Charles Baudelaire once said “What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open.” Kyoto is a city like no other, filled with culture and history combined with a technilogical twist, making Japan one of the most modern nations and making us all sit up and take this city in with gaping eyes.
We arrived in Kyoto at the end of February, the beginning of Spring and the hint of cherry blossoms beginning to blossom. As soon as we had stepped off the shinkasen, the serenity of the city hit us like a gust of wind. It was there in the shrines, in the people and their everyday tasks. There was no rush to get anywhere, people patiently waited at the crossing for the colour to change despite no cars coming. Coming from just about any city in the UK, the hustle and bustle of people is so apparent, that this was a new experience for us, but for the Japanese this is their way of life.
Like many people we only had a limited amount of time in Kyoto, and only 2 days to see it. This was not a lot of time, for such a large city! So we had to be efficient! Lucky for us we had already got the JR pass (which I can’t recommend enough!!).
We stayed at the Righa hotel, Kyoto. This was ideal for us as it was only a 10 minute walk from the station and was pretty central in terms of attractions.
There are many attractions to go to in Kyoto and its hard to fit this into 2 days, so the ones we saw were the main ones. We also gave ourselves enough time between each attraction to enjoy the food, culture and people, so feel free to change some of the attractions from the list at the end.
Some things we couldn’t live without
1. Our JR Pass- Although it doesn’t fit into everyone’s itinerary, if you are planning on travelling across Japan, I can’t recommend this enough. We got a 7 day pass for our 10 day trip and found that everything was so much simpler with this. There are only a few lines you cannot take, but this isn’t difficult to navigate around. Navitime Japan Travel is an app which lets you use this to the max, without any additional fees. Unfortunately, as much as google maps has stuck by me till this day, it didn’t help with JR routes. With this app, you can select JR preferences. For those of you who do not have a JR pass the app will let you know the routes and exact cost of each element so you can be prepared!
2. Ninja Wifi
We LOVED this mobile wifi. The brilliant thing about Japan, is the availability of products such as these. We used Ninja Wifi, which did not let us down!! Being able to navigate in areas that we did not know well, or if it was just to upload something to Instagram, or search a word we didn’t quite understand, it was very useful! I can’t recommend this enough! In addition, one wifi box can be used with multiple devices, which means if you are going with other people this can save you quite a bit of money and time.
Our top picks for Kyoto
- Fushimi-Inari Shrine
This is one of the main attractions of kyoto, and one that pops to mind whenever anyone thinks of Japan, whether you know much about it or not(to quote my friend ‘you have to see the orange stick thingy).
Initially established in 711AD, the 4000 torii gates have been dedicated to the god Inari, the god of rice. Legend says that Hatanoirogu, an aristrocat was practicing archery with a mochi (a rice cake). One of these mochis fell to the ground and became a beautiful crane which flew on top of a hill and grew rice. This was seen as auspicious for the land and so he built a shrine on it. It is said that on the year he built this, the harvest was great. Nowadays, many businesses have shrines there to wish them good fortune for the coming years. The prices for these gates aren’t cheap either! Starting at 400,000 yen to over 1 million yen, it was safe to say, after much pondering we decided not to get one on this particular day.
We arrived in the afternoon, lucky for us the shrine is open 24 hours a day, so we were able to visit with plenty of time. The shrine is so serene and you need to take a minute to appreciate this. As we went in Feburary it meant that it wasn’t overcrowded or filled with tourists. Instead, it was interesting to see lots of young japanese people dressed in kimonos (which were gorgeous), hanging out at a shrine. The entrance of the shrine is guarded by a fox statue with a key in its mouth. The fox is thought to be the messengers to the god Inari, so there are lots of these statues around the shrine itself. The shrine itself is located on top of a hill and is quite a walk to the top, standing on mount Inari at 233m (and I can only imagine hot and sweaty in the summer!). As we were so limited for time, we went up to the Yotsutsuji Intersection, roughly half way up the mountain. We wish we had more time to go all the way to the top, so if you have time it is something you should check out!
Best of all this place is free! Its fairly easy to get to from Kyoto station as the JR Nara line connects it to Fushimi Inari station and only takes 5 minutes. This is perfect if you have JR pass because this is included. However if you don’t, its only 140 yen one way.
2. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
There are multiple bamboo forests in Kyoto, but the best known one is the Arashiyama bamboo grove. Bamboo is well known in the Japanese culture for being strong and reliant and has been used in festivals to ward off evil. It is honestly one of the most mystical places you will go to. We went early in the morning. There are thousands of bamboo trees rising more than 20 meters high, with over 50 different types of trees.
The Tenyru-ji Temple, is one of the most important temples in the region of Arashiyama. It is found in the bamboo grove. The name roughly translates to ‘the heavenly temple of the dragon’. Originally built in 1339, it is now a world heritage site, which is a must see when you visit Kyoto.
3. KinkakuJi Temple (The golden temple)
This is a beautiful and scenic zen temple originally built in the 14th century for one of the aristocrat shoguns at the time. It was his wish for the temple to be converted into a temple after his death. The top two tiers of the temple, are covered in gold leaf. It has been burnt down several times, either by war or more recently by an aggrieved monk. It has since been renovated to its current stature, and is now one of Japan’s UNESCO world heritage sites.
It is easy to get to from Kyoto station, as the buses run directly from there to site. It is about 40minutes away, but well worth a visit! We were lucky to find it on a beautiful day, but the feeling of peace you feel when you are there is amazing. Just a little beyond the main structure of the temple, is the garden which has been built around the lake.
Kyomizu-dera is one of the most famous temples in Kyoto. With beautiful scenic views from the top of the hill, it is a temple you can fully admire and appreciate. The temple itself has a shrine dedicated to Okinunishi, the god of love and matchmaking. Many couples come and try the challenge to walk between the two stones, infant of this shrine, with your eyes closed. If you are able to do this, then your love is said to last forever. We didn’t know this before we went there, so we sadly missed out on this challenge. However, try it out!!
Even before you get onto this, the street up to the entrance is filled with little shops selling items from food to souvenirs to pottery. It really is something to check out. My magpie eye meant I couldn’t get far before I had bought at least a couple of souvenirs by the top the hill!
The former district of the giesha is well known in Kyoto. Although today the number of geisha has diwdelded, they still exist, spotting them however is another story. Like many people before us, we did not see any geisha in Gion. However, you don’t have to see them to appreciate the beauty of this area.
Large, old houses can be seen which were once geisha houses, are now cafes . We took this time to try some authentic Japanese tea. However, no trip to Japan is ever complete without a trip to Gion.
For those that are unaware, giesha were the entertainers for rich aristocrats. They were well versed in poetry, sophisticated in all mannerisms and would in essence be paid very highly if you would want to spend time in their company. They would be trained from a very young age in these arts and were well respected members of society. Unfortunately, some prostitutes started modelling themselves after geisha, naming themselves geisha, having given them a bad reputation today.
Of course there are many other places to visit, and this is list is my top 5 places. However, I loved these area, and with the 2 days I had in Kyoto, I felt this was very fulfilling. Write your comments! Let me know what you thought and if you have ever visited these places!