We had four and a half days in Kyoto, and as I love to visit temples, palaces and castles, there were some tough decisions to be made about what, and what not, to see.
Kyoto has so many impressive sites that it is difficult to decide what to see. For me, it wasn’t highly planned and when I found myself in an area with an interesting attraction, I’d visit it. Here are some of the most memorable places I visited in Kyoto:
Kinkaku-ji (Golden pavilion): I think the beauty of this site will leave an impression on every visitor. The spectacle of the golden pavilion is perfectly balanced next to the lake, which reflects the image and makes it seem even more shimmering. The interior of the pavilion is not open to visitors but the grounds provide a pleasant walk, from where the pavilion can be admired from every angle. I think the Golden Pavilion is the top must-see site in Kyoto.
Gion: A visit to Kyoto would not be complete without a visit to the Gion district, famous for its geisha. Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky enough to spot a geisha dashing between engagements, but it’s still interesting to imagine what’s going on behind the wooden doors of the quaint restaurants and teahouses within the Gion district.
Kiyomizu-dera: For me, this was the most impressive temple I visited within Kyoto, from the vibrant entrance torii, to the huge wooden veranda that overhangs the hillside. From the veranda, you have views over Kyoto and can see the waterfall, from which the temple was established. Within the temple complex there are additional shrines, including Jishu-jinga, which is dedicated to love, where dreams can be made by successfully walking blindfolded between two stones positioned 18 metres apart.
Nijo-jo: It was pleasant to walk through the wooden interiors of this castle, listening to the whistling of the ‘nightingale’ floors, which warned the residing shogun of intruders. The grandeur was impressive, with waiting rooms, meeting rooms and living quarters, allowing you to visualise the functioning of courtly life. The castle is set within grounds, with ponds, which would have been nice to explore if it wasn’t for the beating summer sun.
Nishiki Market: Located in the centre of town, this market provides an easily accessible way to try some of the more unusual cuisine found in Kyoto. We walked through the narrow passageway for about an hour, trying quail egg-filled octopus, conger eel, tuna sashimi and fried burdock (yes, the same "burdock" of Dandelion & Burdock fame if you're British!).
Ryoan-ji: Located near the Golden Pavilion, this Zen garden provides an interesting break from temple hopping and the midday sun. The minimalist garden, containing 15 rocks positioned within a gravel rectangle, leaves the meaning to the interpretation of the individual. The gardens outside this park are also pretty, and can occupy a pleasant hour long stroll.
I had two main desires for entertainment whilst in Kyoto, attend a tea ceremony and see a geisha. My first desire was easily met but the second had to be modified slightly.
Tea ceremony: I love drinking tea, and I also enjoy the idea of tradition and elegance, so it seemed perfect to combine the two in a tea ceremony. This is such an iconically Japanese activity and it really stands out as a highlight of Kyoto for me. I went to EN teahouse for my ceremony (http://www.teaceremonyen.com), located close to Gion and the Yasaka-jinga shrine. This tea ceremony wasn’t traditional, as they explained the actions they were performing and allowed us to make our own tea. However, it was really special to see the significance placed upon each movement and the respect given to the whole process. The whisked powered green tea wasn’t quite to my taste, but it’s something I’ll always remember.
Gion Corner: Not being lucky enough to see a geisha walking around Gion, I decided to go to Gion Corner to see the seven Japanese art forms. I arrived a minute before the start of the performance and went straight through. Each art form lasts about 5 minutes, before they change to the next, so there’s a lot to see during the performance. It’s touristy but fun at the same time. I particularly enjoyed the geisha dancing and comedy performance.
I went on two day trips from Kyoto and I bought the 2 day Kansai JR rail pass. This made it nice and easy, as once I’d bought the pass I could use any JR express train, without having to worry about having the right ticket. It also works out as good value, especially for the long journey to Himeji.
Himeji Castle: I love visiting European castle when I’m home and so Himeji Castle seemed an obvious choice for me. The journey took 90 minutes from Kyoto and the trains run regularly throughout the day. It’s easy to find your way around Himeji city, as the castle itself is immediately apparent on a distant hill as you exit the train station. I didn’t get the train until about 10.30am, so by the time I’d arrived and walked to the castle, it was midday and there were a lot of people, indeed we had to queue inside the castle to climb the stairs. The castle takes about 2 hours to go around, so my advice would be to either arrive early or late, so you can explore the inside of the main keep in peace.
Himeji Castle is thought to be the finest remaining original Japanese castle and has recently received an impressive restoration, completed at the beginning of 2015. Originally built in 1580, the iconic image of the castle consists of the glisteningly white five storey central keep perched atop a hill, surrounded by moats and gardens. The beauty of the castle can easily be admired, especially when compared to the solid, grey-stoned European equivalents. However, the defensive capacity of the castle should not be underestimated, with the walls containing holes for firing arrows and guns and openings to pour boiling water and oil onto invading armies.
I enjoyed my daytrip to Himeji Castle, walking through the wooden interiors of the keep and thinking about all the attacks the castle has witnessed as I walked through the grounds. However, if you’re not overly interested in castles, maybe you would be content with a visit to the more conveniently located Osaka Castle, a concrete reconstruction built in 1931.
On my return to Kyoto from Himeji, I changed trains at Kyoto station and travelled for three stops to the south of Kyoto to visit the Fushimi Inari shrine. This shrine extends over the hillside of Mount Inari and it makes for a pleasant couple of hours to stroll up the mountain, through the thousands of orange torii gates, to reach the peak, with a fantastic view of Kyoto about half way up. I was there in the late afternoon and the crowds quickly thinned as I climbed up the steps. Indeed, there was a lovely eerie atmosphere as I reached the top of the mountain and descended, with the evening light fading beneath the tree cover.
Nara: My second daytrip from Kyoto was to Nara, the first permanent Japanese capital. Nara is a lovely city to walk around, with plenty of green space and shade to enjoy a relaxing break from the hectic city life, and with the train journey only taking 45 minutes from Kyoto, it makes a perfect destination for the day.
The main attraction in Nara is the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), which is housed within Daibutsu-den Hall of the Todai-ji, a temple located with Nara Park. In fact, the Daibutsu-den is the largest wooden building in the world, and was originally a third larger. I was able to take a free English tour with a Japanese guide (available just after the ticket desk), who explained the meaning of all the figures and images and the context in which the temple was built. An interesting feature of the temple can be found at the rear of the Great Buddha, where a wooden column with a hole at the bottom is positioned. This hole is exactly the same size as the nostrils of the Great Buddha and it is believed that if you can squeeze through the hole, you will achieve enlightenment. Indeed, I stood for 5 minutes and watched a fully grown man successfully force his way through the hole.
Another highlight of a visit to Nara is a walk through the surrounding park. There are many smaller temples and shrines located within the woods, and it makes for an enjoyable afternoon to wander through and admire the various buildings. It would also be the perfect place for a picnic and a late afternoon snooze. It would be impossible to talk about Nara without mentioning the many tame deer to live within the park. They are very inquisitive and will happily be feed and petted.
It’s worth saying that if you manage to finish all the sites in Nara by early afternoon, you could include a stop on the way back to Kyoto at Uji, which is famous for the Byodo-in, a Buddhist temple, depicted on the 10 YEN coin.