If you want to see what Japan is all about, go to Kyoto! One city that has is all, I loved it from the first time (killing time synonym) I read about it. Everything you associate with Japan like temples, shrines, gardens, neon lights, crowds, shopping, fine dining, great food, inspirational walks, kabuki performances, geishas… you will find it here. It´s full of Japanese tradition and history and it´s amazing! This is the one city that has to be on your list, a must see when you visit (idioms dictionary) Japan.
We stayed in Kyoto for five days, I wish it had been more. It was just (definition just in case) impossible to see all of 1600 Buddhist temples and more than 400 shrines. Each one is so special, colorful, rich in history… I would say Kyoto was the peak of our Japan trip.
We stayed at APA VILLA HOTEL (http://apahotel.com), Kyoto-Ekimae, near the Kyoto station. APA HOTEL is a hotel chain in Japan. You can find them all over and they have great service. Rooms are equipped with everything you will possibly need (iron, kimonos, toiletry bags, hairdryer) but again, they are very small. Best way to explain how small is to say that there is no closet just hanger and we had to move our luggage behind the door so we could turn around. When we had to leave we would move our luggage on to the bed. That is the only downfall to any hotel accommodation in Japan (except the 4* or 5* hotels). I will always remember this hotel because this was the first place we experienced an earthquake in Japan. Our room was at the 10th floor, (last one) and after a long day of walking we were relaxing and planning our next day, when the ground started to shake. Building was swinging and Mr.G was already calculating our jump to the next building and our way out. Thank our Lord Jesus or Buddha or whomever of the many Buddhist gods, it was a short and not so strong one. BTW that whistle and flashlight I had was buried somewhere in the luggage on the door! That was another thing I checked on my list: “When in Japan!” Everything else at this hotel I would give the highest score. Great location, 5 min walk north from the Kyoto station, so it was very convenient to walk to some of the closer tourist sites. City is huge and you´ll have to plan an advance. I would recommend choosing a part of city you want to see on that day. Take the metro or JR to the farthest site (idiom site) on each area and then walk your way back.
Our first introduction to Kyoto was Kyoto station – futuristic building with tremendous space above you as you enter the main concourse. There are 15 levels, and a glass corridor on the 11th-floor ! It was completed in 1997 and totally opposite to traditional Japan. Lots of shops, several food courts, shopping area called The Cube, Kyoto tourist information center…. Great hotel called Hotel Granvia Kyoto if you want something classy and it´s right in the station.
We decided to walk the city as much as we could so after the Station we went south to see To-ji Temple (15 min walk) which has been the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. Its five story pagoda is one of the symbols of Kyoto and is the highest pagoda in Japan (55m). Present one was built in 1644, but the first one was built in the 9th century. Since then, the pagodas burned down four times. The inside is normally closed to the public, except for special openings. Once again we were lucky enough to see it from the inside. You can see many statues, carvings, artworks in these temple buildings.
Opening hours are:
Mar.20-Sep.19 8:30 am to 5 pm
Sep.20-Mar.19 8:30 am to 4 pm
Five story Pagoda at To-ji Temple
Kyoto Railway Museum was Mr.G’s choice. Like a kid in a candy shop, I loved the look in his eyes when he saw a vintage steam locomotive built in Pittsburgh, PA and brought here for service and eventually as a museum piece. And his smile while operating the simulator of driving the model railroad trains or watching a railway of how city moves was just pure joy! You can also take a 10 minute ride on one of the smoke-spewing “choo-choos” or see how the Shinkansen bullet train was built. Entrance is 1200¥ and they are open from 10 am-5:30pm or winter time till 5pm.
When in this area don´t miss Nishi-Hongan-ji Temple and Higashi-Hongan-ji Temple. Admission is free and both are close to the Station.
If you want to try the most known specialty food in Japan you have to try the Kobe Beef. It is known as the best beef in the world. You have to splurge, it might be expensive but, it´s unique and delicious. It’s a flavorful meat that is well marbled with fat. Only highest grades of meat with high levels of fat earn the Kobe Beef label. So walking towards Gion district we came across “Nikuya Ginjiro” restaurant. They offer Kobe beef so we decided to try it and it just melts in your mouth. Sorry honey, but your steaks on the BBQ just became second on my list. Gion district is also known as an exclusive entertainment area and it´s almost the same as it was 300 years ago. Here you are most likely to spot a Geisha especially at dawn.
Also on the south side of Kyoto is Fushimi Inari Shrine. With the Bamboo forest in Arashiyama it´s the most photographed place in Kyoto. It´s dedicated to Inari the goddess of rice and business and 10,000 torii gates were donated by local businesses. Paths lead up to smaller shrines and some of them are dedicated to foxes. They are the messenger of Inari. For me this was one of the most memorable site in all of Kyoto.
You will have to take JR Nara line to Inari or Keihan line to Fushimi-Inari. Highly recommend to go as early as possible so you can skip the crowds if you want to take nice photographs of the torii or, climb to the highest point of Mt.Inari (if I remember correctly around (find a way around) 3 Hours). Going uphill there will be less people and you will have plenty opportunity for nice pictures, also you will have some very nice views of the city itself. Admission is free.
Nishiki Market, also called “Kyoto´s Kitchen” is a place where you can find all the weird and crazy food Japanese eat, such as fu (wheat gluten), yuba (soy milk skin), wide selection of pickles ….It´s in the center and best to check out on a rainy day because it´s covered.
