Kyoto stands for the old Japan, the tradition and culture. When you hear Kyoto, you might think of magnificent temples, splendid Japanese gardens, shrines, wooden houses and Geishas. And you will find all of this in a city which does not only represent traditional Japan, but also the modernity of the country. Join me in exploring Kyoto with this itinerary.
I couldn’t wait to see all the famous sights like the Fushimi Inari Shrine or the bamboo forest and I was eager to encounter a real Geisha. When I arrived in Kyoto and saw the huge glass-steel construction of Kyoto station I could not imagine that there was actually a traditional and old part of the city, which was my main point of interest. But as soon as I left the area around the station, I found myself in the middle of history and Japanese culture and ready to visit Kyoto.
Here’s a map of Kyoto to give you an overview of the city and show you the parts I’ve visited. So basically there is Downtown with the Nishiki Market as its main attraction, the Tokyo Station area, Higashiyama in the East and Arashiyama with the bamboo forest in the West. Fushimi Inari is in the Southeast and in the Northwest, you’ll find many temples such as Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. Sorry for the quality of the map 😉
Here’s my Kyoto itinerary and the spots I was able to see in just a couple of days.
1 – Nishiki Market
Located in Downtown Kyoto, Nishiki Market is one of the top-rated things when exploring Kyoto. Especially on a rainy day, the covered arcades invite to stroll through the market and discover the variety of Japanese food. It is a place where locals buy their grocery and tourists wander. Unlike Tokyo’s fish market it is not an outrage to take photos and you will find plenty of wonderful sceneries in Nishiki market. Respect the privacy and ask for approval before capturing people though. Oh, and if you love oysters, this is your spot! If you’re at home and miss Japanese food, check out Veronika’s amazing recipe for Miso soba noodle salad. Yummy!
(Click on the images to see them in full size)
2 – Gion
In the Southern Higashiyama area, there’s Gion, the city’s traditional Geisha district. The Hanamikoji Dori is the main entertainment road where you might encounter a real Geisha. This area is perfect for a stroll in the early evening when the lights and lanterns go on. Like everywhere in Kyoto, Hanamikoji road is crowded with visitors. I was lucky to see some real Geishas, but it was nearly impossible to capture them because of the crowds. If you happen to see a Geisha or Maiko, don’t block her way while trying to photograph her.
By the way – do you know the difference between Geisha and Maiko? A Geisha is the elite of Japanese entertainer and performer. In Kyoto the preferred word for Geisha is Geiko. A Maiko is a Geisha trainee. There are differences in makeup, hair, kimono and shoes to distinguish a Maiko from a Geisha.
3 – Stroll through Pontocho area in the evening
Pontocho right next to the river is an area of narrow alleys packed with restaurants. You’ll have all options – from traditional to modern, from expensive to cheap. Most restaurants are open in the evening only and not all of them have English menus. My tip: Chao Chao is the place where you will get the best Gyozas in Kyoto if you don’t mind waiting up to 1 1/2 hours for a table.
4 – Higashiyama
Take a whole day to explore Kyoto’s beautiful historic district of Higashiyama with its narrow lanes and wooden buildings. This is the real old Kyoto: full of temples and shrines, but also restaurants, shops and cafés all along the roads. Throw away the map and just sink in, go with the flow and enjoy the best of Kyoto culture.
Start with the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, Kennin-ji with a beautiful Zen garden. It belongs to the five most important Zen temples. For an admission fee of 500 Yen, you can visit the garden and the temple. Walk along Yasakadori Road, watch the girls dressed beautifully in traditional Japanese dresses, have a coffee at Arabica and head up to the picturesque Buddhist temple Hokan-ji from where you’ve got a striking view on the city. Pass Yasaka Shrine South Tower Gate and continue to Maruyama Park, where you can enjoy the music of a Japanese flute player during sunset. The park is a favorite place for the locals and quite famous for cherry blossom viewing in April. If you walk up the staircase you will reach Kodaiji Temple and a further 20-minute walk brings you to the famous (but usually very packed) Kiyomizu Temple. 8 out of 10 tourists visit this site – I admit, I’m one of the two who has not…(yet).
