Kyoto may be considered as one of the world’s most culturally rich cities; 17 UNESCO world heritage sites is no easy task! And is a vision of traditional Japan that one reads about in books and magazines.
The city has a LOT to offer: ancient temples with serene and sublime gardens, colorful shrines, historic Geisha district and traditional restaurants that still honor the historic way of serving food and tea. Three days won’t seem enough, and the place will leave you yearning for more…but if you plan well in advance, you can (at least) cover the key sites offering a glimpse into the city’s historic past…
Riding the train into Kyoto initially feels like any other large city, but look closely, and you’re lost in the beautiful shrines and picturesque streets with women in traditional outfits scurrying around through narrow lanes…
We arrived late in the afternoon, and after settling into our traditional (but sparse) Ryokan we quickly routed our path for a walk before it got dark
Armed with our cameras, we walked down beautiful streets with renewed energy. There were several groups of young girls dressed in kimonos – taking a selfie never hurt anyone! Don’t they look so cute 🙂
This was our first stop! Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine is located on the famous teramachi shopping street in downtown Kyoto, and is a perfect example of a city shrine; located right in the middle of a busy shopping street. You must visit the shrine at night, when it’s illuminated by the lanterns all around…
The shrine is dedicated to the god of learning and the visit here is said to bring luck in one’s studies, so you’re sure to encounter a lot of younger visitors here. The shrine also has a mechanical Lion-dance fortune-teller, that comes alive with a drop of a coin – let your fortune for the next year be told!
It was a delightful walk passing through tree-lined streets with old school lanterns, we made our way towards the Ramen place in downtown Kyoto.
Heading into the historic district of Gion at night was a magical experience, straight from the pages of a book…the famous Geisha district is filled with glittering lamps, lighting the way for geiko (geisha) and maiko (apprentices) to entertain in an ochaya (tea houses) and other restaurants.
Signs like these were a bit amusing, but definitely good to know the rules in a foreign country. Remember, do not touch the geishas; also no leaning, no smoking, no eating and definitely no selfie sticks!
Gion also has several fine examples of the traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. Since the property taxes were earlier based on street “usage”, these houses show narrow facades but extend up to twenty meters in from the street (beautiful depiction in the novel, “memoirs of a geisha”)
The Hanami-koji street is a lovely walk at night with beautiful restaurants, where a peek inside may show a maiko entertaining a party; these things can run really expensive unless you pick one of those pre-defined dinners. We chose to skip this one for a lovely Kaiseke dinner instead.
The streets of Gion are beautiful, but wait till you walk the Shimbashi Dori street; probably THE most scenic road in all of Kyoto! This street can be a little hard to find, but walk along the Shirakawa Canal parallel to Shijo Avenue and you’re sure to hit this patch – unmistakable in its beauty! We walked here both at night, and daytime (next day)…
And while in Gion, don’t forget to pick up some traditional sweets from the many shops selling wagashi (traditional kyoto style mochi – read more here)
Arashiyama – Bamboo Forest
Heading over to the famous bamboo forest will likely take up half a day; we took the train from Kyoto station, JR Sagano line to Saga-Arashiyama and the grove was about a 10 min walk from the station.
Arashiyama is located at the base of Kyoto’s western mountain range, and the town is lush with greenery straight out of an old Japanese painting.
Walking into this extensive bamboo grove is like walking into a set of “Kung Fu Panda” (the movie) with a bunch of tourists! At first, this doesn’t look a bit like the pictures, lots of cables hanging across poles, and wider paths with patches of bamboos, but don’t give up yet! walk a little further and you step into another world…
The grove looks much more expansive in the photos, and the path is actually pretty short in person, with a walk that’s over in just about 15 min. You will spend more time taking photos than actually walking the path of the grove. (separate post here 🙂 )
while walking down the road, a short distance from the main entrance, you will cross the Tenryu-ji shrine (admission ¥600).
Definitely, take the time to walk through this house and beautiful zen gardens with a backdrop of the Arashiyama mountains.
After the temple, we sampled some wagashi and also stopped by the Ex cafe for matcha and a bite.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Spend the second half of the day at this breathtaking shrine with hundreds of bright vermilion torii gates spread across a thick forest. (separate post coming soon)
This is a vast shrine complex, and possibly the most memorable (in our opinion). The hike up to the top will take a couple of hours; since you are likely to stop at every step to take in the views of stone foxes against bright shades of vermilion and green…the late afternoon air is both eerie and calm – pictures just don’t do it justice!
Our last day was devoted to Northern Kyoto that includes two famous shrines; Kinkaku-ji and Ryoanji temple.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
While Kinkaku-ji can be accessed by train, bus or taxi, we found it most convenient to take the bus (101 or 205) from Kyoto Station for around ¥230 and get off at the Kinkaku-ji Michi bus stop (40 min to get there and the main gate is across the street).
Kinkaku-ji literally means the “Temple of the golden pavilion”, and was originally a villa owned by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and later transformed into a zen temple by his son after his death. In 1950, a young monk (Hayashi Yoken) burned down the pavilion in his obsession with the temple and then attempted suicide behind the building; this story has been fictionalized in the book, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion ( Yokio Mishima) making an interesting read. The young monk however, was captured and diagnosed with schizophrenia, and died of Tuberculosis a few years later. Meanwhile, the pavilion was finally restored in 1955 and the copy is assumed to be very close to the original, and definitely more golden! (covered in gold leaf)
This is probably one of the most photographed buildings for Kyoto postcards! This fact can be easily validated by the throngs of tourists visiting in morning hours. The significance of gold is to highlight the purity of the pavilion; devoid of any negative thoughts and feelings, and far removed from the ultimate gloom; death itself.
While you’re enticed by the beauty of the glittering pavilion; step back to also view the pond surrounding the pavilion. One could spend hours just viewing this mirror pond with a near perfect reflection, where rocks, bridges and plants are arranged in a manner that represents ancient Chinese and Japanese literature.
One of our last sights, and probably our favorite zen Buddhist temple during this visit! The temple is most famous for its peaceful and meditative rock garden, and you may have seen this image in some brochure or another, depicting the perfect Japanese garden…
Ryoanji (peaceful dragon) temple includes a house and a simple gravel-and-rock arrangement that truly inspires peace and introspection.
The garden consists of a rectangular plot of pebbles raked in, and surrounded by low walls, with 15 rocks that are laid out in a specific pattern. The number 15 denotes “completeness” in the Buddhist world, and the rocks are arranged in such a way that you can only see 14 at any given time. It is said that to view all 15 would mean that you have achieved a state of “whole” , and that concept seems so simple, yet so unachievable!
We sat by the steps overlooking the garden for some time, partly because we were tired, but also because sitting here…we felt a state of calm, contemplative and overall thankful for our trip to Japan; like I said, a perfect ending! 🙂
The seating area for Ryoanji’s garden is on the steps of the Hojo, the head priest’s former residence. Besides the stone garden, the Hojo also features a fine example of traditional painted sliding doors (fusuma) of its tatami rooms.
Finally, walk through the vast the temple grounds that include a pond, located below the temple’s main buildings. The grounds date back to the time when the site still served as an aristocrat’s villa with a mini bridge, and a view that transports you into an old story…
This pretty much marked the end of our three days in Kyoto, and we were off to take the train to Tokyo, and onward to NYC (home!)
Hope you enjoyed reading!
Have you been to Kyoto? we would love to hear other places that you have been, so we can plan for our return trip 🙂
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