The intersection of Kawaramachi street (Kyoto main street) and Shijo, is the heart of downtown shopping district. During the day it´s packed with shoppers and tourists. We found a great hostel place called LEN Kyoto Kawaramachi (http://backpackersjapan.co.jp/kyotohostel). They have a great bar, café, and dining. The prices for rooms are between 2600¥ and 8800¥ depending if you want a mixed dorm or a double room. If you prefer that kind of accommodation you should check their site.
Take a walk along the Kamo river which is also a perfect path for a run or bike. As you get closer to Pontocho district you´ll find crowds of people sitting on the riverside, having a picnic, watching street entertainers, talking, and just having fun.
Best time to check the Pontocho Alley is after dusk. It is a narrow charming pedestrian-only walkway that is filled with bars and restaurants. It became huge as the entertainment district, but it still has traditional wooden ochaya (type of teahouse where geisha entertain the clients). I loved the lanterns on the street and some restaurants have platforms (yuka) where you can have a nice dinner overlooking the river, we chose “Mimasuya.” It is the type of place where you have to take your shoes off and sit on the floor. There is also a part of the restaurant with tables and chairs on the first floor with a nice river view (sooo romantic). The variety of real Japanese dishes that simply tasted amazing. They also served Italian food.
At Ponto-cho and Gion you will also find plenty of bars, clubs and live music.
With so much to see in Kyoto we decided to skip Nijo Castle. I am sure it was not a great idea, but a necessary one.
You´ve probably heard about Golden Pavilion of Golden Temple (Kinkaku-ji). If you are following any Travel blogs or Instagram accounts and love (apple of eye meaning) travel photography, you must have stumbled upon a photograph of a spectacular reflection of golden temple on the pond. It is the most famous Japanese attraction and the most photogenic temple in the world. You can´t say if it´s more beautiful during the winter time covered in snow or spring time. It´s going to be packed so go early as possible or just before closing (9am-5pm, admission fee 400¥). Take the Kyoto city bus 205 from Kyoto Station to Kinkakuji-michi.
It was built in 1397 as a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yozhimitsu. The main hall is coated in pure gold leaf. In 1950 it was burnt to the ground by a 22 year old schizophrenic monk, but it was fully reconstructed in 1955 and the gold-foil covering was extended to the lower floors. Put it on your bucket list!
Ginkakuji Temple or also called Silver Pavilion is a masterpiece of garden design. You have to admire the way the sand mound was designed to look like flattened Mount Fuji. And the way the hedge at the main entrance to the courtyard is made is so beautiful. Stones, bamboo, camellias….It was the mountain retreat of shogun Yoshimasa and it was supposed to be covered in silver as a tribute to his grandfather who covered Kinkaku-ji in gold leaf, but unfortunately it never happened. Opening hours are from 8:30am-5pm and admission is 500¥.
We took City Bus 5 from Kyoto Station to get there. If I remember correctly the price for the Bus was 140¥ per person for a ride. I loved the way they are organized. If you don’t have exact change there is a changing machine on the bus and a screen that is shows the route of the bus. Also they announce the next stop and what´s there to see if you choose that stop. Very hard to get lost, yet another confirmation of their efficiency and organization.
After Ginkakuji Temple head south and follow the signs for the Philosopher´s Walk. A beautiful 2 km walk. It follows the Shishigatani canal and it´s breathtaking during the cherry and maple season. It got its’ name by a philosophy professor, Nishida Kitaro, who used it daily. The path is romantic, peaceful, with untouched nature. You can find a lot of small coffee and craft shops along the route.
At the end of the Path of Philosophy (south) another temple that you should check is Nanzen-ji Temple. Grounds are free, but if you want to see Hojo Garden admission is 500¥ and to see San-mon (two story gate which has a nice view over the city) 400¥. There are a lot of subtemples that are open to the public. You would be surprised, but the Nanzen-jis greatest attraction for the Japanese is a red brick aqueduct, a Western structure. It was built in 1890 to bring water and goods into the city from the areas over the mountains to the river and canals of Kyoto.
Arashiyama is definitely a whole day trip. From Kyoto Station take JR Sagano/San-in line to Saga-Arashiyama Station, but take only local trains because the express trains will not stop here. Another famous Kyoto site is Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. As much as you try to capture the beauty of it with your camera, it´s just impossible. You have to see it to understand the magic of this place.
Endless bamboo stalks all around you. South of it you´ll find an amazing wooden bridge, Togetsukyo, and heading north, inside the forest you´ll find lots of temples. We decided to see Jojakkoji Temple (admission is 400¥ and opening hours are from 9am-5pm) with its beautiful two story pagoda.
Niomon gate, south entrance at Jojakko-ji Temple
Another thing I have to tell you about is the restaurant, AKA the burger place! The best burger I had not only in Kyoto I mean the whole of Japan and maybe more! We walked for an hour (5,4 km) from our hotel near Kyoto Station to this place called “Grand Burger” at Teramachi Dori, near Kyoto Imperial Palace. It is a small place, just a couple of tables with one waiter who is the chef, bartender and probably the owner. You can have a burger lunch set for 1,180¥ (depending on type of burger) which includes a burger, French fries and a cabbage salad. We had the cheeseburger set and avocado burger set and OMG it tasted sooooo good. The menu is also in English. If you want something tasty, western style I highly recommend you stop here. You will not be disappointed.
This city definitely stole my heart. Everywhere you turn around there was so much beauty that it is overwhelming. This is a place where even Japanese come to learn about their history and culture. Be open to experience everything it has to offer. Try the ritual of tea Ceremony; see the geisha at Miyako Odori….. or spend the night in a traditional Kyoto rykan such as Tawaraya. We will definitely do it next time, right Mr. G? He said, definitely, but next time will be better prepared knowing how the mass transit works, the friendliness of the people and love of the culture.