Exactly one year ago, I went to Japan for my internship.
I was invited by JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization) and Kintetsu and went there for a week with several other travel agents and journalists from all over Europe. At that time, I was a journalist for the travel trade magazine TravelPro and I had the time of my life.
During the week, we visited a lot of beautiful places in the south of Japan, starting by the city Kyoto. In this article I will go through the highlights in Kyoto with you.
What should you definitely visit during a trip to Japan and Kyoto?
1. Fushimi Inari Shrine
If you have seen pictures of Japan, you may know the orange gates that are very popular to photograph by tourists. You can find this shrine in the district Fushimi-ku. It’s a walking path that leads through a tunnel of tori gates. When you walk through the gates and walk all the way up till the end of the path, you will find the sacred Mount Inari at a height of 233 meters. This belongs to the shrine grounds. The walk upstairs takes around two or three hours, but you can walk as far as you would like to.
Most tourists come to Fushimi Inari Shrine for the mountain trails, but the shrine buildings themselves around the gates are also very beautiful and impressive to see. At the beginning of the shrine, you can find the Romon Gate, which was donated in 1589 by the famous leader Toyotomi Deyoshi. Behind the Romon Gate you can find the shrine’s main building (Honden) and several other, impressive buildings.
2. Nashiki Market
The Nashiki Market is an indoor market where you can find all kinds of Japanese food. At the market you can find more than one hundred shops and restaurants. It is possible to buy seafood, Japanese sweets, pickles, dried seafood and sushi.
Nashiki Market is always a crowded place with tourists, but also with locals. Locals get their daily food here and as a tourist you can taste all kinds of culinary delights. Almost everything that they sell at the market is locally produced and procured. Nishiki Market is also known as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’ and the shops definitely prove that this the right name for the market.
3. Gion District
This district of Kyoto is also known as the district where you can find the traditional geisha’s. Geisha’s are Japanese women, dressed in kimono’s and with a white-painted face and red lips. They also wear a wig from black hair. Geisha’s are known as companions and are seen as examples of beauty and sophisticated culture.
Unfortunately, it is very hard to take a picture of the geisha’s. Many tourists visit Gion hoping to catch a glimpse of a geisha on their way to or from an engagement at an ochaya in the evenings or while running errands during the day.
Furthermore, the Gion district is also popular for its traditional, wooden houses and for all the shops, restaurants and teahouses. The two most popular areas of Gion are Hanami-koji Street and Shirakawa Area.
4. Nijo Castle
The Nijo Castle consists of several buildings and includes a beautiful garden. Nowadays, the castle is open for public as a historic site, but in the past, it was used as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Shogunate and as an imperial palace a little later. The palace buildings are provided with beautiful, traditional Japanese architecture.
Nijo Castle can be divided into three areas and visitors can enter the Ninomaru Area, where the Ninomaru Palace is located. The palace rooms are featured with elegantly decorated ceilings and beautifully painted sliding doors. It’s like a little museum. You will definitely be fascinated by how many things in the castle used to look in the past.
Next to the fact that Nijo Castle is a popular attraction to visit by tourists, the castle is also designated a UNESCO World Heritage in 1994.
5. The Kinkaku-ji Temple (Temple of the Golden Pavillion)
Close to the Nijo castle, you can find the Golden Pavillion. This is a beautiful and photogenic temple, which is surrounded by breathtaking nature. The temple is a Zen temple whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It has an impressive structure and a view on a large pond. It’s the only building left of Yoshimitsu’s former retirement complex. Over time, the temple was burned down several times (because of different wars in Japan and Kyoto). The present structure was rebuilt in 1955. Each floor of the temple represents a different style of architecture.
This temple and her beautiful gardens are definitely worth the visit during a visit to Kyoto.
Kinkaku-ji: Japan’s Iconic Golden Temple
You have probably seen this picture before. Everyone who ever travels to Japan will have visited the golden pavilion in Kyoto.