5 – Sagano Bamboo Forest Arashiyama
I saw so many sweeping photographs of the bamboo forest, I couldn’t wait to see it myself. From Kyoto station take the San-In Line to Saga-Arashiyama and then it’s a walk of 15 minutes. Go and get yourself a matcha ice cream on the way, it’s delicious.
A winding path leads you through the giant bamboo stalks and they seem to be endless if you look up the sky. The light is beautiful and the colors are lush. The more than 10 meter high trees filter the wind and the sound of it are so unique and peaceful that the Ministry of Environment put the sounds of the bamboo grove on its list of „100 Soundscapes of Japan“. The bamboo grove is very popular not only among tourists but also among locals. It is among the best of Kyoto and naturally, the place is crowded, no matter when you come. If you’ve got the chance, don’t visit on a weekend. It is open 24/7 however, if you don’t mind the darkness or are not chicken-hearted, you may want to listen to the sound and come at night. I did not, but will seriously consider the next time.
In Arashiyama you will find the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site Tenryū-ji Temple right outside the bamboo forest. It is the first among the city’s five great Zen temples. The „Temple of the Heavenly Dragon“ was built in 1339 and has been devastated by fires eight times. The garden behind the temple is the oldest in Japan and you can see the love and care the garden is treated with. My very honest personal opinion is, that the temple is not very special and not a must see when exploring Kyoto. But maybe I am just a real philistine…
Entrance fee: 500 Yen to visit the garden plus another 300 Yen to see the temple.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Photos of Fushimi Inari were one of the main triggers that made me go to Japan. I wanted to see this site myself and moreover, I wanted to make awesome photos. It is famous for its thousands of Torii gates leading through the forest up Mount Inari. Inari is the Shinto god of rice and foxes were meant to be Inari’s messengers. You will see loads of fox statues on the shrine grounds – now you know the reason why. I totally recommend you to plan 3-4 hours to explore the whole area. After I passed the two parallel rows of Torii gates, I turned right and took the path leading up the mountain. This is the quiet and less frequented trail and if you want some peace and tranquility you should go for this one, too. Once you reach the top, you can take the path down on the other side and walk through all the Torii gates. The Torii gates are donations and the name and date of the donation are inscribed on the back of each gate. Here are some more insights of Fushimi Inari.
How to get there? From Kyoto station take Nara Line and get off Inari station. From there it is only a few minutes walk until you reach the giant gate at the entrance of the shrine. There’s no admission fee and the site is open 24/7.
The site is due to its popularity and beauty crowded like hell. Try to avoid weekends and same as with the bamboo grove: the later in the evening you go, the fewer people you will meet. But don’t miss this place when you visit Kyoto, it is a must. Why not going there at night? Here are traveler Jerny and Jane’s experience.
Kinkaku, also called the Golden Pavilion, is located in the North of the city and is part of the Rokuon-ji Temple, a Zen Buddhist temple surrounded by a lovely garden with a pond. The reflection of the golden upper levels of Kinkaku in the water is just beautiful and a very popular photo scenery. Just as any other popular site in Kyoto, it is a very busy one, although you can only stroll through the garden and unfortunately not visit the inside of the temple.
The admission fee is 400 Yen. Take the bus 205 and exit Kinkakujimichi. From there it is only a five-minute walk to the temple.
Where I stayed?
The hotel I booked, Sakura The Gallery Terrace*, was a two-minute walk from Kyoto station. The challenge was not to find the hotel itself, but the exit. The station is a tremendous building housing not only the train and subway station but also shopping centers and restaurants. Even after a couple of days, I had difficulties finding the right exit. The location of the hotel was perfect due to its vicinity to Kyoto station. I could reach all trains, buses and the subway within a few minutes and even take a pleasant walk to Higashiyama in 30 minutes passing some beautiful sights.
This article shows only a small fraction of activities you can do in the city of 10.000 shrines and there are tons of things to see and so much more to explore in Kyoto. A reason to go back, don’t you think?
Have you been to Kyoto? What was your favorite site? If you want to do a day trip to Nara, you can read my article. Hiroshima can also easily be reached from Kyoto.