Known as the city of 10000 temples and one of Japan's most beautiful cities, Kyoto is home to zen gardens, imperial palaces, traditional wooden houses and many Shinto shrines. Kyoto is the perfect place to visit if you are interested in the authentic Japanese experience and wish to partake in ceremonies and formal traditions.
Getting to Kyoto
For a few days trip to Kyoto, taking the Shinkansen is your best option. One way ticket costs 13,400 yen and it takes about 2 hours and 40 minutes. I recommend buying a Japan Rail Pass before your trip to Japan. You will end up saving a lot of money as the return ticket to Kyoto costs just as much the JR Pass for a week.
We loved our trips on the Shinkansen. The trains are incredibly precise, well organised, efficient and very clean.
What to do In Kyoto
Spending over a week in Kyoto was simply not enough for us. There is so much to do and see, so many side trips to take and a ton of adventures to experience. Kyoto is a place of spirituality, tradition, amazing food and history.
Day 1 - Ease into Kyoto
Once called the Gion Shrine, Yasaka is a beautiful Shinto Shrine built in 656. Home to one of Japan's most loved festivals, Gion Matsuri and a passage towards Murayama Park, a popular hanami place. The Yasaka Shrine had free entry.
This is a very popular hanami site and it gets super crowded during the cherry blossom season. We visited the park in eary December, thus it was quiet and peaceful. During our visit, we enjoyed plenty of koyo (colourful leaves).
From Maruyama Park make your way towards Chion-in, the headquarters of the Jōdo-shū. The last entry is at 4pm and the fees are 500 yen (combined ticket), 400 yen (Hojo Garden only), 300 yen (Yuzen Garden only).
Have a wander around this 13th century Buddhist Temple. Walk amongst serene bamboo groves and experience an authentic Japanese Tea Ceremony at the Kobun-tei, located on the temple grounds. You will pay a modest 1000 yen admission fee for the ceremony, whereby the green tea and confectionary are complimentary.
Your last stop for the day is the impressive Shijo Dori. This is the place to be if you want to sample lots of sweets, tea, ice cream, mochi and dango. The shops are always packed with tourists, but I can assure you it's well worth the wait, as the food here is amazing. Feel free to walk from shop to shop, trial all the goods offered to you and buy what suits your taste. You will end up spending a couple of hours in the area. We returned twice to really make the most out of our Kyoto trip.
Day 2 - Nature and Peace in Kyoto
There is no visit to Kyoto without walking through the famed bamboo forest in Arashiyama, a popular district amongst tourists. To get to Arashiyama, take the JR Sagano Line from the Kyoto Station. This is yet again a great time to use your JR Pass. The journey takes 15 minutes and costs 240 yen (or free with the JR Pass). To reach central Arashiyama, walk for about 5-10 minutes. Accessing the bamboo grooves is free of charge. This is a popular tourist destination, thus it can get pretty crowded, but you will find plenty of photographic opportunities. Spend the whole day visiting other attractions around Arashiyama, then make your way back through the bamboo grooves late in the evening. The council turns on the lights and the forest has a mysterious and surreal feel to it.
Okochi Sanso Villa
Due to being the former villa of Okochi Denjiro (a popular actor), we were initially reluctant to visit this site. We though it may have movie references and not add any historical relevance to our trip. However, having spent quite a while around the grounds, we can safely say it would have been a terrible mistake to skip it. Although the 1000 yen fee is a bit dear, it includes a lovingly made matcha tea and a traditional snack.
This 16th century temple will offer you some outstanding views over Kyoto's mountains. Although I'm sure the landscapes must look fabulous during the cherry blossom season, we really enjoyed seeing colourful maple leaves. You will walk on a cute little path along moss gardens. It looked like a dream. The entrance fee is 400 yen.
A beautiful hillside temple which offers wonderful views over Kyoto. You will notice more imposing buildings here, than in Jōjakukō-ji Temple and lots of overhanging trees along the paths.
A quiet and secluded temple, known for its moss gardens, will delight you with a well defined path punctuated with majestic maple trees. Very cute and well nested into the forest.
Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street
We really wanted to visit the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, which is quite far away from the bamboo grooves. On our way there, we passed the Saga-Toriimoto, a street full of machiya (Japanese town houses), shops and restaurants. The weather looked a bit gloomy, so we decided to stop and have some hot ramen and genmaicha. We also found this cute fan shop ran by an old Japanese lady. It looked incredibly appealing, so we couldn't help buying a couple of souvenirs.
