Why I love Kyoto (and why you should too)
My third years are doing an interview project in class right now, and one of the groups decided to ask me which place in Japan is my favorite. And honestly, it was a no-brainer. Even though I've spent the most time out here in rural Hyogo, and even though Okinawa gets me on a ~spiritual~ level, I'm pretty sure Kyoto will always be number one.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868. It oversaw Japan's renaissance age and is still considered the country's cultural center. I had the opportunity to study there for the 2014-2015 school year, staying with a host family and really getting to know the city on an academic and personal level. I got to watch artisans do their crafts, visit sites that are normally closed off to the general public, and talk to a bunch of really old people about their experiences living in the city through WWII. My friends and I would spend entire afternoons wandering into different neighborhoods (in search of good food, of course) and do our best to attend every festival we could (because festival food, duh). Despite only being there for nine months, I can honestly say that I know as much (or more!) about Kyoto as I do Honolulu. So you should just take my word for it and cut your stay in Tokyo short and hang around Kyoto instead. But if shouting my credentials at you hasn't convinced you enough, maybe the following reasons will:
Geography, geography, geography
Kyoto city is nestled in this little basin between several mountains, shielding it from the worst storms and typhoons. It tends to trap heat, so it's not too cold in the winter, but can get a bit humid in the summer, which is something I appreciate. The population is only about 1.5 million and the city is confined to a rather small area, making it an ideal density for taking public transit and walking basically anywhere. But most importantly, the main parts of the city (stretching quite far from the city center, actually) are on a perfect North-South, East-West grid. As someone as directionally challenged as myself, this was a lifesaver in orienting myself and getting used to where things were.
Here's the kicker: All of this was by design. A lot of old cities are just a mess of zig-zagging roads, mismatched buildings, and convoluted address systems plopped down on the coast of some major water source (cough Tokyo cough). Not Kyoto. Though it was founded nearly 1300 years ago, it was intentionally designed (on the Chinese imperial model) to be as safe, functional, and easy to understand as possible.
The food culture
There are few things in life that I like more than vegetables and tea, and guess what Kyoto's known for? Vegetables and tea. As the heart of Japanese Buddhism, Kyoto has a long tradition of vegetarian cuisine. And while the city is now primarily not vegetarian, it's still known for the quality of its pickles and tofu, which play a major role in kaiseki ryori, formal multi-course meals (which you can experience at basically any price point throughout the city).
Also stemming from Buddhist practice is matcha! Originally used in tea ceremonies (it still is), matcha is currently having a culinary moment, and the best matcha in the world is produced in Uji, just south of Kyoto! That means the best matcha lattes, matcha parfaits, matcha anything you can think of is probably in Kyoto. Needless to say, the cafes in the city are a #basic Instagram dream.
I'm sure you've already gathered by now that Kyoto's got this incredibly long, rich history that few other places can even hope to match. Most cities of this age have suffered destruction, war, or fire at some point in their histories, essentially forcing change. Kyoto, on the other hand, has not. In fact, during WWII, it was intentionally spared from bombing in order to preserve the culture. Because of this remarkable continuity, the city has things like six-hundred-year-old soba restaurants, twenty second generation artisans, and over two thousand temples and shrines.
This of course means that you'll never run out of things to do, see, and experience. Even after you've done all of the touristy things, a wrong turn on a neighborhood street could lead you to a traditional potter's workshop or a boutique wagashi (Japanese sweets) store. The old is indiscriminately interwoven with the new, allowing for these happy chance encounters at any given time. And what more can you ask of a city than for it to keep you constantly engaged?
Finally, like, do you even see it?
Just. Look. At. This. Place.
In conclusion, Kyoto is amazing, and if you have to choose, definitely pick Kyoto over Tokyo.
Also, if you're interested in hearing more about the artisans, architecture, WWII-era history, or food of Kyoto, feel free to ask and let me put all of this knowledge to good use because there's a lot more where this came from.