Before visiting Japan, I was convinced Kyoto would be my favorite city. I even had doubts I would enjoy Tokyo, given that I usually prefer traditional over modern places. But then Tokyo totally swept me off my feet. And if I were a drama queen, I’d say that I love Kyoto, but I’m in love with Tokyo. Trust me, it’s complicated. Travel rarely is black or white.
Tokyo and Kyoto are two incredibly different facets of the Japanese culture. The vibe and craziness of Tokyo are only a distant echo in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. But the serene state of mind and low profile, with often uneventful, low buildings, contrasts deeply with the vastness of the city. For what it’s worth, Kyoto is the most zen city I know.
When it comes to fashion, most people in Kyoto wear normal-ish clothes. However, kimonos are still all the rage and can be spotted predominantly around shrines and temples.
You see, entering a place of worship in Kyoto is like stepping back in time. Not to mention Kyoto has over 2,000 temples and shines and one would need months, maybe years to visit them all. My husband and I spent five days in Kyoto. Nevertheless, out of all the places and attractions we visited in Kyoto, these 7 are our favorites. And we both feel like they are a must visit for various reasons.
BEST ATTRACTIONS IN KYOTO
Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine
I loved both Arthur Golden’s novel ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ and the film adaptation. So I believe anyone who watched the movie would agree that the scene of young Chiyo running through endless rows of vermilion Torii gates was undoubtedly the most memorable and visually stunning location in the film. Although the movie was filmed mostly in California, some scenes were shot in Kyoto and Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine was one of the filming locations. #bucketlistmaterial
What is utterly 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 with the name of the company which donated it to the shrine. fdrinInari 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.
Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine can be reached by JR line from Kyoto Station. However, if you want to combine a visit to the shrine with the old tradition of sake drinking, this Fushimi Inari and Sake Brewery Tour is the answer. The best part is that you will learn about traditions and rituals you wouldn’t have otherwise heard about when visiting on your own.
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 one hour before closing time, the gardens were packed with visitors. This is one of the most popular and one of the best places to visit in Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The pavilion houses relics of the Buddha and each floor features a different architectural style. 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.
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.
Kyoto Century Hotel – conveniently located only 2 minutes away from Kyoto Station, which makes everything within reach. Elegant rooms and excellent staff.
Ginkaku-Ji Temple or The Silver Pavilion
The Silver Pavilion was built following the model of the Golden Pavilion. And this temple’s gardens were our favorite in the whole Japan. I wouldn’t know to explain why. It’s just that they were so serene and zen (this is a Zen temple after all) and inspired wonderful feelings. It also happened that Ginkaku-Ji was situated a stone’s throw away from where we were staying, so this was the first temple we visited in Kyoto.
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 gently sweeping the moss. It would have never occurred to me, not in a million years, that this task could be a part of somebody’s job description. Talk about attention to details!
This was another ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ moment. Okay, 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 almost austere district.
Gion is one of the best known and most exclusive geisha districts in all Japan. It 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. However, my favorite remains this walking tour in traditional kimono, which is an amazing opportunity for cultural immersion while exploring the steeped in history streets of Gion.
But Gion is even more fascinating after dark. The old wooden teahouses welcome their guests, and geiko (local term for geisha) and maiko (geisha in training) entertain visitors as ever. However, this is a cultural experience many foreigners find intimidating. And to be honest, it would be a pity to miss. At Gion Hatanaka Cultural Center you can witness an elegant maiko performance while you spoil your taste buds with local delicacies. This is such a fabulous experience and a unique opportunity to have your photo taken with a beautiful maiko!
Now, if you wander the streets of Gion long enough you can still spot a geisha or two. Well, we stumbled upon 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 picture of her as she appeared right in front of me. 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!
The hall is built on top of a cliff and its large veranda is supported by some very tall pillars. Apart from having 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 have their wish granted. According to the records, 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.
Now, before you jump on the first flight to Japan to complete the quest, do know there is no scientific evidence about it and walking between the stones it’s not all that easy because of the great number of tourists who might cross your path. That being said, 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.
You can visit Kiyomizu-Dera Temple on your own, or you can join a small group led by a scholar who will shed new light on the various Japanese religious rituals and practices. It’s up to you, but if you ask me, it’s always more fun when you have somebody explain the stuff you see. Plus, this particular tour includes several other shrines and temples.
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? While Arashiyama is not literally situated in Kyoto but rather in a district on the outskirts of the city, it is still accessible by train and a definite must see attraction.
It so happened that on the way to the Arashiyama bamboo grove, we stumble upon a cute little festival. Being a festive day, the bamboo forest 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 at their own pace.
Once we actually walked out way towards the end of the 500m long footpath guarded by majestic bamboos, we discovered an incredible feeling of tranquility mixed with just the right amount of mystery. 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:
When it comes to accommodation, I usually use and recommend Booking.com. But for Japan, I can’t help but recommend Agoda, the leading accommodation site in Asia, with discounts up to 80% off and more properties to choose from than any other website.
How to move around Japan:
The best way to get around Japan is by using a Japan Rail Pass, a very convenient and budget-friendly way to travel throughout the country. For train route ideas and city guides, check out the Japan by Rail book.
Before you go to Japan we highly recommend you read A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony for a better understanding of the modern Japanese culture and lifestyle.
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