Called Kinkaku-ji in Japanese, this outstanding structure is actually a Zen Buddhist temple and stands amidst a more than breath-taking garden.
Despite its pristine beauty, the Kinkaku-ji has quite a long history. The first records date back to 1397. Originally it was a villa used by the Japanese Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, but it got transformed into a Zen shrine after the Shogun’s death.
These days the iconic golden roofs are part of the whole UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kyoto.
But do not be fooled: The golden temple you currently see has only been erected in 1955. Not the first reconstruction. In fact the wooden temple burned down a couple of times!
Unlike a lot of other temples throughout Japan you cannot get inside. You can, however, walk around the extensive gardens surrounding Kinkaku-ji. At wonderful teahouse you will have the opportunity to drink traditional Japanese matcha tea and sweets.
There are no closing days to observe – the golden Temple will be open throughout the year from 9am to 5pm. It is easily accessible by public transport (bus). The entrance fee is 400 Yen per adult.
Dodging Tourists in Kyoto
Kyoto was the old capital of Japan, and for this reason it’s on top of the list of cities to see in the country.
The first thing we wanted to see in Kyoto was the Bamboo Forest.
We had seen photos and videos of huge crowds and it didn’t seem a good experience to us. We dreamed to walk in the forest and listen to the sound of nature. The only way we could transform this dream in reality was to set up our alarm clock at 5AM to be there at 7AM and avoid the tourits.
It was worth it!
There were just a couple of early birds, but everybody was really respectful and silent. If you are willing to wake up at 5AM you are definitely a traveler, not a tourist. If you spend one week or more in Kyoto I highly recommend to use this strategy for all the main attractions. It’s hard to wake up at 5AM every day so you might consider doing it every other day (maybe). We spent 3 nights in Kyoto so we had to make different choices based on the time we had available.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple) is another top attraction.
The view of the shimmering temple surrounded by the pond will make you forget about the hoards of people walking in every direction and taking selfies. Something unexpected and cute happened to us while we were visiting the temple and I would like to mention it.
Some kids stopped us to do little surveys for school. They asked us where we were from and what we liked most about Japan. One of the groups was doing surveys and promoting world peace. We had to write a peace message on a paper. We had fun talking to these lovely students and taking photos with them. We were stopped twice by two different groups.
Gino is the touristy district downtown, but if you wander in the small alleys you will find some peace and great spots to eat. Many places have the door closed and they seem dark. Just be brave and try to open (they are not closed). We found a small lovely place where we enjoyed a delicious lunch: Tempura Takasebune
Fushimi Inari Taisha is considered the number one attraction in Japan. Inari means “rice” in Japanese and locals go to pray in this temple especially for a good harvest and family safety. The famous torii gates extend from the main shrine up to the top of the mountain. The gates have been donated by people and companies and the donations continue to date.
The park is open 24 hours so I recommend once more to wake up early to be there at least at 7AM. Later it gets really busy. The only way to get away from tourists is to walk more than them. The majority of people will abandon the gates walk soon. If you want to do it all you have to save an entire day for this activity.
Wandering the small alleys of Gion at night was my favorite activity.
You will spot geishas if you’re lucky, we did see a couple entering a restaurant with some gentlemen. Geishas are entartainers specialized in ancient arts (dance, music and conversation). If you want to have a better idea of what a geisha is, you can watch the movie: “Memoirs of a Geisha”. It has a romance component for commercial purposes but it can give you an idea about this ancient profession and the photography is stunning.In terms of culinary experience I highly recommend “Giro Giro”. They serve a set menu of typical japanese dishes. A little bit fancy and pricey but worth it if you want to immerse yourself in the food culture. You have to call a couple of days in advance and the price is $40 per person.
Kyoto: From the Silver Pavilion to Heian Shrine
After many trips to Kyoto, and several visits to the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), I decided to head to the other side of the city and check out Ginkaku-ji, the Philosopher’s Path, and Heian Shrine.
