Kyoto is one of Japan’s most famous and historical cities. Located in a valley surrounded by mountains, it’s the perfect union between the modern world and the ancient past. For many people Kyoto represents the heart of what Japan is, and there is something very magical about the way you can literally step seemingly from one world to another.
To get from Takayama to Kyoto, we took the wide-view train to Nagoya, and then changed onto the Shinkansen. The journey took about four hours in total, but was very comfortable. The weather, which had been holding up for us, turned and it was raining when we arrived at Kyoto station.
Before leaving for our hotel, we stopped in on the Shinkansen office to reserve our seats for the next few journeys—the trains were apparently filling up fast, so we felt it prudent to stay on-top of things!
Our hotel was the Hotel Sunroute Kyoto, a modern building within walking distance of Gion, one of the go-too places which I’ll discuss later. Tired from the journey, and unkeen on going back out into the rain, Dad and I decided to remain in the hotel and make use of the restaurant there. It was an Italian. We had pizza. Don’t judge.
DAY 1 – Nightingale Floor and the Golden Pavillion
Day one of our Kyoto adventure began with a recommendation from one of my friend, Jules—the famous Nijōjō (Nijo Castle). The initial structure of Nijōjō was built in 1601, with work being added to it over the next 250 years, as well as restoration after a fire broke out in 1788. The home of the Shogunate for many years, Nijōjō was also the place where the Shoganate ended after Tokugawa Yoshinobu officially returned authority to the imperial court.
Putting aside the long and fascinating history of this spot, this is a real must-see for anyone who is coming to Kyoto. The gardens are rolling and lush, with plenty of photo opportunities—and if you’re fortunate enough to be here in Spring, you can really profit from the beautiful sakura trees. Inside the building itself, photographs are forbidden, in order to conserve the amazing screen door paintings across the rooms. These are replicas of the original, which are being conserved in a museum close but, but are deeply impressive none the less. The artistry and detail is gob-smacking, with depictions of huge trees, birds of prey and tigers and leopards too.
(Fun-fact—did you know that the Japanese and Chinese used to believe that Leopards and Tigers were the same species, and that every third tiger-cub was actually a leopard?)
The thing I liked most was the inside of the castle wasn’t lit artificially. The entire outer corridor of the building was surrounded by shoji, Japanese doors with translucent paper screens. These were all closed to help preserve the screens, but light still came through the paper. You could imagine how—on a sunny day—with all the screens pulled back to admire the gardens, the gold across the inner screen doors would blaze impressively. The Shogun really had an aesthetic.
Gardens, history and screen doors aside, the real gem of this entire castle has got to be the nightingale floor. This is an incredible feature—a floor that makes noise at the slightest pressure. These are squeaky floor-boards on the next level. The amazing thing though? It really does sound like a forest of birds singing. It was amazing to walk across the floor among a queue of people and listen to the cacophony of chirps and trills. At times, I felt sure that bird-song was subtly being played out of a speaker—but there were no electronics in sight, and I could even hear the floorboards underneath me! It really did send thrills up my spine and was a brilliant start to our Kyoto experience.
Having gone through the castle, our next destination was Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion). This is a famous site that most people will have seen before in photographs or on postcards, but that you can only truly appreciate in person. Before I go into it though, a small note on Japanese public transport.
I mean, honestly, it’s great. The trains are good, the bus system is simple and reliable, and there are maps everywhere. Having used public transport across the board in many countries, I can say without a doubt, that the Japanese system outranks everything—leaving most places in Europe far behind. Dad and I travelled across Kyoto almost exclusively by bus, purchasing one-day bus-paces at the train-station, which were great value and allowed us the liberty to go where we wanted.
The trip up to Kinkaku-ji was a little longer, and when we arrived it was incredibly busy. April tends to be so, because people are attracted by the good weather and the chance to experience those wonderful sakura blossoms. Kyoto is also a hot-spot for the Japanese as well, (much like historical cities in the UK, like Bath) so we were competing a little for space. That said, crowd-management in Japan tends to be quite good, at least in comparison to places like London.
