Who doesn’t dream of visiting Kyoto while in Japan, especially during cherry blossom season? For me, this was my number one city to visit while living in Tokyo. I imagined this quaint city of wandering streets, of temples and geishas- a city known for its traditional elements. Tea ceremony and kimonos. Quiet reflection under the cherry trees. You know, a Japanese postcard.
It wasn’t quite what I had in my head, but it is definitely an amazing city well-deserving of more than the paltry two days I afforded it. There are over 2000 temples alone, not to mention all the gorgeous gardens, tasty restaurants, and interesting neighborhoods to visit. But all I had was two days so I made the best of them.
For both days I bought the all-day city bus pass for ¥500. It was well worth it. The city is well laid out on an ancient grid system so is easy to navigate by bus (or by bike if you have more time). The flat fare for these buses is ¥220 so the all-day rate is pretty good. Here are more details about riding the bus in Kyoto.
Because I had limited time, I visited the sites based on my interest, not on location. They may not look like they make complete sense, but there is a method to my madness.
I began my day around noon and headed straight for my personal number one:
Fushimi Inari Shrine
This shrine’s main attraction is the numerous red tori gates all lined up for a photographer’s dream. It is super crowded so could be a great start for the beginning of your long day of sightseeing. The best part about this shrine is leaving the tori gates to take one of the numerous branches away from the crowds.
Taking one of these inconspicuous branches led me to this breathtakingly beautiful area with a small shrine housed underneath an unreal cherry tree with a backdrop of a bamboo forest. It was quiet and beautiful.
Further along this path was a large forest. On one side of the path is a bamboo forest, on the other a coniferous forest. It was so quiet that I could hear the bamboo knocking against each other, the wind rustling its leaves. It was very peaceful and I had the place almost completely to myself.
Continuing through the bamboo forest leads you to a quiet, moss-grown graveyard well worth lingering for some time. Again, I had the place to myself.
I stayed in this area for hours. I could have easily spent all day here. Or you could totally spend only one or two hours if you’re just after the tori gates. Do your thing.
On the way out of the nest of gates you pass through another graveyard, but this time much more open and central. A few kimono-clad women were taking photos under the cherry trees.
Leading down from the complex was a short street full of vendors selling food. Lots of seafood, taiyaki, and yakitori.
Still not over my okonomiyaki obsession, I went for that.
Next I went north to the Nanzenji Temple, famous for its Roman-style aqueducts. After being in Japan for seven months, it was nice to see something a little different. There isn’t too much to do here (so no crowds), but it is a great place for cherry blossoms. There is a garden tucked behind a wall for an entrance fee, but unfortunately it was after five and it was closing its gate.
As you can see, I only did two things on this first day. I can be super slow, especially if I find something I like. I’m not afraid to linger and miss out on other things.
To begin this busy day, I waited in line for the Golden Temple to open up at 9:00. I arrived at 8:40, behind about forty other people. By the time it opened twenty minutes later, I was one of about 200. Unlike other places in Japan where lines are strictly adhered to, this was more of a free for all. Consider yourself warned and arrive early.
To be honest, I only visited this temple because you’re expected to. It would be like not seeing the Eifel Tower while in Paris. You just gotta.
That being said, I wasn’t disappointed because I expected nothing. This is very much one of those places that you snap a photo (the same photo millions of other tourists have snapped before you) and then go on your way. Remember, you cannot enter this temple. You can only look at it from afar.
Either way it is a beautiful temple in a beautiful area. There are so many details hidden in the landscape background that are overshadowed by the golden structure shining in the sun.
It was cool to see. Glad I arrived early.
After leaving the rapidly filling temple grounds of the Golden Temple, I walked right next door to the Ryoanji Temple. Its claim to fame? A rock garden.
I quickly learned that I’m not as amazed (relaxed? reflective?) by rock gardens as many people are. I spent all of five minutes following its lines, quietly reflecting before I realized that the structure behind me had intriguing ink painted room dividers that needed my immediate attention.
What came as a surprise was the beautiful “park” everything was kept in. It even had a little pond surrounded by flowering trees and bushes. There were white swans and a few ducks floating about. Absolutely picture perfect. Great place for cherry blossom viewing. Spent quite a bit of time wandering about.