Departing from the Nishiki Market area, we took a taxi (¥1,500), as it was a quick and efficient way to get to our destination. Still, even once we exited the cab, it was a short uphill walk to reach Ginkaku-ji.
One of my first impressions of Ginkaku-ji was the lack of crowds, especially when compared to some of the other popular sights in Kyoto.
Maybe it was just the weather, but unlike the constant stream of people visiting the Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion grounds were calm, relaxing, and easily appreciated. The walking route showcases the area and gardens, providing a lot to see and enjoy.
Heading back downhill (a deliberate ploy), we took the Philosopher’s Path along the canal.
Rated one of the top 100 walkways in Japan, outside of cherry blossom season it was, unfortunately, unremarkable. Still, the path was peaceful, and it was nice to look at the fish, though it would probably have been even more alluring on a sunny day. Again, there were very few people around so it was a comfortable, uncrowded walk between Ginkaku-ji and Heian Shrine.
At one point along the route we had to make a left turn and head in the direction of the city. This took us along one of the major roads, but also allowed us to briefly visit Okazaki Shrine.
Heading towards Heian Shrine, we could appreciate the size of the grounds enclosed by the perimeter walls. While the shrine itself makes up only a small proportion of the area, it is still very big. However, the expansive open areas can still get very crowded on special occasions.
In total, it took us around three hours to make our way back to the Kamo River (essentially our starting point). It would be easy to spend extra time looking at things along the way, but taking in these main sites was certainly achievable in a single afternoon.
Kyoto Station: A Cheap Sight Seeing Stop
Kyoto Station is, for many people, just a place to catch a train, or pass through fom one location to another. However, the station building itself is a worthwhile desitnation and free attraction in its own.
The building, opened in 1997 (celebrating Kyoto’s 1200th birthday) is the second largest train station building in the country, but at 70 meters tall and 470 meters long, is certainly not small. It includes a hotel, shopping mall, movie theatre and large department store as well as servicing the Shinkansen, local trains and connections to the subway and bus system.
Heading to the north side of the station and the main entrance presents the bus interchange, the Porto underground shopping centre, the Kyoto Tower across the street and the main avenue to the central city. Two basement levels in the station provide additional shopping and access to the subway, the shinkansen lines or passages to the south side of the station.
From the north entrance (looking into the station) take a moment to gaze upwards. The atrium space is huge and an appreciation of just how big can be explored by heading to the escalators to the right. Up three floors is an “out-door” stage (actually covered) with an amphitheartre of steps providing seating for seveal thousand. Underneath is the Isetan department store, so space is well used.
Continuing up the building (steps or escalators) gets you to the 11th floor, a roof-top garden (with wi-fi!?) and areas for panaromic views of the city. It is also well worth looking back into the station and it’s impressive architecutre.
Simple, but cheap and worth a little time to have a look.
Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto
The Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto is one of many shines dedicated to the god Inari. It is special for its many vermillion torii gates that line the path up Mount Inari (233m).
Taking the path to the top of the mountain takes sevel hours, however, the Inari shrine is a useful spot for a bit of culture when time is short.
From Kyoto station, the shrine is just two stops (about 5 minutes) by local train, and on exiting the train station is basically on the other side of the street. The entrance torii gate and shrine buildings are good examples of the types of structures at many locations around Japan. Heading up the stone steps leads to a number of smaller shrines, past the guardian fox statues (with foxes often representing messengers), to the many thousands of torri gates.
It is difficult to get a clear photo without other tourists or visitors, and different days offer better lighting if you are wanting a “perfect” shot.
To gain an appeciation of Inari does not take too long. Walking up past the shrine buildings, and along the corridor of torii gates, and the first section of the hill path will satisfy most people. Exiting the mountain path leads to a newly developed garden area and that will continue to mature over time.
There are also a good (and usual) range of souvineer stores to tempt visitors.
Because of the closeness to Kyoto, Inari can be a good late afternoon filler, (especially if you have travelled from another major city) and fits nicely between a hotel check-in and an evening meal sampling Kyoto’s many offerings.
Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto: The Golden Pavilion
Kinkaku-ji (the golden Pavilion) is one of the best known landmarks in Kyoto.
Situated in the north-west of the city, it actually takes quite a while to get there from the central city or the main transport hub, Kyoto station. Taking the 101 bus takes about 40 minutes, and even the bus can be very busy during the peak tourist seasons.
The grounds themselves offer the potential for peaceful reflection and viewing of the temple itself. While the current version dates only from 1955, the gold leaf on a fine day makes for an impressive view and a great photo.
However, it can be a busy place.
On our most recent visit it was a case of waiting for your turn for the photo opportunity, and the walk through the grounds was more like a route march – hardly good for taking in the surroundings.
Other than local city bus, taking the subway to station K4 (directly from Kyoto station) and then getting a taxi can be a more convienient method of reaching Kinkakuji, especially if you are trying to see a lot in a short time. If you are wanting a walk, it is about 30 minutes by foot between the subway and the temple.
For first time guests, Kinkakuji is worth doing, but there are many other options for returning visitors that are less crowded and as beautiful.
Kyoto in a Day – Action Packed for Culture Seekers
An action packed one day itinerary for culture seekers in the heart of the traditional & beautiful Kyoto, Japan.
The best option is to rent a bicycle. Here is a list of places. Alternatively, there are plenty of bicycle rental hubs located immediately outside of most subway station’s (Sanjo is a good choice due to its central location for the sights). Click the English option and follow the on screen instructions to get one at the machine. You are charged when you return the bike and complete the on screen check in.
Price: 1000 yen per day ($13)
Bus: 220 yen per trip ($3)
2. Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)
This is probably the farthest temple from Kyoto station. Located towards the North West of Kyoto, it may take you a while to cycle towards. However, the Kamagowa river runs almost all the way and has a cycle path which makes for a pleasant and flat ride. A couple of blocks to the left of Sanjo is the imperial palace and the royal grounds if you wish to stop off. Much like most things in Kyoto, the temple has burnt down several times, most recently because of a fanatic monk. Be sure to try the green tea ice-cream for 200 yen. On your way back towards Sanjo you can work in at least two other points of interest with shrines and Zen temples on both sides of the roads becoming quite common..
Entrance fee : 500 yen ($6)
3. Nijo – Jo Castle
After a short while heading south from Kinkakuji you’ll reach Nijo-jo castle. The castle has unsurprisingly been burnt down a number of times with the most recent being in 1890. Parts of the building were actually moved here from another location in the 1600’s. The grounds are huge and it’ll take you a while to wander.
The floor is interestingly designed in that it purposefully creaks to raise awareness of intruders. Regardless, you don’t have the opportunity to test it out due to the large footfall accompanying you through the corridors. There is also a tea garden located behind the palace. (an additional 700 yen – $9) Here you can partake in the traditional tea ceremony which overlooks a lily pond.
Entrance fee : 500 yen ($6)
4. Kiyomizu dera
Arguably the most famous and certainly one of the most visited of all the temples in not just Kyoto, but all of Japan. The name given to this temple translates as pure water due to it’s natural spring it sits upon. It’s traditional wooden walls jut out over the cliff side contrasting with the modern up rises of Kyoto in the background. Sunset makes for an excellent photo as does a visit during spring or fall due to the cherry blossom and changing leaf colours. Head back down the hill and into the busy narrow street. Take your time and browse the shops, all of which are selling local goods and souvenirs. The samurai sword shop is particularly impressive.
Entrance fee: 600 yen ($7)
Free wheel down the rest of the hill and enjoy the last bit of daylight as it flickers over Kyoto. Cycle towards the river and head north until you reach Zaimokucho. You’ll be greeted by a plethora of restaurants and bars as well as waitresses trying to entice you into them all. Park up your bike and choose a lively looking restaurant before finishing off the evening by looking over your pictures with a few beers, some sake and a good quality meal.