PAGODA AT THE KIYOMIZU TEMPLE IN KYOTO, JAPAN

Kyoto, with its hundreds of temples and gardens, was the imperial capital between 794 and 1868, and it continues to function as the major cultural centre of Japan.

Although business and industry are closing in on the traditional architecture, Kyoto still has the raked pebble gardens, the sensuous contours of a temple roof, and the latter-day geishas that western clich?-hunters long for.

The Imperial Palace is one of the few sights in central Kyoto. The present building was constructed in 1855 and can only be visited as part of a tour.

The eastern part of Kyoto, notably the Higashiyama district, merits top priority for a visit to its fine temples, peaceful walks and traditional night entertainment in Gion.

The Sanjusangen-do Temple is a particular highlight. It houses 1001 statues of the Thousand-Armed Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy).

There are a number of superb Zen temples in north-west Kyoto including Kinkaku-ji Temple, which was burned to the ground by an obsessed monk in 1950, and later rebuilt complete with gold-foil covering.

The Takao District, tucked away in the city’s north-west, is famed for its autumn foliage. Himeji-jo Castle, an easy day trip from Kyoto, is the most splendid Japanese castle still standing. It’s known as the ‘White Egret’, a title which derives from the castle’s stately white form.

There are hundreds of festivals in Kyoto during the year, so booking accommodation well in advance is essential. The most spectacular are:

Aoi Matsuri (15 May) which commemorates the 6th century prayers of the people for the gods to stop calamitous weather.

Gion Matsuri (17 July), Japan’s most renowned festival, which climaxes with a massive parade.

Damon-ji Gozan Okuribi (16 August) when enormous fires are lit to bid farewell to the souls of ancestors.

And Kurama-no-Himatsuri (22 October) when portable shrines are paraded through the streets accompanied by youths with flaming torches.

Most mid-priced accommodation is to the north and north-west of the city, although there are a couple of spiffy hostels to the east. Central Kyoto is excellent for digging up reasonably priced Japanese and international food. Eastern Kyoto is good for yakitori and western-style restaurants.