The previous capital of Japan, Kyoto is a must on every Japan itinerary. Brimming with culture, shrines and temples, as well as a beautiful Geisha district, Kyoto is the quintessential Japan of films, books and anime, just as you imagine it to be. Thankfully, spared bombing in WWII owing to its cultural significance, much of the traditional parts of the city that remain today have stood since the Edo period. In addition, Kyoto houses a fifth of Japan’s national treasures in its many shrines, museums and castle.
Arriving from Tokyo after a leisurely couple of hours on the shinkansen we set about making the most of our two-night stay in the ambience of the city. In all honesty you could spend a week in and around Kyoto, but if like us you are short of time and want to see as much as possible then our 48hr itinerary of highlights isn’t a bad place to start.
Day 1: North and West Kyoto
Arriving off the train in Kyoto we were greeted by great throngs of people all making their way in and out of the station, as well as the main bus station in front. We walked the short distance across the Kamogawa river to our accommodation and dropped our bags off before returning to the buses to head to the north-west of the city.
First stop on the itinerary was the Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji. Housed in a walled complex, the retirement home of Shogun Yoshimitsu, and following his death a Zen temple, is quite a sight to behold. The three-tiered pavilion’s top two floors are completely covered with gold leaf and topped with a golden phoenix. Walking up the gravel paths towards this shining edifice is a memorable experience. Carefully located at the edge of a pond Kinkakuji is beautifully framed by the mossy islands and surrounding trees, as its mirrored reflection shimmers in the pond.
Following many photos, we headed around the edge of the pond taking in the scene from all angles, if you look carefully you can catch a glimpse of the inner temple and statues of Buddha through the open windows. Beyond the temple the gardens of the ground are moss covered with winding paths leading you to the Anmintaku Pond, said never to dry up. Also dotted along the paths are small statues with bowls in front, crowds gather around these to throw coins into the bowls for good luck (this is harder than it seems!). Finally, just before leaving the complex the Sekkatei Teahouse, with an ageing but picturesque thatched roof, and a small Buddhist shrine where people stop to pray before leaving.
Kinkakuji sits at the top of a road that leads to a number of temples and you could spend hours here visiting them all, others of note in the area include Ryoanji another Zen temple with a beautiful rock garden, and Ninnaji a world heritage site that was the home of the head priest of the imperial family. With limited time we caught the bus south-west to the Arashiyama area to continue exploring.
Arashiyama is most famous for its bamboo groves, the tall gently waving stalks of the bamboo are a big attraction and as such don’t expect the empty photogenic pathways you see in the guide books, rather a bustling path of people with cameras. Despite the crowds here it’s well worth the visit with the thick stalks rising each side of the path, the leafy tops creating an arch above you. We timed it well with the afternoon sun glinting through the leaves too. To avoid the crowds try visiting first thing in the morning. There are also smaller groves nearby which are quieter and worth an additional bit of wandering.
Just next to the bamboo groves is the Tenryuji temple, which provided a tranquil break from the crowds as we strolled through the paths of the Zen gardens. The gardens have been unchanged since 1339, with a large pond in front of the temple, surrounded by rocks, maples and pines. The temple itself sits in the middle of the gardens a large black and white structure with many open walls and windows. The floors are lined with tatami matting and the temple remains a school of Japanese Buddhism, a beautiful spot to sit and reflect.
The high street of Arashiyama is a picturesque flagstone road lined with wooden buildings, shops and restaurants. The street leads to the river and the wooden Togetsukyo bridge, particularly pretty when looking upstream to the forest covered mountains behind. Turning downstream we could see all the way back to the central Kyoto area with the Kyoto tower in the distance. From here we caught a packed local train back to Kyoto station for a bit of a break at the hotel.
For the evening look no further than Gion and Pontocho Alley, this brightly lit pedestrian street is lined with restaurants selling the full array of Japanese cuisine. Notably home to Chao Chao Gyoza, reportedly the best Gyoza in Japan, we agree, but get there early to avoid the long queues that line up outside.
Following dinner, we took the short walk across the river into Gion to try and spot some Geisha, and amble along the edges of the canals to take in the area. No night time visit would be complete without seeing the Yasaka Shrine, open 24hrs a day and adjoining to Maruyama Park the shrine is popular during cherry blossom season. At night the main hall, dance stage and smaller surrounding shrines are all lit up by hundreds of lanterns. The glow of the lanterns on the vermillion and white of the shrine made for a very beautiful end to the evening.
Day 2: Eastern Kyoto
To begin our second day of sightseeing we headed south of our accommodation, along the river to Fushimi Inari Shrine. Following streets surrounded by souvenir shops and lined with food stalls we made our way to the entrance and first Torii gate of the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The main complex of this Shinto shrine is dedicated to Inari, the God of rice. With large temple areas and smaller shrines surrounding this. Beautiful, colourful strings of a paper cranes can be found hanging at some shrines as it is believed that folding a thousand paper cranes will grant your wish, or prayer.
