During my one week trip to Japan, I spent a total of three nights and two days in the city of Kyoto. I arrived on the late afternoon of August 18th on the Shinkansen (high speed bullet train; 新干线) from Tokyo and slept in Kyoto on the nights of August 18th, 19th, and 21st. On the 20th, I spent the night in Nara during a one day trip there. I spent more time in Kyoto than any other city in Japan, after consulting with a few friends who suggested Kyoto had more to see than Tokyo. As a traveler who is more interested in history than modern city scenery, I sensed this was the right judgement. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than 1000 years.
First Night: Kamo River and Gion
Since I arrived in the late afternoon, I decided to tour somewhere close by the hotel. The hotel staff suggested I check out the Gion-Shijo subway station area, which has the Kamo river and many bustling restaurants and shops to the west. To the east is Gion, the most famous geisha district in Kyoto.
After having conveyer belt sushi for the first time in my life, I arrived on the Shijo Dori bridge overlooking the Kamo river. On the west side of the river, many people dined on the roofless wooden balconies illuminated by lights that look like fireflies from afar. Many young people sat along the grassy river banks, staring into the water that rushes in the dark. Some maybe locals just casually enjoying a night beside the river, others maybe travellers taking the opportunity to soak in the peaceful yet lively atmosphere. A little to the southeast is the Hanamikoji Dori, a road with traditional Japanese houses on both sides. There were many tourists on this road, all waiting to see geisha, which we did.
Second Day: Higashiyama Ward and Fushimi-Inari Taisha
On the next day, I started the day exploring the Higashiyama Ward (东山区), beginning with Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), an independent Buddhist temple with a history over 1200 years, dedicated to Kannon, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sits high on Mount Otawa and one can get a panoramic view of Kyoto from the top. There is a shrine up the top, Jishu Shrine, that is popular with young people. It is said if one can walk from one stone pillar to the other with his/her eyes closed, one will be able to find true love. Up and down the road to Kiyomizu-dera one can find many small shops selling various arts and crafts, and specialty foods and drinks. My favourite is anything made with matcha, which can be found throughout Kyoto.
After Kiyomizu-dera I strode downhill along two preserved streets, Sannen-zaka (三年坂) and Ninen-zaka (二年坂). There are restaurants and teahouses on either side of the street. This pedestrian-only street doesn’t have any power lines, unlike the rest of Kyoto, which can give visitors a taste of what Kyoto was like before modern times. Further north lies Maruyama-koen Park, with a small pond and trees that look like a small oasis. Further downhill I passed the Chion-in Temple and Shoren-in Temple.
I then took the subway to downtown Kyoto, ate ramen for lunch, and toured Nishiki Market and the food floor at the Daimaru Department Store, which is essentially a foodie’s paradise.
In the afternoon I took the JR Nara Line train to Fushini-Inari Taisha, one of the most iconic sites of Kyoto. According to the official map, the shrine is made for “worship for the guardian god of abundant crops, businesses, prosperity, and family safety.” Many fox statues can be seen on the mountain since the foxes are considered servants of the god of harvest. The earliest parts were built in the year 711, before Kyoto became the capital of Japan. The most notable sights at Fushini-Inari Taisha are the orange torii gates, called the Senbon Torii (千鸟本居). There are approximately 10,000 torii gates along the main path up the mountain. The torii gates have the colour of vermilion, symbolizing the “life force and counteract spells”. The gates are given by worshippers nationwide and they symbolize “wishes coming through”.
In the evening I strolled in the Gion area again, revisiting the amazing views and some roads I missed.
Third Day: Arashiyama
In between my the second and third day, I took a day trip to Nara. On the third day, I got back to Kyoto around noon and set off to see the Arashiyama (岚山) area on the western outskirts of Kyoto, known for the famed bamboo forest.
My first destination was Tenryu-ji Temple (天龙寺), another UNESCO World Heritage site. This Zen temple was established in 1339. Profits from trading ships to China were used to complete its construction. The site consists of the Main Hall and the garden / pond. Previously on my trip to Japan I saw tea houses and halls with bamboo mattings that were closed off to the public. This was the first time where I can take my shoes off, step into the hall, and feel like I’m traveling back in time. One can take a walk that stretches around the pond and to the garden at the back as the path slopes uphill. The garden is known as the Garden of a Hundred Flowers, with a wide collection of trees, bushes, and herbs all together in one place.
There is an exit from the back of the garden directly to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Before going to the Bamboo Grove I contemplated on making a detour from the front of the temple and walk further along the southwest direction to see this stone monument for Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. I learned afterwards there is a poem by him inscribed on the stone. However, I was short on time in the afternoon and decided to save that for another time when I come back to Kyoto in the future.
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is the most spectacular bamboo forest I saw in my life thus far. Even though the forest wasn’t too large by area, it was not possible to discern an end by peering through the bamboos, or even standing in the middle of the narrow path that cuts through the forest, shrouded by tall bamboos from either side. A few minutes into my journey into the forest, it was just the right of time of day for rays of sunlight to pierce the grove, creating an amazing effect.
At the end of the Bamboo Grove sits the Okochi-Sanso Villa, formerly the estate of a famous Japanese film actor. The admission includes a free cup of matcha tea and sweet at the end of tour.
My plan was to go to Kinkaku-ji Temple. But unfortunately it closed right before I got there. In the evening I toured a narrow alley, Pontocho Alley. I’ve been close to it before but never walked on the alley before since it was narrow and easy to miss.
Kyoto is by far my favourite place out of all places I visited and will visit this year. Its rich history and cultural significance provide a nice break for anyone who want to escape from the present for a while. I feel in North America people live a hurried, fast-paced life everyday. It would be an amazing feeling to relax, read a book or otherwise, along the riverside or in some wooden house enjoying tea at the same time in Kyoto. Finally, of course, matcha is everywhere over there.