Kyoto is quintessential Japan – it has just the right mix of tradition and modernity and is so tourist friendly it is beyond unbelievable. When El visited me during the Christmas/New Year period, this was one of the places that we both knew we definitely wanted to go. I had been to 京都 years before, but only on a day trip from Osaka (大阪) so I knew for sure I had to go back again (and I will be going back shortly again when my friends Niki and Hamed come to visit in April!)
Perhaps El and I did not choose the best time to travel to 京都, it is one of the most visited cities in Japan outside of Tokyo (東京). The new years holiday period is one of the very few times that most Japanese people have off work – on average they get about 3 days off at this time and the tradition at the beginning of the year is to visit a shrine and temple to bring good luck for the rest of the year. So, 京都 was filled with the normal sets of tourists, plus many Japanese people visiting the various temples and shrines dotted throughout the city. This made travelling around an interesting experience.
We set off bright and early on the 2nd of January on the bullet train (新幹線). It was a roughly two and half hour journey which went by amazingly quickly, especially with views like this out the window! The 新幹線 is such a convenient and comfortable way to travel, it’s what makes the cost of travel here bearable!
We had just spent the previous week travelling around Kyuushuu (九州), which is much less populated and sees a lot less tourists, so stepping out into Kyoto station was a bit of a shock to the system, with literally hundreds of people milling around. We headed straight for the tourist information centre and mapped out a game plan for the coming couple of days.
We headed straight to our accommodation – a capsule ryokan hotel – to drop off our luggage and then went straight back out to start exploring the city. A lovely older gentleman helped us catch the right bus to the Kinkakuji temple (金閣寺） – even though he was unable to speak, he wrote us a note in English to help us figure out which direction to catch the bus.
金閣寺 is beyond words, despite the hundreds of people trying to get their perfect Instagram picture, the beauty of the temple is unlike any other. The ‘Golden Pavillion’ is without a doubt the symbol of Kyoto.
I couldn’t resist the gimmick of gold leaf covered dango – it tasted like regular dango though haha.
After getting on another packed bus, we made our way to Ginkakuji (銀閣寺), the Silver Pavilion (even though there is no silver on it). The surrounding gardens of this temple were beautiful, so perfectly manicured and hand picked as were the sand gardens so carefully raked with such precision.
Most of Kyoto’s attractions are easily accessible by bus and while they are not very far away in terms of distance, as the roads were particularly congested, it took a considerable time to get to each place. Our next stop was Kiyomizudera Temple (清水寺) and the walk up to the temple is uphill past kitschy little stores selling souvenirs and street food. The view from the top (especially the time of day we happened to arrive – dusk) was spectacular.
Sunset over 京都
Kiyomizudera temple is located in the Gion (祇園) area – another quintessential Kyoto attraction. We walked along the main street and then diverted through some seedy looking alleys to get a feel for the area.
The next day Eleanor decided to make the most of her JR pass and visit Osaka (大阪), a short train ride away. I decided to stay in Kyoto and do a little hike and explore some of the less popular temples and we decided to rendezvous later in the evening for dinner.
I caught the train about thirty minutes north of 京都 to Kibune (貴船) and decided to walk half and hour or so up to the shrine rather than catch the bus. It was a beautiful walk – mainly because there weren’t many people around and the surroundings were just so lush and green, with the most amazing looking trees I have ever seen.
Kifune Shrine (貴船神社) is the main sightseeing attraction in the tiny village and though I have been to a fair few shrines in my short time in Japan, there was something magical about this one. The atmosphere perhaps? Or the fact that it was cold but there was a log fire, emitting a smoky scent?
Kifune Shrine (貴船神社)
From here I had read about a hike through the forest that could be done to Kurama (鞍馬), another small village nestled in the mountains. I did not anticipate how tough this hike was going to be – possibly if I were a little more active and actually did some exercise every now and then it would not have been as hard. But there were parts that were a little challenging, but definitely worth doing for sure. There were often points on the trail that I was completely alone – that feeling of being so close to nature is incomparable.
Hiking my way through the forest to Kurama-dera (鞍馬寺)
After completing the hike, I hopped on the train back into the city to explore some of the lesser known temples in Kyoto. This was such a relaxing and calming afternoon (though at one point I started on a hike through the forest but could not see a marked path or any other people for that matter, which could have been a potentially dangerous situation!)
This sign in the last temple I went to really resonated with me
Our last day in Kyoto we decided to head to Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷神社) and then Arashiyama (嵐山) later in the afternoon. These two were both slightly out of the city so we first made our way to the shrine. As it was around New Years, it was absolutely packed with both tourists and people making their pilgrimage. The iconic red gates are even more amazing in person. We made the trek up to the top of Mt Inari (稲荷山) where there was a spectacular view of Kyoto city.
The iconic red gates of 伏見稲荷神社
From here we made our way to Arashiyama, which is best known for its bamboo groves. The main street did feel very touristy; we stopped off for lunch at a udon (うどん) place before heading to the bamboo grove. There was something mesmerizing being surrounded by such tall stalks of bamboo.
We also stopped by the Togetsu-kyo Bridge (渡月橋).
We had some to kill before our 新幹線 back to 東京 later in the evening, so we stopped by another lovely manicured garden before heading to Nijo Castle (二条城). Unfortunately, the castle grounds were just about to close when we got there, so we were unable to go inside! So what better to do when you don’t know what to do, but eat! So we found a lovely dessert place overlooking the Kyoto Tower before catching the 新幹線 back.
I loved our time in 京都, the city is easy to get around, it feels very laid back and relaxed and I love visiting temples and shrines (not to mention it is the heart of Buddhist vegetarian cuisine!). It is a good thing I loved it so much considering I will be going back very soon!