After leaving the serene environment of the Ryoanji gardens, I left the city to visit the bamboo forest in Arashiyama.
I was really excited about strolling through the bamboo forest. I’ve seen pictures and it looked so quiet and relaxing, everything cast in a green shade.
It was neither quiet nor relaxing.
Sometimes I forget the sheer number of people in Japan. Of course this would be a big attraction. There were people from all over the world wandering in this patch of forest, everyone clambering for the perfect photo.
It is what it is.
It is still a beautiful sight and an interesting experience walking through the bamboo. The paths are all paved and wide, accommodating the pull carts you could hire. It was completely shaded and cool throughout. Definitely worth a visit (but glad I had my special bamboo forest time at the Fushimi Inari Shrine).
On the way out of the forest area I decided to go to one of the attractions lower on my list simply because I was walking past it. That’s how I found my way to the Tenryuji Temple, a UNESCO site.
It’s twisted inside the labyrinth of paths, hidden behind its own walls.
I am so glad I decided to stop. Forget the temple, hello beautiful gardens! This temple had the best cherry trees I’ve seen since I’ve been in Japan. Absolutely gorgeous. There was even a small path that was raised just enough that you could see through the cherry trees, over the temple, and into the expanse of the city.
In one corner of the garden you could see into the dark depths of the bamboo forest. It was a nice contrast to the bright garden of pinks and yellows.
I cannot rate this site high enough. I don’t know how brilliant this garden would be outside of cherry blossom season (there are other beautiful flowers too, as well as a pond,) but if you are in Kyoto during this time definitely make the stop.
At this point I’ve done all the big ticket items I wanted. Because I had the time and energy (feeling seriously refreshed from my time among the cherry trees) I decided to embark on the long bus ride to the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple, near the Nanzenji Temple from yesterday.
I didn’t know much about this UNESCO site except something about three waterfalls. The waterfalls are actually three small trickles of purification waters so don’t expect a hike into the woods or something. The entire complex area is great. Doing my research AFTER my trip, I wish I had done a proper tour of this place. There is a lot of interesting history there that I totally missed. Next time.
Their English website is well put together and is very informative. You can find it here.
Leading up to the complex were winding streets of food vendors and shops selling eclectic items to satisfy all your curiosities. One dessert shop had a line you could enter and sample every item they sold. I DID sample every item. All of them. For free. It would probably be nice if you bought something from them too.
By the time I made it up the winding streets to the base of too many steps in the sun, I decided enough was enough. I parked myself on the steps and shamelessly people watched.
For whatever reason, this temple attracted all the young women taking photos in their kimonos. I saw more people wearing kimonos in those few hours than I have in the seven months since I’ve been here. And not the somber, regular ones you see old people wear. These kimonos are fashionable. Brightly colored, beautiful patterns. Of course the hair and makeup to match.
After getting my fill of people watching, I climbed the stairs, paid my entrance fee, and entered one of the coolest temples I have ever been to. The size alone can leave you in shock. It’s basically this huge wooden temple (held together without any nails) perched on the edge of a hill. It is just sticking out over Kyoto like it’s been there for all time (actually for 1200 years). Amazing.
The complex houses other shrines and a three-storied pagoda. You can walk on the porch of the temple (they call it the stage), then along a path and see it from afar. There are some paths you can wander, but mostly it’s about this awesome temple.
On the way down I decided to explore a different path back to the bus. I believe this is the Higashiyami area. This time the street looked more “authentic” Japanese (interpret that how you will) and even had a shock of a cherry tree stretching out and over the path (with the obligatory traffic jam of people taking its photo).
I also saw three or four women dressed as geishas. One was a western foreigner looking fine as hell in the getup (apparently this is a tourist activity you can pay for), the other two were Japanese women. I do not know if they were really geishas or not, nor do I really care. They were beautiful and self-possessed, poised in every move that they made. They were just out doing their thing. Kudos to them.
She doesn’t look completely at ease here. Look at her hands.
There is so much to see and do in Kyoto. What I did doesn’t even scratch the surface. Do it your own way in your own time.