Kyoto express - the city less than two days
Tips to build an itinerary for Kyoto
Kyoto is the place with the most sightseeing locations in one single city, in my opinion it has the highest number of fascinating sights when it comes to touristic places. I want to share some tips on how to prioritise and build a schedule to see a lot in as little as 1,5 days. Since many of the most important sights are on the outskirts of the city, I recommend some thorough planning as opposed to just going with the flow, because it's easy to miss out on some real gems.
Plan your visit for early morning or evening
Two of the most breath-taking sites are situated on the outskirts of Kyoto, and because they are not museums or shrines with set opening hours, it's worthwhile including them in the itinerary as first or last things on the agenda for the day. We arrived to Kyoto in the afternoon and after dropping our luggage at the accommodation, we decided to head to the famous Bamboo forest which is located about 10 minutes walk from the JR Sagano line, Saga Arashiyama Station. Since we had a validated JR pass at this time, we used this railway which is included with the JR pass.
It was around 6pm when we got there and the sun was just about to go down, which meant the crowds were leaving the forest, providing with a bit more peace and quiet to enjoy the mystical bamboo forest of Arashiyama.
While the walk through the path under the bamboos is a fantastic experience, we stumbled upon (totally by chance) the best view we had in all of our trip. I want to share this, if anyone who reads these lines makes it to Kyoto, I want you to check this out! When the walk from the train station and Nonomiya-Jinja Shrine through the bamboo forest ends, don't turn back, nor head back towards the city, but continue to the park called Arashiyama Park and walk up to the top of the hill. There is a viewpoint up there (location below) that has a view to the forest behind the city with the river Katsura crossing. Take a moment (or 15 minutes) To enjoy the view. I often feel that nature has a truly healing effect, but never felt it more than in here. I tried to take pictures but had to give up as no pictures taken (with my ability) could give it justice.
Kyoto's famous toriis, the Fushimi Inari Taisha
The other must see site that is always open is the famous orange toriis, Fushimi Inari Taisha, the famous orange toriis.
Regardless of how much time you have in Kyoto, I recommend getting up one day early to come here. Even around 8am, there were plenty of tourists starting to make their way up. In hindsight, we should have gotten there even earlier, but by this time, tiredness tended to overtake. Also, we weren't prepared for such a climb! Initially I thought that this was just a casual walk through the gates but it turns out that the path leads all the way up to the sacred Mount Inari, a walk that takes between 40-60 minutes. But before starting the upwards walk under the hundreds of gates, you can visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine which is right by the entrance of the gates. You can sense that it's an important shrine (turns out one of the most important shrines that’s dedicated to Inari) as there are plenty of people praying. An amusing detail of the walk up is that throughout the journey, you can find hundreds of fox statues, it's because they are Inari's messengers according to the belief.
The morning hours are not only just a better time to take pictures (if not on Instagram, it didn’t happen, right?), but by the time you reach the top of the hill, you may even find that you can sit down for some minutes to take in the weirdly spiritual ambience of the place in complete peace.
Golden and Silver Pavilions
The Golden Pavilion (or Rokuon-ji) is an impressive Zen Temple that is worth the visit, especially because this famous building is pretty much covered in gold. You can probably do it in 20 minutes and there was a relatively small queue here, moving quickly as you cannot enter to the temple, only to the grounds. Interesting history that the pavilion burned down a couple of times, one of which was a fanatic monk's doing in the last century. One of the biggest attraction is the golden phoenix on the top of the roof.
The Silver Temple may be a little less impressive if you start with the golden one, but I found that the overall experience of visiting the Silver Pavilion is better. The temple is in the middle of a fantastic moss garden and surrounding areas with nice boutiques alongside the canal (also called the Philosophers Walk), it makes it for a perfect end of the day experience.
Kyoto by night - geisha district & Kyoto station
Kyoto is one of those places where you just never run out of places to see and experience. If you are short on time like we were, it's best to stay somewhere very central so that it's easy to enjoy what the centre has to offer, even after the long day of walking and visiting temples. We stayed in the geisha district in a hostel that used to be a traditional geisha house. I call it hostel but it's more like a small family run hotel, the only thing is that there are shared bathrooms & toilets. It's very authentic, the guests sleep on tatamis on the floor, they provide with Yukatas (Japanese robes typically worn at home) and most importantly it's right in the heart of the old geisha district. I don't think I will ever forget the walk up to the place, when we entered the tiny streets with lanterns hanging from gutters. Japan truly is another world from what I know and walking through Gion, Kyoto's geisha district just demonstrated this even further. If you walk through here in the evening, you can hear music of the performances from inside the buildings or see apprentice geishas walking down the street. Magical. The area by the canal is called Shirakawa-minami-dori and while we were there in cherry blossom season, I can imagine that the colours of nature with the wooden buildings make this one of the nicest streets in Kyoto, not only during the sakura period.
Walk through the floating world - central Kyoto
Ponto-cho is a narrow alleyway with lots of restaurant choices, little overwhelming but the street itself is atmospheric. We didn’t try any of these, but the restaurants on one side of the street have their windows looking at the Kamogawa river and as they are lit in the night you can see the silhouette of people dining inside. I loved just standing on the bridge and watching what was going on inside! Shirakawa canal runs through the centre of Kyoto and it’s a lovely scene with bridges across the canal and people doing their evening stroll. The perfect way to end a busy day in Kyoto.
There's still an enormous amount to see, and I am not going to lie, we were super tired at times, so a couple of part of the city stayed with me more like impressions, such as the Imperial Palace and the Nishiki market. Luckily there is a good bus network in Kyoto, which we used to cross the city as there are large distances, so walking it all is not really an option.
The best of it all - grab some food and sit outside to enjoy the atmosphere, especially during cherry blossom!
Food in Kyoto
We stumbled upon one of the best yet weirdest food we had in Japan (again, thanks to Hector's sixth sense for good food). Apparently it's a kind of home favourite for a lot of Japanese children, this would be something they prepare at home and it's called omurice. The restaurant is located off the busy walking street filled with (overpriced) restaurants, but taking a turn in a tiny alley and we found this small restaurant and saw that it had mainly Japanese guests. The dish is a kind of omelette rice, eaten with a variety of fillings. Mine was with white miso… Now that I remember this, I'm challenging myself to make this at home!
Useful tips for Kyoto
JR pass is valid on a few train lines such as JR Nara line and JR Sagano line.
Bus pass for the day for 500 Yen for adults (whereas a single ride costs 230 Yen for adults)
Opening times :
Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) : open daily 9am to 5pm
Silver Pavilion : open daily 8.30am to 5pm (9am to 4.30pm from Dec to Feb)
Kyoto Imperial Palace : 9am to 4pm (Oct to Feb)/4.30pm (Sep and March)/5pm (April to August)
Fushimi Inari Taisha : all day