• Michael Donlea

Japan: Part 2, Kyoto

After the pulsating beat of Tokyo, Kyoto’s peaceful ambiance and pedestrian-friendly streets provides will provide most with a remarkable change of scenery, and the inclusion of Kyoto in any itinerary will offer you the chance to experience both Japan’s current and ancient capital cities. Japan’s shinkansen (bullet trains) ensure that both cities are connected like never before, with a 450km journey taking just 2 hours and 20 minutes. To put this into perspective, that’s the same distance between London and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne by train, yet a Shinkansen will get you to your destination 50 minutes faster. Breakfast in Tokyo and lunch in Kyoto? What’s not to like?

Similar to my previous Japan post on Tokyo, Kyoto has a wealth of attractions on offer, and 4 to 5 nights here for a first timer is in my opinion the perfect amount of time. This blog post will cover my personal recommendations, with my final leg of my journey coming soon in Part 3. See the map above for some of the best places to visit in Kyoto.

1 - Fushimi Inari

One of Japan’s most famous Shinto shrines and an iconic attraction altogether, Fushimi Inari is most recognisable for its network of winding orange tunnels of torii gates that snake their way through the dense forest of Mount Inari. It’s a fabulous hike out of the city and provides several excellent viewpoints over Kyoto as you make your way to the summit. Cafes en route offer the chance to refuel with a coffee or an ice cream and the number of pathways up the mountain mean that it’s easy to take a different route back down. Whilst this is one of Japan’s most popular shrines, we found that the crowds began to thin out as we hiked further up the mountain, so don’t necessarily be discouraged at the many day trippers at the foot of the shrine (there will be plenty). Keep in mind also that this shrine is open 24/7 so if you’re keen to beat the crowds or get that perfect shot, I’d definitely recommend an early start.

Did you know that the orange torii gates are donated by local businesses in tribute to Inari, the god of rice and prosperity?

The orange tunnels of Fushimi Inari

2 - Kurama Onsen

A favoured Japanese pastimes, a visit to an onsen is one that is steeped in tradition and an experience like no other. Rules such as no tattoos and removing all clothes must be observed, but if you head to this particular onsen, you’ll have the chance to bathe in blissful and naturally-hot waters whilst deep in the lush mountain forest. Our afternoon here was incredibly tranquil and a great way to relax after the hike up to Fushimi Inari. Other than a small group of Spanish tourists, the rest of the visitors to the onsen were Japanese which suggested to me that as bathhouses in Kyoto go, this one was as about authentic as we could expect to find. If you can get past the idea of not wearing any clothes, you’ll practice a custom that is as ingrained in traditional Japanese culture as drinking tea is to the British. Just make sure that you familiarise yourself with the rules before entering any onsen. I’ll look to cover these in a future post.

The mountain road up to Kurama Onsen

3 - Golden Pavilion Temple (or Kinkaku-ji)

Built in 1397, Golden Pavilion Temple is a picturesque Zen temple sitting at the edge of a large pond on the outskirts of Kyoto. One of Japan’s most iconic sites, the golden upper levels and phoenix atop the 12.5 metre-high temple shine brightly like a beacon over the shimmering and aptly-named Mirror Pond. The upper 2 storeys are in fact covered in gold leaf (thin sheets of gold used for decorative purposes), so if you’re lucky enough to view the temple whilst the sun hits, the view from the opposite side of the pond will be all the most inspiring. It’s no surprise therefore as to why Golden Pavilion Temple is one of Kyoto’s most visited sites, so make sure you avoid visiting on weekends ad public holidays, instead arriving first thing in the morning.

Golden Pavilion Temple has burned down and been rebuilt an incredible 3 times, twice in the 15th century and most recently at the hands of a fanatical monk in 1950.

Golden Pavilion Temple / Kinkaku-ji

4 - Gion

We stumbled upon Kyoto’s most famous geisha district in the early hours and didn’t initially realise what this place actually was. The streets were deserted, the lamps were all out and there was no sign of life here at all. Suddenly, we heard the jingling of a bell round the corner only for a geisha to scuttle across the street and into one of the many wooden houses opposite for an evening appointment. Though I wasn’t entirely familiar as to what a geisha did, I knew what they looked like and this lady in her snow-white kimono and powdered face amidst the cobbled black streets gave me a sense of mystery and intrigue that has stuck with me ever since.