After quite a walk, we finally reached Otagi Nenbutsu-ji. I think this was one of my favorite temples I visited in Kyoto. I appreciate it's quite obscure and fairly far from all the major attractions, but I loved every single inch of it. It was raining when we arrived and there was not a soul in the temple grounds. We paid the modest 300 yen entrance fee and started exploring this small and secluded Buddhist site. It features 1200 stone statues of rakan. Most statues are covered in moss and look so alive and so beautiful. By the time we finished exploring the grounds, it started pouring down. We took shelter and waited there for more than half an hour, tucked into each others arms, in perfect silence, admiring and listening to the rain. It was a very deep spiritual experience.
Day 3 - Food and Adventure in Kyoto
Start the day at the famed Nishiki market. This is the place to be if you are, like us, a foodie! You can find everything here, from fresh fish, to bento boxes, clothes, snacks, jewelery, and what not. We came here to eat. This is the place we found takotamago, a small octopus with an egg in its head. We ate fresh dango, a variety of mochi, Japanese traditional cakes, rice snacks and sushi. This is a great place to try new food, as many Japanese establishments give out samples. Yum!
Buy some snacks for later, as you will be making your way up the mountains.
As you make your way towards Fushimi Inari, stop at the Rengeoin Sanjusangendo, a famous Buddhist temple known for its 1001 statues of Kannon. You have to take off your shoes, you may not touch the statues and you must not use your camera. There is plenty of information available in English, so you can learn a lot and fully enjoy your wander.
From Rengeoin Sanjusangendo we walked for about 40 minutes to Fushimi Inari Taisha.
There are two options to fully enjoy your Fushimi Inari visit. You either visit the famed Torii gates first thing in the morning, or arrive as late in the evening as possible. Although the official hours are until 5pm there is no real closing time. Which means you may not have staff around to sell you souvenirs or emas, but you can freely walk up the mountain through the torii gates. Allow a few hours for this.
Day 4 - Food, Tea Ceremonies and Geishas in Kyoto
Today you'll be spending most of your time in Gion. Walk around the beautiful Shirakawa-minami Dori, one of Kyoto's most beautiful streets. You will notice lots of machiya here, many restaurants and ryokan establishments. This is also a licensed geisha area. It's a beautiful ancient Japanese street.
Experience authentic Kyoto by venturing through small and narrow streets full of ryokans, tea houses and intimate restaurants. We stumbled across this small family ran tea house and we absolutely adored the atmosphere. The host took us upstairs, a beautiful tatami room overseeing the river. We sat down and enjoyed our perfectly made matcha lattes. The place is called Kissaagaru.
Small Side Streets
Make your way to the bridge, located on Shijo Dori. Start walking toward Kawaramachi Station and enjoy vibrant Kyoto in all its splendour. This is the time to shop and check out internationally known brands. However, if you want something more traditional, leave the main roads and venture into the small streets of Kyoto. This is a great place for traditional kaiseki dining (multiple courses of beautiful and tasty dishes).
If you're feeling adventures, spend the afternoon strolling towards Kiyomizu-dera temple which is part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site. Famed because of its wooden stage which offers magnificent views especially during the cherry blossom and koyo seasons.
Day 5 - Exploring Kyoto like a pro
Kyoto Botanical Garden
It's our thing to visit a botanical garden everywhere we go, so it comes with no surprise that we indeed spent some time exploring Kyoto's collection of plants. Because it was early December, the outdoor gardens were not as impressive, but the glass houses were well maintained and looked beautiful. We encountered many old people wandering peacefully around the gardens. There was an impressive collection of poinsettias available and a few rare types of plants and orchids. If you like nature and plants, don't skip the Kyoto Botanical Garden.
From the Kyoto Botanical Gardens, we walked for over an hour to get to Kinkaku-ji, the golden leaf temple. This is a beautiful place, perfect for outstanding photographic opportunities. There are limited amounts of people allowed by the lake, so you are guaranteed to be able to really capture the beauty of this temple.
Just around the corner Ryōan-ji, is a zen temple known for its rock garden. The origins and the meaning of the garden is unclear although there are plenty of speculations made by scholars. We found Ryōan-ji to be a perfect place to end the day. Enjoy the peace and quiet, meditate and find your zen. It's an epic place for self reflection.
There are plenty of day trips from Kyoto, including Nara, Uji, Osaka, Himeji Castle and Kyoto's surrounding mountains. We chose to visit Nara for its cute deers, Uji because of my crazy love for teas and Mount Hiei, since we both enjoy walking and hiking.