Kyoto – The Cultural Capital Of Japan
After more or less blowing through Hiroshima and Miyajima, we hop on the shinkansen using our Japan Rail Pass and head to Kyoto. We slow down a bit, giving ourselves 2 days in Kyoto to learn about the city. This is not much time in a city of this size, nearly 320 square miles with a population of around 1.5 million.
Kyoto is one of the most important Japanese cities. Chosen as the seat of Japan’s Imperial Court in 794CE, the emperors of Japan ruled from here until the court relocated to Tokyo in 1868, nearly 1100 years later. Kyoto is still considered the cultural capital.
You may wonder if 2 days in Kyoto is enough time to see all you should see here. There are over 1600 Buddhist temples and more than 400 Shinto shrines. With a good itinerary or a great person to guide you, 2 days will be enough time to take in the beauty and the history of the city.
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Kyoto Station and Hotel Granvia
We choose to stay in the city center at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto, a business-style luxury hotel. A high-rise building right above Kyoto station, just a 3-minute walk from the JR Shinkansen gate. And the station is much more than just a place to catch a train.
As I’ve written in other posts, such as Oslo Layover, train stations are vast hubs of activity in Europe and Asia.
Take a look at this “finding your way map” Kyoto Station provides.
As well as being the main train station for Kyoto, The central bus station and subway are here. Car rentals are available. And of course, there is a Post Office and Bank.
The Tourist Information Center will help you find things to do. Kyoto Theater is next door if you want to catch some Japanese entertainment. And if you still need something to do you can shop and dine at the Porta underground shopping mall. Or head to the 13-floor Isetan Department Store on the western flank.
But we chose this hotel for its location. We check in, clean up, and go out to explore. To get the most out of our quick visit to Kyoto, tomorrow we have an all-day tour planned with another guide from ToursByLocals.
Seeing The Shrines and Castles Of Kyoto
This is our first full day in Kyoto, and as this is our first time traveling to Japan, we have a lot of history to get through today. Because of the historical significance of Kyoto, in 1994, Unesco added many of the ancient sites to their World Heritage List. Today is all about seeing the ancient shrines, temples, and castles.
We meet up with our guide Chizuko Hamada, right outside the hotel at the bus station. Having a local guide is an efficient way to see a city. Guides know the quickest routes to go and can offer insights into the monuments, museums, and landmarks that you can’t get from an audio tour.
I’ve figured out by now that the guides in Japan are used to American tourists not having much stamina. Chizuko’s first question to us is if walking will be ok. She explains that using public transportation and walking is the best way to see all the highlights on our schedule today, but it is a lot of walking. We can do cabs, she says, but that will cost more and take more time.
So you can already guess, that it is a must to have a great pair of walking shoes and be in decent shape. You will be hopping on and off busses, walking up ancient paths, and climbing many stairs. By the way, since you often have to take off your shoes to enter important temples, I recommend your shoes be easy on and easy off.
I am a big fan of Skechers. Their Arch Fit line of shoes is lightweight and offers the support your feet will need. This easy slip-on style is a fantastic choice for walking and visiting temples.
We assure Chizuko that we are good to go and jump on a bus to our first stop.
Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine
Fushimi was already one of the best places to see in Kyoto. Still, when the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” showed young Chiyo (Sayuri) running through the Torii gates, the shrine gained even more fans in the West.
The Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine was founded in the 700s CE and dedicated to Inari, the Shinto deity of good harvest and success in business. (Inari used to be the god of rice and sake but seems to have evolved somewhat). Fushimi is at the top of Japan’s nearly 3500 Inari shrines.
Foxes are said to be Inari’s messengers, and you will see fox statues throughout the grounds. Often these statues hold objects in their mouths, such as a key or a bundle of rice.
The Torri gates, barrels of sake, long rows of crane origami, and wooden boards with writings are offerings from locals to ask Inari for blessings on their harvests and businesses.
The most current buildings of the Fushimi Inari shrine date back to around 1499. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the famous samurai, and daimyo, donated the giant gate at the entrance in 1589.
By the way, if you are thinking of making an offering of a Torii gate, that starts at around 400,000 JPY (that’s $4,000 US!). For those of us with thinner wallets than a daimyo, you may consider making an offering of some sake or origami.
Like Itsukushima in Miyajima, Fushimi is painted the same red-orange (vermillion) color. This color is thought to protect against evil forces and represents the bounty of the deity.
We walk along the path of Torii gates but don’t go all the way to the top. From the shrine’s entrance to the top of Mount Inari and back takes between two and three hours, depending on how fast you walk.
Instead, we wander around the main areas of the shrine and make a few of our own offerings, including one to the “sacrificial horse” for good fortune, before we head off to see a castle.
