Takafumi’s Kyoto

Takafumi Kawakami spent a brief amount of time in Texas and Arizona before boomeranging back to his native Kyoto determined to follow his family’s tradition of becoming a Zen buddhist. Nowadays, he runs the Zen meditation program at the Shunkoin Temple and serves as a fellow through the United States-Japan Foundation.

A natural tour guide, Takafumi appreciates how his city’s ancient history and cutting-edge dynamism meet in the middle to create a fascinating, world-class destination. “In Kyoto, I can easily reconnect with the past,” he says. “But at the same time, I can meet so many creative minds.” Here are a few of Takafumi’s favorite things about the city he’s proud to call home.

Kyoto Is My City

When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is to my temple, where they can learn how to incorporate Japanese traditions into their everyday lives while enjoying the art and gardens.

Early summer is the best time to visit my city because that’s peak season for flowers such as azaleas, wisterias, and irises. Tip: Visit Heian Shrine to admire the colors.

You can see my city best from Shogunzuka Mound.

Locals know to skip Kiyomizu-dera Temple and check out Daitoku-ji Temple instead. 

Kaikado, maker of traditional tea caddies, is the place to buy authentic, local souvenirs. 

In the past, notable people like philosopher Kitaro Nishida, theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Hideki Yukawa, and painter Itō Jakuchū have called my city home.

My city’s best museum is the Kyoto National Museum because it houses one of the best collections of Japanese art in the world.

If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s that Kyoto’s bus and taxi systems are a great resource.

The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is west of Kyoto’s city center, in Arashiyama. Raft the Katsura River in a wooden boat or explore one of the many hiking routes in the region.

My city really knows how to celebrate the Gion Festival, one of the most famous annual events in Japan. The celebration lasts the entire month of July, culminating in a massive parade.

You can tell if someone is from my city if in the summer they encourage you to try boiled conger pike (hamo) served with pickled plum, a signature seasonal specialty in Kyoto.

For a fancy night out, I enjoy the fine dining and lively atmosphere at the Italian restaurant Sodoh Higashiyama.

Just outside Kyoto, you can visit Uji, a city famous for its green tea. While you’re there, visit tea fields and Byodo-In Temple. The Uji River runs through the center of town, too, creating beautiful sceneries.

My city is known for being snobby, but it’s really friendly. People from Kyoto are proud of their history and culture, but we are also incredibly hospitable.

The best outdoor market in my city is the Nishiki Market.

Inoda Coffee is my favorite place to grab breakfast, and a ramen shop called Tenkaippin is the spot for late-night eats.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide.

When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I bring a cup of iced coffee to the Kamo River and relax.

To escape the crowds, I visit Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. Though this is a popular attraction in the city, there are plenty of secluded corners to explore.

The dish that represents my city best is seared pike conger and green tea (especially, matcha green tea) is my city’s signature drink. Sample them at Wakuden and Ippodo tea shop, respectively.

Jittoku is the best place to see live music, but if you’re in the mood to dance, check out World Peace Love.

Running into geishas in the middle of downtown could only happen in my city.

In the spring you should gaze at the blooming cherry blossoms around the city.

In the summer you should reserve a balcony seat for dinner along the Kamo River. I recommend Chimoto and Toriyasa.

In the fall you should enjoy Kyoto’s wonderful fall foliage.

In the winter you should seek tranquillity at the city’s many Zen gardens. My favorites include Ryogen-in Temple and the Koto-in gardens at the Daitoku-ji Temple complex.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the Shimogamo Shrine in summer.

The best book about my city is Kyoto: An Urban History of Japan’s Premodern Capital by Matthew Stavros.