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Kyoto isn’t just temples and shrines.

Indeed, the ancient Japanese capital is rapidly becoming a victim of its own popularity, having been named by numerous media outlets the “best city to visit in the world.” As a result of the accolades, massive crowds from many nations fill its streets, narrow alleys, gewgaw shops, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. On top of the congestion, the city is in real danger of losing its identity. Like Venice or Barcelona, among other places, Kyoto risks becoming Disney-fied, a place where tourists outnumber locals, set the tempo and create a setting that is more fantasy than reality.

But Kyotoites love their city, and like to keep it vibrant. In 2018, there will be be a mix of modern and traditional events where visitors are more likely to celebrate with locals than with tourists like themselves.

And although Kyotoites have a well-deserved reputation for being aloof (it was once Japan’s imperial capital and still filled with universities), they’re quite cordial and respectful when encountering guests from abroad. It’s no coincidence that one of Kyoto’s sister cities is Boston, where many residents also act as if they’re at the hub of the universe. But once you get past the snootiness, Kyoto is a down-to-earth city, with a people as shy and thoughtful as they are above it all.

1. The Young Artists Keep Kyoto Fresh

Kyoto is not a museum city, stuck in the past, but an exciting, contemporary metropolis in which art is constantly being created. From Jan. 1 through Feb. 4 an exhibition of Kyoto’s young artists will be on display at the Museum of Kyoto.

2. Runs Are Fun

On Feb. 18, you can watch the annual Kyoto marathon. As with any long-distance race, it’s demanding and rewarding, but what’s unique about this one is the course it takes you along, hitting seven shrines and temples that are UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites: Tenryu-ji, Ninna-ji, Ryoan-ji, Kinkaku-ji, Kamigamo-jinja, Shimogamo-jinja and Ginkaku-ji. Runners also pass along the Kamo River and through the exquisite Kyoto Botanical Garden.

3. Cherry Blossoms Are Quintessential Japan

It’s true that the Japanese go a little nuts during cherry-blossom season and its festival, Sakura Matsuri. Kyoto’s one of the epicenters of the cultural phenomenon, thanks to its place in history and its many cherry trees, many of which are illuminated, shelter poetic strolls beneath their boughs or just provide an excuse for sake-soaked picnics. The season will probably peak in Kyoto between late March and early April. If you go to urban parks, walk paths in the hills and explore along canals, you’ll be enraptured by both the ephemerality of the experience and the excitement of the locals. Hint: Book a room well in advance.

Cherry blossoms in Kyoto. Photo by @mahmudurc via Twenty20
Cherry blossoms in Kyoto. Photo by @mahmudurc via Twenty20

4. The Photography Festival Is Picture-Perfect

In 2011, the Kyotographie International Photography Festival got its start in response to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which killed nearly 16,000 in Japan. Local artists Lucille Reyboz and Yusuke Nakanishi decided to bring together internationally recognized photographers and artists for extraordinary shows that combine music and utilize the ancient architecture of Kyoto. This year, Kyotographie takes place from April 14 to May 13. Exhibitions feature world-famous artists and often take place in classic, centuries-old buildings such that new and old combine to create something greater than the sum of the parts. It’s an unforgettable experience, akin to the Venice Biennale.

5. The Old Still Influences the New

Eighteenth-century painter and calligrapher Ikeno Taiga developed a remarkable style in his art that continues to have an impact on Japanese artists. In Kyoto, from April 7 to May 20, you can enjoy his work at the Kyoto National Museum.

6. You Can Go Wild in the Streets

Gion Matsuri is an annual Kyoto festival where drunken revelry is not just tolerated but encouraged. You can rent kimonos and join in the madness day and night, or simply enjoy the many floats that parade throughout town. Warning: Kyoto is excruciatingly hot and humid in the summer months, when this is held (July 1 to July 29). Be sure to pace yourself, and drink plenty of water.

People enjoying Gion festival Kyoto Japan
People enjoying Gion festival. Photo by: JTB Photo/UIG via Getty Images

7. Manga, Manga, Manga

There’s a terrific manga museum in Kyoto that attracts fanatics from all over the world, and this year you can take your manga obsession to new heights at the Kyoto International Anime Fair. It’ll be held in the Miyakomesse exhibition hall in mid-September.

8. Fire!

In the early evening on Oct. 22, torches will be set ablaze at the Yuki-jinja shrine in Kyoto, to commemorate the arrival of an ancient deity, and it gets hotter and hotter after that. It’s an event that’s really something unique to Japan.

Burning torches are carried along with a portable shrine during the Kurama Fire Festival. Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Burning torches are carried along with a portable shrine during the Kurama Fire Festival. Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

9. You Just Calm Down

After the marathons and festivals and fires, why not enjoy a little classical music? Give it all a rest? The wonderful Kyoto Symphony Orchestra provides a venue where your nerves will get a welcome break. The schedule of concerts is available on the website.

10. The Leaf Peeping Is Spectacular

From late November through early December, the leaves of deciduous trees in the hills and gardens of Kyoto become as colorful as Vermont in the fall. The range of colors, both in arranged gardens as well as the eastern hills, is breathtaking. Thousands of Japanese congregate in Kyoto for this time of year, so don’t forget to book rooms in advance.

Foliage at the Okochi Sanso Mountain Villa, the former home and garden of the Japanese film actor Denjiro Okochi in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Photo by John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images
Foliage at the Okochi Sanso Mountain Villa, the former home and garden of the Japanese film actor Denjiro Okochi in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Photo by John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images

11. Ask for Help

Increasingly, hotels in Kyoto offer concierge services that recognize that today’s tourists want to see the city like a local. For 2018, the Kyoto Traveler’s Inn has a new program to do just that for its guests, coordinated by its owner, who lived in San Francisco many years. Whether it’s showing a visitor a terrific local bookstore like Tsutaya Shoten, taking a ride on a new sightseeing canal boat from Shiga to Keage, or popping in on an invitation-only private art gallery, Izumi Nakazawa is your unofficial guide to all things Kyoto.

Feature photo of Kyoto by Mendowong Photography / Getty Images

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