Kinkaku-ji doesn’t take very long to get around, and that’s because the only real feature that you go to see is the golden pavilion itself. This is actually quite a small building, which sits on the side of a lake, surrounded by luscious vegetation. The site is inviting for herons and other wild-life, who can be seen resting in the area. For all its size, Kinkaku-ji is very impressive—it really is gold, and when the sun comes out, it’s a dazzling display that you don’t want to miss.
Unfortunately for us, the clouds had come in, and the skyline was grey and uninspiring. Most people were happy to snap their pictures and move on, but Dad wasn’t having any of it. Poised with his camera, he was adamant we wait for a break in the clouds. And thus we waited, sitting on the side and nibbling Japanese sweets that we’d brought with us. I occupied my time by offering services as a photographer for other people. On a small side note, offering to take pictures of people on holiday is a great thing to do for others. Were it not for people offering to take pictures of us, Dad and I would never appear in the same photo, which would be rather sad. Whilst I don’t believe we should live our lives behind the lens of a camera, photos are an important part of preserving memories. Get them right, and you can immortalise a little bit of that day forever.
Dad’s gamble on waiting for the sun turned out to be a brilliant idea. The clouds, which had looked ominously endless broke, leaving us a clear sky and glorious bursts of sunshine. The pavilion lit up like a lantern, and I think I used up about half of my camera memory taking photos. There really is no comparison—that sunlight makes the experience of Kinkaku-ji!
Feeling we’d done rather well for ourselves, we turned back toward the hotel for a brief rest before dinner. A word to the wise—if you tour Japan like we do, don’t try to fill your days with too much, and take little rests throughout the day, drinking plenty of water. It’s easy to exhaust yourself in an attempt to get the most out of your trip, which ultimately means you don’t get the fullest experience of what you do see. Take your time, and stop off at one of the many cafes and tea-houses that are dotted around Kyoto to enjoy some local refreshments. Also, if you are walking about a lot, having a spare onigiri (rice-ball with flavouring on the inside) in your bag is always a good idea. I find they travel better than sandwiches, and besides—when in Rome…
After a rest at the hotel (which provided massage chairs in our hotel rooms—luxury!) we headed out toward Gion. Gion really stands at the heart of Kyoto nightlife, and has a history as Kyoto’s pleasure district. In the modern day, Gion is where you can go to see Geisha perform, enjoy good food, and soak in the upbeat atmosphere.
As with all of Kyoto, there is an interesting merger of modern and old in Gion, and if you’re in the area, I would suggest walking along the Shimbashi (also called Shirakawa Minami-dori) street, which runs along a canal, with original architecture and tea-houses all along it. You are also likely to spot lots of people in beautiful Kimono walking along here, though you will quickly discover that not all of them are Japanese! Kimono hire is common in Kyoto, and there are several places you can go to try these unique clothes on, and have your hair done especially. I didn’t get the chance to try it this time, but the prices for the hire are reasonable, and wearing a Kimono is a wonderful experience. Kimono can actually tell you a lot about the wearer—from the length of the sleeves, to the colours, motifs and the occasional inclusion of family crests.
Having walked past some very expensive restaurants along the river and canal, Dad and I eventually settled at another ramen bar. There we enjoy some local sake, gyoza (dumplings) and a big bowel of delicious ramen each. A perfect ending to a great day.
DAY 2 – Bamboo Forests & The Samurai Garden
Day two of our Kyoto adventure took us to Arashiyama, which is in the west of Kyoto, toward the mountains. We caught the bus from the train station to Arashiyama-Tenryuji-mae, from which we took a brief walk up toward the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
The first part of the walk is deceptive. You suddenly find yourself surrounded by bamboo forest on both sides, but the atmosphere is a far-cry from what is boasted to you—ethereal and peaceful. A tarmac path and heaving crowd hardly left room for inspiration, and I was just starting to feel a little cheated when he hit the actual Bamboo Grove.