Nijo Castle – Home of the Shogun Tokugawa
Tokugawa Ieyasu (note family names often come first in Asian cultures) was the first Shogun and founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan from 1603 until 1868. Nijo Castle or Nijo-jo was the residence he began building in 1603. The castle was completed by his grandson many years later.
The castle is set up for three areas of defense. The “Outer Area” are the gardens that circle the “Honmaru” or principle circle of protection, and the “Ninomaru” or secondary circle.
As you walk around the Outer Area and Honmaru, you will come to a Chinese-style Karamon Gate. This is the entrance to Ninomaru. Looking through this gate, you get your first view of the palace.
Nijo Castle has beautiful gardens. The moat, ponds, and small waterfalls give you a sense of the grandeur of the ruling class. But the palace is what everyone comes to see.
One of the first things you notice in the palace is that the floors squeak every time you take a step. This is not due to age or the wooden construction of the building. This is a specific design called uguisubari (nightingale floors). The squeaking was built-in to ensure no one could ever sneak up on the Shogun.
There are 33 rooms and chambers in Ninomaru Palace. Over 800 tatami mats cover the floors. Throughout the palace, walls and sliding doors are canvasses that famous Japanese artists have painted. These paintings depict local flora and fauna, and show all four seasons.
You are not allowed to take photos inside the palace, so I have none to show you. You will need to go and see this beautiful place for yourself.
Next Stop Kinkaku-Ji Temple – The Golden Pavillion
Everyone comes to see the Golden Pavillion. This may be the most famous Zen Temple in Japan. The property was initially Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s retirement villa. In his will, he called for the buildings and grounds to become a Zen temple for the Rinzai sect.
Overlooking a large pond (where literally every visitor stops to take pictures, myself included) is the golden temple off Kinkaku-Ji, the only structure left of the original complex. The property burned down many times, including twice during the civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto. While faithful to the original, the current structure was rebuilt in 1955.
Visitors can only view the Golden Pavillion from the outside. But it’s fun to try to imagine what this impressive building has inside. It is said that the third floor, built in the style of a Chinese Zen Hall, is gilded inside and out.
The grounds of the Temple are as grand as the Golden Pavillion. Following the walking trails, past Kinkaku-Ji, you enter the gardens and pass by the former living quarters of the head priest. Outside of this building is a pine tree that our guide tells me is several hundred years old and has been trained in the shape of a ship.
If you have been touring for a while now, you might want some rest. In the gardens is Sekkatei Teahouse, which has been at Kinkaku-Ji since the Edo period. Also outside the exit are souvenir shops and a small tea garden.
A Quick Stop For Rest And Food
After leaving Kinkaku-Ji, Chizuko takes us to a local restaurant for a bite to eat. This time we are in an authentic Japanese eatery, not a Mos Burger. We both have a small bento box and enjoy the time off our feet. I’m not sure how many miles we have covered in this first half of the day, but we still have far to go.
Ryoan-Ji: The Temple Of The Dragon At Peace
The Zen Buddhist temple of Ryoan-Ji is best known for its simple rock garden, a perfect example of kare-sansui (dry landscape). It’s said that the monks calmly rake the rocks (sand) in the garden as a form of meditation.
As you enter the main gate, you see Kyoyochi (Mirror) Pond to your left. Once you pass through the second gate, you come to the “Hojo,” used as the abbot’s personal study and living quarters. Here you will see many paintings and artifacts.
Behind the rock garden sits the Tsukubai Water Basin. Basins such as this are traditionally used to cleanse and purify your hands and mouth before entering a shrine or Temple.
The Rock Garden is the main feature visitors come to see at Ryoan-Ji. The garden is accessed from the Hojo. You view the garden from the wooden veranda alongside the Hojo or from inside the room.
Followers of Zen Buddhism pursue enlightenment through self-introspection of personal experience. The rock garden was created to encourage contemplation. Likely built between the 14th and 16th centuries CE, the 15 rocks in the garden spread out over white gravel and only cover 248 square meters. But the stones are arranged so that the viewer of the garden can never see all the rocks at one time.
We spend some quiet time reflecting at Ryoan-Ji. Now we are ready to tackle what is probably the most challenging walk of our day: Matsubara-Dori, the road that leads up to Kiyomizu- Dera.
Higashiyama District, Gion, And Kiyomizu-Dera
The Higashiyama District is what most westerners imagine Japan looks like. This beautifully preserved historic area is full of narrow streets and wooden buildings filled with shops and tea houses. If you want to imagine yourself in feudal Japan, this is the place to go.
Gion district is adjacent to Higashiyama near the river. This is the area of the famous Geiko (Kyoto dialect for Geisha) and Maiko, their apprentices. If you are lucky, you may see Geiko as they are on their way to or from their engagements. You can learn more about this ancient profession by visiting Maikoya and reserving a space at one of their many shows.
