopelessly lost: stick to the subway, and taxis if necessary. You can reach most points in the city on foot.

If you're looking to study abroad in Kyoto, look for programs at Kyoto University, Doshisha University, or Ritsumeikan University.

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