This was still a tarmac path, which my knee was actually thankful for, but the experience was very different. The path narrowed and the long bamboo stalks bowed over our heads, embracing us secretively, whilst the leaves cast a strange green glow that was almost impossible to photograph. The rows and rows of bamboo blocked the whole world beyond it, and it was easy to believe that it just went on forever. It doesn’t surprise that there are several key Japanese myths that revolve around bamboo.
At the end of the path, you come up to Okochi Sanso, the estate of a famous Japanese actor, who was particularly remembered for his samurai films. The entry fee was steeper than anything we’d encountered so far, and Dad and I weren’t sure whether to go in. After some deliberation, and discovering that the fee also included a free cup of a tea and cake at the end, we decided to go in.
This turned out to be one of the best decisions of the holiday.
I mentioned before that strange phenomenon in Kyoto, where you can literally walk down a path and find yourself in an almost entirely different world—nowhere was this more the case than the Okochi Sanso.
Were it not for our clothes and our cameras, the modern world may have almost been forgotten. The walk up through the estate was peaceful, the garden hosting a wide selection of foliage, which scattered the canopy above and around is with a whole palette of colours. The most impressive thing by far, however, was the views. These were very special—and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t usually consider ‘views’ to be an acceptable reason to climb up anything.
Having soaked in the incredible mountain scenery, we enjoyed our free cup of Japanese tea and mochi (a type of traditional cake), and wondered back down the hill, in search of the Gio-ji Temple.
Just like you can’t walk two minutes through any old British town and not stumble into at least three churches, Kyoto is literally brimming with shrines and temples. Walk a kilometre in any direction and you’ll find a shrine, big or small. This is a large part of the city’s charm—the pockets of culture and history can be found in any corner. However, after your fourth or fifth in a row, the attraction of temples and shrines does start to lose its appeal…
If you like something strange, however, Gio-ji Temple may very well be for you, and that’s because of its famous, rather unique garden.
A moss garden.
The temple itself is quite small, and a turn of the garden takes about five minutes if you really take your time. It is very zen however, and there is a great novelty to the experience. Gio-Ji comes highly recommended to everyone and anyone who just loves moss. You just don’t get moss like this anywhere else.
Tired from lots of walking and travel, and with the weather turning into something a little fresher, we decided to do our laundry at the hotel (many Japanese hotels have their own laundrettes!) eat in, and grab an early night.
DAY 3 – The Red Gates
Day three saw us heading down to Fushimi-Inari Taisha, a large red shrine which is a fairly iconic spot in Kyoto, and is featured in a lot of photographs.
The main feature of Fushimi-Inari Taisha is the endless corridor of torii (the red shrine gates) that leads up into the forested mountain. The red gates themselves are donated by various families as part of the shrine, and they stretch on and on.
Unfortunately for us, we went on a very busy day, which made photo opportunities difficult. This was rather frustrating, as the red gates are really quite unique. However, there are several thousand of them, and the higher you go, the less people there are, with many stopping at the first rest-area and turning back.
“If there was ever a day where you take several thousand pictures of pretty much the same thing, it’ll be today,” Dad warned me, having walked it before. He was, as per usual, correct. I have more photos of red-gates on my computer now than I currently know what to do with…
The walk is actually quite long, should you decide to go the whole way up. I confess, I gave up at the last proper rest-spot, my leg weak at the prospect of another forty-minutes of walking. Dad went on and I enjoyed the view over Kyoto as I waited.
Other than red gates, visitors of Fushimi-Inari Taisha will also see a lot of stone kitsune (foxes) guarding smaller shrines all the way up. In Japanese mythology, foxes were both tricksters prone to possessing humans, but were also messengers of the Inari, gods of rice and sake.
Dad also pointed out that the area boasted a “sacred paddy field.”
“There’s a field of Irishmen up here?”*
Dad actually laughed at that.
(*I would like to apologise to all Irish men and women for this joke, and particularly to you, Séan. In my defence, I was very tired and you were on my mind.)
