Kyoto – ancient glory of Japan
The three-hour train journey from Tokyo to Kyoto is time-travel to ancient era of the Imperial capital of Japan with its grandiose architecture and stunning pagodas in complete contrast from the modern Tokyo. And during springtime, the entire city of Kyoto, Japan is blanketed in pink and white cherry blossoms. Although, it is not possible to experience Kyoto in its fullest in three days, we did visit most of the major sites. We have chronicled our experience below which we hope will help first-time visitors to plan their trip.
When to visit?
The best time to visit Kyoto is either during springtime Sakura (March-May) or autumn (October-November). During both the seasons, Kyoto covers itself in hues of white and pink of Sakura and reds and oranges of falling leaves in autumn. We recommend travelers to plan their trip according to predicted calendar for cherry blossom in spring.
How to reach and staying options
The easiest way to travel to Kyoto from Tokyo is via bullet train. However, there are flights (Kansai International airport) and buses available as well. There are plenty of options available for accommodation but we recommend staying in traditional Ryokan to truly experience Japanese lifestyle. Also, during spring and autumn, staying options fill up fast; hence plan in advance and consider booking with Airbnb like us!
Getting around Kyoto
Kyoto railway station building is equipped with information extensive shopping mall, restaurants, bus station and most importantly tourist information office. You can find information about bus-routes and timings for all the major sites along with Kyoto map here. The best way to travel in Kyoto is by bike rentals, but lazy and time-strapped tourists like us can travel by bus which are very tourist friendly equipped with stop instructions in English. However, JR Pass is not valid on Kyoto bus and hence it is advisable to buy Kyoto Bus only passes.
When in Kyoto…Major Tourist Attractions
One of the most popular places in Kyoto, the temple is UNESCO Heritage site. Kiyomizu-Dera literally means Temple (Dera) in Pure Water (Kiyomizu). In Japanese culture, the temple is known for making wishes.
We walked uphill to the temple; the road has many eateries and shops – we had our first Matcha ice-cream here! We were greeted by Deva gate, which is main entrance to the complex. We then made our way through pitch-dark passage between two stones at Jishu Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking.
Wish-making seems to be common thread throughout the complex; be it the Koyasu Pagoda in the distance – a visit to this three-storied pagoda is said to grant your wish of an easy and safe childbirth or the three streams of Otowa Waterfall – drinking from each stream is said to provide a different wish-granting benefit. The first is for longevity, the second for success at school, and the third for luck in love.
Arashiyama Bamboo Groves:
This is our favorite place amongst all places we visited in Kyoto. Located on the outskirts of the town, the entire Arashiyama area is dotted with picturesque temples, gardens, restaurants, and shops. We visited Tenryuji temple, which is ranked among Kyoto’s five great Zen temples and founded in 1339 at the beginning of the Muromachi Period. In addition, it is surrounded by beautiful garden with walking trails.
Next, we entered path surrounded by bamboo groves, which is nothing but pure magic! It is a mystical setting straight out of a fantasy – green leaves whispering, culms swaying gently in the wind, bursts of sunlight peeking through the bamboo. The short walk through this other worldly, picturesque grove left our minds at peace.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
One of Kyoto’s most recognizable landmarks, Fushimi Inari Shrine is a Shinto shrine known for some 10,000 orange torii gates arching over a scenic, two-hour-long walking trail. Just before visiting Japan, we had watched the movie ‘Memoirs of Geisha’ which has been shot here. As Indians, we could relate to this place because India has so many religious shrines perched on hilltops requiring devotees to climb multitudes of steps to seek deity blessings.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
Kinkaku-ji is a beautiful temple covered in gold leaf, and again is World Heritage site. Its name is derived from the gold leaf that envelops it. In 1950, a schizophrenic monk who felt that it was “too beautiful” once burned down the temple. It was again rebuilt in 1955, rising like a phoenix from ashes, to resemble the original temple but with more gold leaf coating. The two temple floors are built in different architecture styles and its peak is capped with a golden phoenix. The temple is surrounded Japanese garden, typical of the Muromachi period of garden design. There is also a tea-house (ochaya) in the garden where we experienced traditional Japanese tea-ceremony.
Our next destination was Kyoto International Manga Museum located in an old elementary school. If you’re a Manga fan, the museum is a must visit. There are about half a million books for you to read throughout the museum, including books in other languages besides Japanese. The section that has displays on the evolution of Manga in Japanese civilization particularly enthralled us. Manga is for every Japanese, not just for children, it was also important means to convey political thoughts. The high point of our visit was our very own Manga caricature drawn by in-house artists!
The Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku no michi) is a pleasant stone path through the northern part of Kyoto’s Higashiyama district. The path follows a canal, which is lined, by hundreds of cherry trees in full blossom. Approximately two kilometers long, the path begins around Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and ends in the neighborhood of Nanzenji. The path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University.
After visiting Ginkakuji, we strolled along the Philosopher’s walk laden with cherry trees and restaurants. We extended our walk until Maruyama Park. It is Kyoto’s most popular public park for cherry blossom parties. Its centerpiece is a large weeping cherry tree that gets lit up in the evenings. We spent our evening rejoicing in Hanami with everyone in the park!
Geisha District – Gion
We spent our final evening in Kyoto exploring streets of Gion, which starts at Maruyama Park entrance. The entire area is filled with old wooden houses, teahouses and Japanese restaurants connected by cobblestone pathways. We were lucky to glimpse few geishas walking to teahouses in their cumbersome zori sandals and exquisite kimono.
We walked along beautiful Kamo river of Kyoto at midnight reminiscing our last three days in Kyoto. It soaked us with its rich culture, history and food!
Our next stop was Hiroshima. Ghumrs can read about our day at Hiroshima and Miyajima here. Another interesting off-beat destination in Japan is Kamakura. Ghumrs can read about how to spend a perfect day at Kamakura here.