Before going to Japan I was convinced Kyoto was going to be my favorite city. I even had doubts I was going to enjoy Tokyo given that I usually prefer traditional over modern places. But then Tokyo totally swept me off my feet. And if I was to make a comparison between the two cities, I would say I love Kyoto, while I'm in love with Tokyo. Gosh, this is really messed up!
Tokyo and Kyoto are two incredibly different faces of Japan. While Kyoto mostly lacks the vibe and craziness of Tokyo, it is the most Zen city I know. In spite of being huge, Kyoto is serene. Everything has a low profile here. The buildings are mostly uneventful and not very tall. People dress normal-ish. Kimonos are still in fashion. And once I entered a place of worship, I felt like stepping back in time. And no temple or shine in Tokyo had this effect on me. Not to mention Kyoto has so many temples and shrines that one would need months on end to visit them all. We barely stayed five days, out of which it rained two, and one we spent attending a festival, so we clearly didn't get to see as much as we would have loved to. Nevertheless, out of all places we did visit in Kyoto, these 7 are our favorites. And we both feel like they are a must visit for various reasons.
Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine
OK, we actually went to see this one on one of those two rainy days. But it was our last day in Japan and we just couldn't leave without visiting it. I loved both Arthur Golden's novel 'Memoirs of a Geisha' and the movie made after it, and this is the shrine that appears in the latest. What is really surprising and completely different about this shrine is the huge number of vermilion Torii gates, of different sizes, grouped in countless rows. It is estimated that there are well over 10,000 Torii gates at Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine. I really wasn't expecting so many of them! They form covered trails up the mountain and one can walk for hours under the enchanting roof. Each gate has a black inscription written on it, and that's the name of the company who donated it to the shrine. Inari is not only the god of rice but also the patron of business and having a Torii gate here is believed to bring good fortune. We even spotted a couple of inscriptions in Latin letters! Also, the entrance is free, as it is at most shrines in Japan.
Kinkaku-ji Temple, or The Golden Pavilion
We arrived at Kinkaku-ji just as the sun was gently caressing its pure gold leaf covered facade with the last rays of the day. It was also the moment we realized we weren't the only ones who saw the image of this gorgeous pavilion in pictures all over the internet. Even at the hour before closing time, the gardens were packed with visitors. This must be the most popular place in Japan! (being a UNESCO World Heritage Site probably helps too) The pavilion houses relics of the Buddha and each floor features a different architectural style, though we were not allowed to get anywhere near the building. Nevertheless, the gardens were delightful and allowed us to admire the pavilion from different angles.
Ginkaku-ji Temple, The Silver Pavilion
The Silver Pavilion was built following the model of the Golden Pavilion. And this temple's gardens were our favorite in whole Japan. I wouldn't know to explain why, it's just that they were so serene and zen (after all Ginkaku-ji is a Zen temple) and we had a marvelous feeling about them. It also happened that the temple was situated within a stone's throw of the house we had rented from Japan Experience, so this was the first temple we visited in Kyoto. Also the sand garden at Ginkaku-ji and the pile of sand that symbolizes Mount Fuji are quite a sight and the moss covered wooded grounds are pretty spectacular too. It was the first time we saw people carefully sweeping the moss. It would have never occurred to me, not in a million years, that somebody can actually have this in their job description.
This is another 'Memoirs of a Geisha' moment. OK, I admit I should have probably used a different image to represent Gion, but I just couldn't help it. After all it's the funniest photo one can take in an otherwise sober district.
Gion is one of the best known and most exclusive geisha district in all Japan. It also recently underwent a restoration project and all utilities were moved underground. Gion is the setting of 'Memoirs of a Geisha' and guided tours are organized around it, showing curious visitors the places mentioned in the book.
