Nowhere sums up Kyoto's history like the Imperial Palace and Park. Tours of the palace must be booked in advance through the Imperial Household Agency, and are well worth making the effort. The gardens can be visited at any time, and they provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. Nijo Castle was a residence for the shoguns of Japan, and it's a showcase of the elaborate architecture of the time, complete with squeaking "nightingale floors" to warn of intruders. In the northern part of the city is the stunning Temple of the Golden Pavilion, one of the highlights of vacations in Kyoto. It's a good idea to rent a car in Kyoto and drive out there -- while you have a ride, you can take trips to the neighboring cities of Osaka and Kobe, which also have their charms.
Gion Matsuri is one of the biggest festivals in all of Japan, and lasts for the whole month of July. It came about as a ritual to gods of natural disasters, and is celebrated with food, traditional costumes, and parades, the biggest of which takes place on July 17. Jidai Matsuri, the festival of the ages, is held on May 15, and represents various periods throughout Japanese history.
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