Beyond the main complex lie a network of paths, ‘Sen Bon Torii’ (a thousand Torii gates), covered with a total of over 10,000 vermillion torii gates, winding up to the summit of Mt Inari and the uppermost shrine. The beginning of the paths is marked by a gate guarded by a pair of foxes (kitsune) who are the messengers of Inari, other smaller kitsune are found throughout the trails too.
The torii gates start off in small narrowly spaced rows along the path and get bigger the closer you get to the top of the hill. We twisted our way through the tunnels of vermillion, the rows of arches all catching the sunlight. As we made our way up we passed small shops selling offerings for the shrines, and small tea houses on the hillsides. The path is interspersed with smaller private shrines, covered in moss and incense.
Just over half way up we came across an open area that acts a viewing platform, panoramic views of Kyoto stretch out from here making it a popular photo stop. Most people returned the same way they came from here, we decided to persevere to the top. The extra effort was definitely worth it, the higher we got the more the crowds thinned and the peace and uniqueness of the shrines and gates really took hold, especially with the higher pathways taking routes through thick forest. Finally reaching the summit we said a grateful prayer at the shrine and, after catching our breath, continued down the other side of the circuit. An incredible visit to what is one of our favourite places in Kyoto.
Following the success of the morning we headed back up the river to Gion to continue our exploration of the East side of the city. From Gion it is possible to make your way through the streets, past many a temple and shrine, and into the heart of the Geisha district. Walking in a somewhat meandering fashion, along cobbled streets, through the wooden buildings we stumbled across courtyards, teahouses, shops and restaurants all traditionally styled. In addition to the tourists, there were many locals out in their kimono which added to the atmosphere and scenery.
Taking the traditionally preserved streets of Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka we felt immersed in Japanese culture. The Higashiyama district is full of wonderful streets like this and the closer we got to the Kiyomizudera temple the more the throngs of people condensed. Emerging at the end of one of the narrow streets we found ourselves in a courtyard area with steps leading up to the complex of temples, shrines and pagoda that make up Kiyomizudera (Pure water temple).
Within the complex is the Tainai-Meguri, there are no real signs for this other than a queue of people. The visit takes you into the pitch darkness of a basement cave, with only a handrail to guide you through the blackness, at the end of the route is a large, eerily glowing stone, spin this and make a wish before returning to the daylight. The visit is symbolic of the journey to enlightenment, but even if that isn’t discovered it’s certainly a memorable experience.
The main hall of the Kiyomizudera temple is a huge wooden structure with a platform raised high above the trees, and grounds below. From here there are wonderful views of the city and it is particularly popular in Autumn when the maple leaves surrounding it turn vibrant red (we were just a bit early as this usually happens mid-November). The huge thatched roof is currently under repair until March 2020 but this hardly detracts from the visit.
Passing through the main hall there is a curved stone stair case that leads to the Jishu-Jinja Shrine. Dedicated to love and match-making this is a popular spot for young couples and singletons alike. As well as many charms for good fortune, and offerings for the deity, there are the famous love stones. The Love stones sit 18m apart and walking between them with your eyes closed means that you will find true love, never fear if you miss though as if you have to be aided that just means that your love will need to be guided too. Last time I was here I required some guiding (it’s a lot harder than it sounds) but maybe that was the internet dating that helped me find Guy, we decided not to tempt fate by trying again!
Heading down the ramp to the gardens below the temple we passed the Koyasu pagoda, it is said that if a pregnant woman reaches the pagoda she will have an easy childbirth. Below the main hall is the Otowa Waterfall which gives the temple its name of ‘pure water’. The waterfall is enshrined and the flow split into three streams. The streams represent longevity, wisdom and a fortunate love life, drinking from the stream grants you one of these things but drinking from all three is considered greedy and will void the good fortune. From here we wandered through the gardens and back onto the narrow streets.
Choosing the quieter route down Chawanzaka or teapot lane, a traditional area of Kyoto pottery, we stopped for some refreshment. Guy stumbled across a microbrewery, sitting out in the sun for some Kyoto craft beer, I opted for the green tea ice cream we had seen advertised everywhere. Slightly earthy in flavour I was glad I went for the vanilla swirl option but it looked great regardless! A welcome break, and good spot for people watching, to round off our days sightseeing.
For our final evening we headed back to Pontocho for dinner and to visit the nearby Nishiki market. Although better visited in the hustle and bustle of the day we managed some good souvenir shopping in the market before venturing north to find a craft brewery we had read about. Before 9 is a bar set in a contemporary Kyoto townhouse, the beer is brewed on site and was the best craft beer we found in Kyoto with 10 taps to choose from. A relaxed and modern atmosphere with fantastic hazy double IPA to round off our visit. Kanpai!