Anyways, Gion is fascinating mostly after dark. The old style teahouses are receiving guests as ever and geiko (local term for geisha) entertain anyone who care to pay the price. And if you wander the streets of Gion long enough you can even meet a geisha. Well, we stumbled on one to be honest; just as she managed to briefly escape a group of tourists insisting on blinding her with their flashes. I was too startled to take a proper picture of her as she appeared right in front of me, especially as I wasn't looking for geishas. Before I realized what was going on, the group swiftly followed her around the corner and all I learned from this was that tourists can probably be worse than paparazzi.
Kiyomizu-dera is yet another UNESCO Heritage Site from Kyoto. Its biggest attraction is the main hall, which is made entirely out of wood. And when I say entirely I really mean entirely. Not one single nail was used and the building still holds together, thank you very much! (though restoration work is currently in progress)
The hall is built on top of a cliff and its large veranda is supported by some very tall pillars. Apart from having some spectacular views over the city and the waterfall nearby, it looked to us that either the architect really enjoyed a challenge or that was the only spot still available on the face of the earth. Back in the Edo period people actually saw the humor in this, and believed that whoever jumped from the 13m high cliff and survived, would supposedly have their wish granted. Records have it that over 200 people jumped and more than 85% survived. This practice is nowadays prohibited for obvious reasons.
But if you feel like trying your luck with mystic stuff, you can always give the 'love stones' a try. Why do I have the feeling that I got your attention now? Well, the love stones are two stones 6 meters apart and whoever manages to walk between them with their eyes closed will find love. You know how they say, hope dies last. But before you jump on the first flight to Japan to complete the quest, do know there is no scientific evidence about it and walking 6 meters between the stones it's not all that easy because of the large number of visitors who might cross your path. That being cleared, please do jump on the first plane to Japan. It's a wonderful country and as long as you visit for the right reasons, it's cool.
Ryoan-ji, also called the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, has one of the best rock gardens in Japan. Plus it's a UNESCO Heritage Site (one of 17 in Kyoto). The garden can be contemplated from the porch, which was actually quite nice as we also enjoyed some warm autumn sun. The grounds have a number of details to be discovered and a big pond covered with pretty waterlilies. The temple building can be entered by anyone, provided you take off your shoes. However, the rock garden is the main attraction and can either leave you cold or stir the most profound revelation within you. Though the garden looks like a no-brainer due to its simplicity, it apparently has some very complex and varied interpretations. Unfortunately we left just as puzzled as we arrived and our world is still the same.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Well, we couldn't have left Japan without seeing a proper bamboo grove, could we? Arashiyama is actually located on the outskirts of Kyoto, but it is accessible by JR line from the Central Station. We also happened to stumble on a festival here and that kind of caught our attention on the way to the bamboo grove. But once we actually got to walk the 500m long pathway guarded by majestic bamboos, we discovered an incredible feeling of tranquility mixed with just the right amount of mystery. Being a festival day, the pathway was pretty busy, but something tells me this is not the case on a normal day when one can walk and discover this unique place without being disturbed. While we've seen bamboo groves at different temples in Japan, none was this big, nor free of charge like the one in Arashiyama. So from my point of view, it doesn't get any better.
Where to stay in Kyoto:
Kyoto Guesthouse Lantern - budget accommodation in Gion, the most charming geisha neighborhood in the world. Traditional facilities with a small Japanese garden.
Hotel Granvia Kyoto - located above the JR Kyoto station, which makes it ideal for exploring both Kyoto and the nearby area. Amazing breakfast, beautiful rooms and friendly staff. We personally stayed here and we can't recommend it enough.
How to move around:
The best way to travel around Japan is by using a Japan Rail Pass, a very convenient and economical way to travel throughout the country. For train route ideas and city guides, check out Japan by Rail.
Before you go to Japan we highly recommend you read the following books for a better understanding of the Japanese culture and lifestyle: A Geek in Japan (our favourite book on Japan!), Lonely Planet Japan (up-to-date advice on what to see and do in Japan), and Japan: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture (learn how to blend in by understanding the weird, wonderful and downright odd Japanese customs).
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