We headed out to Gion again for dinner that evening, going to a sushi bar which was recommended to us by a member of staff at the hotel. Dad actually cited this as one of his favourite parts of the Kyoto trip. The sushi bar, located on Hanamikojo-dori street, was small, pokey and perfect. The food was great, the atmosphere lively, and the prices all very reasonable for what you were getting. I enjoyed a Plum-Liqueur and green-tea cocktail and proceeded to lecture Dad on proper sushi eating etiquette.
“You don’t put the rice in the soy-sauce! You dip the fish.”
“But he’s putting the rice in over there.”
“Yeah, well he’s doing it wrong.”
We left the bar on the tipsy side, full of delicious fish, and both a little giggly. What more could you want from a night out?
DAY 4 – The Philosophers’ Walk to the Market
We decided to take a more relaxed approach for our last proper day in Kyoto. Utterly shrined out, we perused the travel-book recommendations for other things to do. A recommendation from a friend, Chris, living in Tokyo was to check out the Testugaku-no-michi (the Path of Philosophy) which runs between Nyakuoji-bashi to Ginkaku-ji (the silver pavilion).
Ginkaku-ji is the twin, in many respects, to Kinkaku-ji, and whilst we missed it out this time,it is well worth a visit, as one of Kyoto’s most popular sites. Despite being called the silver pavilion, unlike Kinkaku-ji with gold, Ginkaku-ji was never covered in silver. It is, regardless, very impressive, with elegant gardens and beautiful architecture.
The Path of Philosophy led us along the canal, and is apparently a hotspot for cats, who can be seen patrolling the streets. According to signs that instruct visitors on how to conduct themselves around the cats, the cats are enemies of the crows. I enjoyed the image of an ancient tribal feud between the two species as I meandered along the path, under the umbrella of hanging tree branches and sakura.
We stopped half-way down at a tea-house where we enjoyed a traditional cup of tea and cake. Or, at least, I did. Dad asked for a coffee. Philistine.
As we sipped our hot beverages, we attempted to get into the spirit of the area.
“So, had any profound, philosophical thoughts?” I asked.
“Not really. You?”
“Oh yes—I’ve been thinking about Nietze.”
“Have you really?”
The conversation then turned to A Fish Called Wanda, and that was our philosophising was done for the day.
Having completed the Path of the Philosopher, our minds were apparently so taken by abstract thoughts and ponderings that the impossible actually happened—we got lost.
Or, more to the point, we got onto a bus and got off at the wrong stop. To be fair, we were both pretty tired at this point, and Japanese street names can be hard to remember, even if you are familiar with the language.
Despite this, we managed to find ourselves again, and after a delay we made our way to the final spot of the day—the Nishiki market.
Now, on paper the Nishiki market doesn’t sound like much. It’s a long, indoor food-market that sells Japanese, and particularly Kyoto specialities, boasting large selections of foods and ingredients, most of which I couldn’t name if I tried. The real reason you want to head to this market though, beyond its attraction as a corridor of curiosities, is that the smells are amazing. I defy anyone to walk down through the stalls and come out the other side without their mouth-watering.
The Nishiki market then leads onto even more shops, and this whole area is ideal for souvenirs, if you haven’t already loaded your bags up from the shrines and temples. I managed to find a number of gifts, and was just about to leave, feeling rather pleased with myself, when I saw there was also an Owl display.
Yes. A display of Owls.
As someone who designed a family crest for herself featuring an owl, bought an owl stamp earlier that day, has a lot of owl memorabilia and lives in an apartment called “The Owls”, I think it is fair to say I am quite fond of the creatures…
Dad was a good sport and held my shopping for me as I dashed over.
I managed to get several (million) photos of these lovely birds, and was even permitted to stroke a few of the veteran owls, after my hand was especially disinfected.
I emerged about twenty minutes later, a wide grin on my face.
“Good?” Dad asked.
“Owls are great.”
Having walked a good ten kilometres that day, and with packing and writing to do, we headed back to the hotel. Pizza again for dinner (don’t judge) and an early night in preparation for the long journey to Kumamoto.
Worst Part of Kyoto—Big, bustling crowds and getting lost on the bus-route.
Best Part of Kyoto—The Nightingale Floor, Owls and Sushi.