It’s easy to find walking tours of Higashiyama. The district is probably even more popular with the Japanese than Westerners. You will see many locals dressed in their most delicate Kimono (or they have possibly rented Kimono). This is a popular location for wedding shoots and, of course, all things Insta!
Kiyomizu-Dera – A Must-See On Your 2 Days In Kyoto
But for today, we are using one of the main streets in Higashiyama, Matsubara-dori, as our path up the hill to Kiyomizu-Dera. This Buddhist Temple’s English name is Pure Water Temple, which makes sense as it was founded in 780 CE next to the Otowa Waterfall.
The Temple’s main hall and the stage are the places most head for first. This wooden balcony sits 13 meters above the hillside and offers an incredible panoramic view of Kyoto. Once you get over the scenery, you can take in the beauty of the hall and its primary object of worship, the 11-faced, thousand-armed Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy.
Located at the base of the main hall is the Otowa Waterfall. From here, visitors to Kiyomizu can use cups attached to long poles to drink the waters. There are three separate streams to choose from, and each is said to have unique benefits: longevity, success, or blessed love life. But you must choose only one as drinking from all three is considered greedy.
In the distance, Chizuko points out another temple, the Koyasu Pagoda, dedicated to the goddess Koyasu Kannon. Chizuko tells us that it is believed that pregnant women who climb the hill to the Koyasu Pagoda will have an easy and safe childbirth.
I am not pregnant, and it is full-on raining now, so we choose to view this Pagoda from afar.
By the time we finish up at Kyomizu, it feels like we have walked the entire city of Kyoto. It’s raining, and most of the shops in Higashiyama are closing. We are happy to be headed back to our hotel.
We are having dinner tonight with the niece of the friend we are meeting in Tokyo in just a couple of days. We’ve known this young woman since she was a pre-teen. Now she has finished Uni and works for a major Japanese company in Kyoto. We let her choose dinner, and she chose Italian food. Go figure!
Kyoto – The Midpoint Of Our Trip To Japan
With one day left in Kyoto, in the morning, we take a short walk back to Higashiyama district for a self-guided tour of this popular tourist destination. This wonderfully preserved historic area lets us see how feudal Japan looked over 400 years ago.
You won’t lack great photo opportunities in Kyoto, but Higashiyama and Gion offer great shots from morning to night. We take our time walking through the narrow lanes. Stopping in the tiny tea houses and pottery stores and taking the opportunity to pick up some souvenirs for ourselves and our friends in Tokyo.
In the afternoon, we check out Isetan, the 13-story department store. You can’t imagine how beautiful a department store can be until you spend some time at one here in Japan. We have already accumulated so much to bring home that my husband wants another suitcase. He finds a fantastic case that expands from just a 9 x 12 x 1-inch rectangle to a full-size carry-on!
It’s not a bad idea to plan on carrying a collapsible bag like this with you on your travels. But it is usually more cost-effective to pick up one like this here before you leave home.
Next, we head back to Kyoto Station and wander through those shops. As the afternoon draws on, we notice that many young (teens) kids start to fill the station. It seems it’s a rite of passage here in Japan, just like at home in the States, that the kids go to the mall after school.
There are many popular attractions and beautiful temples we did not have time to see during our 2 days in Kyoto. If you can, take the time to participate in the centuries-old Tea Ceremony with a Geiko (Geisha) in Gion or maybe even a full kaiseki meal. Make a day trip to the Iwatayama Monkey Park or the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and enjoy the natural areas around this fantastic city.
You can get deeper into Japanese culture by visiting Ginkakuji Temple (the Silver Pavilion) and Hokan-Ji Temple. If you are a foodie like me, see the Nishiki Market, a five-block long street with over one hundred shops and restaurants.
These are all places I look forward to visiting the next time I am in Kyoto.
We’ve practically been running since we touched down in Hiroshima. We are five days into Japan and have covered three cities and hundreds of years of history. A little leisure time is welcome and necessary. Tomorrow we catch the Shinkansen for Tokyo!
How to Get to Kyoto
If you are already in Japan, the best and easiest way to get to Kyoto is by train. We picked up a JR pass before leaving the states, and this covered most of our travel in Japan. There are 31 departures (one nearly every 30 minutes) on the bullet train from Tokyo station to Kyoto.
The nearest airport to Kyoto is Kansai, previously known as Osaka International Airport or Itami Airport, which is just outside of Osaka. Flights from all over the world arrive here every day. It’s a long flight, but you can fly directly from my hometown of San Francisco to Kansai on many airlines. Once you are there, the train trip from Kansai to Kyoto will take about 1 1/2 hours.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Kyoto
Many will tell you that the best time to visit is in spring, during the cherry blossom season. In the early morning, the cherry blossoms shine in the sunlight and give off their soft fragrance. However, we visited Kyoto in the fall and found the late afternoon sun makes the autumn colors on the trees around the city dance. I don’t think there is a wrong time to visit the beautiful city of Kyoto.