Naturally, after she had disappeared we felt the urge to explore, and it soon felt as if we were on a movie set as the meticulous rows of wooden merchant houses almost looked too perfect. Visit after hours and you may gain a similar impression, but explore Gion by day and you’ll be met with a myriad of restaurants, teahouses and shops catering to locals and tourists alike.

Head west back across the river and you’ll find busy Nishiki Market or Kyoto’s Kitchen as it is affectionately known, selling everything from seafood and crockery to yakitori (small kebabs on a stick), wagashi (Japanese sweetsI) tempura (battered food) and sashimi.

Any extra tips?

Every July, the Gion Matsuri festival descends on Kyoto. This is one of Japan’s most famous traditional celebrations, and the city comes alive with parades, street food vendors and festival goers. The most popular of the festival is Yamaboko Junko on 17 July, where a huge float makes its way through Kyoto. It must be said that like many other parts of Japan, Kyoto is sweltering during the summertime, but if you can handle the heat then you’ll experience a festival that winds its way through Kyoto into Gion, bringing this mysterious geisha district to life.

The wooden merchant houses of Gion

5 - Nijo Castle

Built by Shogun Tokugawa leyasu (a regional warlord) in 1603, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Nijo Castle is one of Kyoto’s most prominent tourist attractions and to my eyes at least, a fine example of classical Japanese architecture. Comprised of 3 areas, the castle grounds are spread over 267,000 square metres and are made up of the Honmaru (main circle of defence), the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defence) and the gardens, containing beautiful little ponds with running water and intricate ornamental features. A vast stone wall and moat surrounds the grounds, giving you an impression of the grandeur inside.

The Honmaru Palace, only open for special viewing during the Autumn, was partially destroyed by a great fire in 1788 and obliterated the complex’s 5-storey keep.

Found within the palace are a vast collection of rooms including banquet halls, audience chambers, a guard house, private apartments for the shogun’s family and the main chamber with its painted screens. Here, the ruling shogun met administrators and officials, and the famous screens depicting birds, tigers, trees and flowers in vibrant colours were painted by skilled local artists to provide visitors with a sense of awe. Also famous here throughout are the nightingale floors - wooden floorboards designed to squeak so that guards would be alerted to any unwelcome visitors.

After your tour of the castle, head to Seiryu-en garden outside the castle. Though very popular, the gardens are fabulously maintained and are at their busiest during the springtime cherry blossom season. I’d say that you’d need a good half day or so to do a visit to this castle justice, and even if you aren’t particularly interested in history, it’s worth coming only to see the beautiful gardens and low but imposing castle chambers. Admission to the Ninomaru Palace and garden is 600 yen.

The gardens of Nijo Castle

6 - Kyoto Gyoen National Garden

One of Japan’s 3 national gardens, Kyoto Gyoen is the green heart of the city and one of the largest parks in Kyoto, measuring a whopping 910,000 square metres. A biological hotspot (home to 90 species of bird and 50 of butterfly) in the centre of Kyoto, the park is both a hive of activity (think baseball, tennis and jogging) and a restful place, popular with picnickers, yoga enthusiasts and those practicing meditation. Like Nijo Castle, the park is also home to sakura (cherry trees) and during springtime the park is busier than ever before. The overwhelming majority of your time in Kyoto will be spend sightseeing, so it’s really beneficial in my opinion to break this up with some downtime in this gorgeous green space.

If you do feel yourself getting restless though, head over to the Imperial Palace in the north of the park for more classical Japanese architecture and manicured gardens. Note that admission is free but you cannot tour the grounds yourself. Instead, you must fill in a form and show your passport at the ticket office. There is the option of both long and short tours of the grounds.

Any extra tips?

Rent a bicycle and head into the park. Kyoto is a cycle-friendly and safe city, and the vast area of the park is in my opinion best explored by bike. The pathways are wide and there are many points of interest.

Insite Kyoto Gyoen National Garden

Kyoto is Japan’s second city and should absolutely be in your itinerary, especially if you’re heading south east to Hiroshima or the tropics of Okinawa. You’ll see a fascinating contrast from cosmopolitan Tokyo and will have the opportunity to discover Japan’s ancient history in this charming city.

Which attractions in Kyoto would you recommend? If you’ve enjoyed reading this piece, please do subscribe with your email address below. Also, if you click the Instagram logo below, you’ll be taken to my official feed. I’ve just launched my Instagram page, so any likes and follows would be greatly appreciated.

Arigato and please stay safe!

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