Kyoto is one of the best-preserved Japanese cities, due to not being fire-bombed like so many other Japanese cities in WW2. Kyoto is considered the cultural capital of Japan, and a major tourist destination. It has a plethora of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, palaces and gardens. On arrival we checked in to our hotel in downtown Kyoto, and got a bus to the Philosopher’s Path that runs between Ginkakuji and Nanzenji temples in the northern part of the Higashiyama district. It’s known to be THE place to see the cherry blossoms along the canal, it’s the city’s main hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spot. Unfortunately we came a week late for the blossoms, and the trees were bare, so even though the walk was nice, we are sure it’s spectacular when the hundreds of trees are pink and white with flowers. Still the 2 kilometres long walk was a nice experience, with temples dotting the route, and small coffee and tea houses along the way.
We only spent 3 nights in Kyoto, and we needed to sort out where we wanted to go, and what we wanted to see. There are so many places, shrines and palaces, so making your own list of priorities is essential.
Again, to get up early and get to a major tourist destination is key. We knew that we wanted to see the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. So, we chose to rise early, combining Fushimi Inari with the bamboo forest of Kyoto the first day.
The shrine actually has a good website where you can find out how to get there (by train from city central) – there is a greeting from the head priest and general info. The place itself is one of the most iconic Japanese places, and you will see a photo of the torii gates in any brochure about Japan. The enshrined deity of Inari Okami was put on this site at 711AD, and the shrine itself celebrated its 1300th anniversary in the year 2011. We arrived at sunrise, to have most of the complex alone. Just a few intrepid tourists like us had made that early trek. And it was pure adventure to walk along the hallways made up of thousands of torii gates lining the paths up the mountain. There are 5 shrines and around a thousand torii gates donated by families and businesses for good fortunes. We walked the paths, we witnessed the head priest on his morning walk, and before the major influx of tourists came, we felt very peaceful. If you want to read up more about the shrine itself and the meaning of the Inari, please do – it’s quite fascinating.
After visiting the Inari shrine, we took the train (JR Sagano line to Saga Arashiyama station or Henkyu Railway to Arashiymama Station) to the Arashiyama Bamboo grove, after the torii tunnels of Fushimi Inari, the most photographed place in Kyoto. It is said to be unlike any other forest, and we can understand that feeling, but when we got there, it was chock a block of selfie sticks, bicycles, people, kids, strollers and souvenir sellers. It was pandemonium. We walked through the crowds on the path, and we got an impression of how it would be to go alone, walk this path in peace and quiet. So, go early, like always. We came out the other end, and walked along the lower lake, wandered around the village, but our mojo had left us, and we headed back to Kyoto central.
The afternoon and evening were spent at the Nishiki Market in central Kyoto. A narrow five block long shopping street lined by more than a hundred shops and restaurants. It’s known as Kyoto’s kitchen, and there is everything from fresh seafood, to knives, cookware and Kyoto specialities such as dried seafood and sweets. Just walking the market, stopping for small treats along the way, getting free samples and buying a proper Japanese knife to slay your own sushi when you get home, is very cool. Almost everything sold in the marked is locally produced. Just one note, and that goes for the whole of Japan: it is considered bad manners to walk while eating. So, stand still, or sit down for your meal or samples. We ended up at a local izakaya again and had fried gristles and cows’ stomach in cabbage for dinner.
Day two was rise and shine with the sun, as per usual. We headed for the most famous sight in Kyoto, the Kikaku-Ji, the Golden Pavilion. Built in 1397 as a residence for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the structure was completely covered in gold leaf, earning its name The Golden Pavilion. It became a Zen temple after his death in 1408.
It’s not a straightforward journey from Kyoto central to the Golden Pavilion. From Kyoto Station you can take the city bus number 101 or 205 for about 40 minutes. It’s faster to take the Karasuma Subway line to Kitaoji station, and then a taxi for 10 minutes, or like us, walk for half an eternity from the station to the temple. The walk was about 40 minutes, and we made a stop for some noodles for breakfast. We again arrived early, so after entering the complex we had a very nice view across the water to the pavilion itself. The whole complex is artificially made, the pond itself made to reflect the pavilion in all its golden glory. The structure is impressive, it’s the only building left from Yoshimitsu’s home. It has burned numerous times and was last rebuilt in 1955. The complex is a must on a Kyoto itinerary, but get there early, we almost had to fight our way back out again when the crowds picked up.
We had a cool walk through some residential areas, before entering the bus taking us back to the Kyoto old town area and the Yasaka-Jinka shrine which overlooks the Gion entertainment district and is the venue for the city’s biggest annual festival, the Gion Matsuri. Considered to be the spiritual heart of Kyoto, this is the place to come if you want to see what role the Shinto religion plays in the life of locals. People flock here for weddings; we saw several wedding parties hustling for the best photo op on the stairs of the temple. Newborn babies get blessed, there are prayers for love and success, and there are food stalls, picknick benches and all around a good vibe. Just your everyday gaily painted shrine, a great place for people watching. After visiting the shrine, it’s just a walk across the road and you are in the Gion district.
This is the traditional entertainment district of Kyoto. It’s known as the geisha (or geiko to be Kyoto correct) district, known for its kabuki theatres, such as the magnificent Minamiza Kabuki theatre. We just basically got lost in the streets and alleys of Gion. Lucky us spotted three maikos getting off a small bus, walking incredibly fast, and disappearing into a teahouse to prepare for the evening. In Kyoto a geisha is called a geiko, if you are in training to become a geiko, you are called a maiko, and training can be as long as five years, and currently there are about 100 geiko and 100 maiko in Kyoto. Walking around in Gion, you will spot small shrines, temples and tea houses everywhere. Yasui Konpiragu is an especially cool place – it’s a power stone monument to break off bad and initiating good relationships. Also the Kenninji temple, the oldest zen temple in Kyoto, has gone modern with a website. Sit down and meditate at one of the magnificent stone gardens.
A few days in Kyoto is like Tokyo, just enough to scratch the surface of a magnificent city. There is so much to see and do, but as usual, find what you want to see, and what is a must see, and find the middle ground, you can’t see it all. Kyoto was full of surprises, but we also experienced what we dubbed to be “outshrined” – we felt like we saw one too many shrines at one point, and you probably will, they are out of this world.