I’ve now spent a week in Kyoto spread across both winter and spring seasons. In conclusion, I still need to spend time here. In fact, maybe I need to come back and live here it’s that good. A city of vibrance, culture and beauty.
Most recently I touched down in Kansai airport during sakura. Trying to save a few days on my Japan Rail Pass, I took a ridiculously slow 2.5 hour train from Kansai to Kyoto. I grabbed an Icoca card from a machine at the airport so that the journey would only cost ¥1880. I read that it was possible to take a bullet train to Osaka, but an attendant shoo-ed me away when I approached the train.
From there, ¥500 all-day bus passes are your best and cheapest option for getting around Kyoto in my opinion. JR have limited city services and there are only two subways with inconvenient station placements relative to most attractions.
Just make sure your accommodation doesn’t have a curfew as you’ll find yourself limited when you still want to see more of the night. Jam Hostel in Gion has no such curfew and also has a cool sake bar downstairs with a friendly bartender.
Things to do in Kyoto
This is by no means a comprehensive to do list, but it’s the things I’ve enjoyed doing so far.
Kyoto exists in a basin, but what this means is that temples on the encircling mountains all feel like you’ve left the hustle and bustle.
Kiyomizo-dera (¥400) is probably best known for the huge balcony above the gardens and it’s towering pagoda.
Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, really is no match for it’s sister temple Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. Shuffle through the circuits built for tourists and enjoy the meticulously maintained gardens and brilliant architecture for ¥500 each.
Ryoan-ji is home to a famous meditation rock garden. The trick is to see if you can see all the rocks at once, but it’s nothing a panorama shot can’t fix. The maple and cherry blossom filled gardens are well worth a look and you can probably avoid the ¥500 entrance fee which is only checked at the rock garden entrance.
The Fushimi Inari can be great for an early morning or late evening run if you like hill climbs. Otherwise, particularly at New Year, the place has a constant stream of devotees walking the thousand odd Torii gates to visit shrines and memorials of their ancestors.
On religious occasions it’s particularly special to see everyone making their offerings and praying for their wishes. All shrines and temples are filled with incense, written wishes and the ringing of bells.
Kyoto is famed for it’s cherry blossoms and unfortunately means accommodation also packs out. Loads of Japanese are visiting and are out and about in their best kimonos take portraits or wedding pictures amongst the blossoms.
The locals and tourists alike absolutely love the blooms which pop very suddenly like popcorn all over the country. I’m sure billions of photographs are taken every year of the sakura.
My favourite spots in Kyoto to see cherry blossoms were the pedestrian streets of Gion and the Philosopher’s Path in the east below Ginkaku-ji.
More elusive than the highest trained ninjas, geishas and maikos can be spotted in Kyoto which still holds on to the traditions.
After a few lessons on what a geisha is from Memoirs of a Geisha I still feel like I still don’t fully understand what they are all about, but they certainly do look classy and beautiful nevertheless.
New Years is a religious and spiritual time in Kyoto, you wont find fireworks or revilers roaming the streets, you’ll find families together for the few days they have off work to spend with each other!
The temples will be alive with people and movement will be reduced to shuffling speed. Probably not the best place if you don’t like crowds, but if you don’t mind then get amongst it!
Incense fills the air, conversations and prayers can be heard everywhere as well as the ringing of bells. The Buddhists ring the bell twice, bow twice, clap twice and then pray. Paper wishes are tied all over the temples or hung on wooden blocks.
People write their wishes and blessings on sticks which are then released through burning. The locals also take a piece of rope and light it in the fires of the temple and take it to light the fires in their homes because it brings them good luck.
Towards midnight, in the freezing cold, thousands line up at Chion-in temple. We lined up too not really knowing where we were going. In the end, we followed the line for three hours though and around the temple grounds to finally reach what all the fuss was about. A team of monks pull on ropes to lift a huge log that rings the giant temple bell.
Short trips from Kyoto
Sister city of my home, Canberra, and home of many deer. They literally own the streets and surely live off food fed to them by tourists.
Not the most important place to visit, but there are a number of temples including the epic Todai-ji. One of the biggest wooden structures you will see and home to a giant Buddha. There is also a novel pillar with a hole in it, which, if you can crawl through it, you will obtain enlightenment from it. We all made it!
There are also many nice parks especially during Sakura and at the east end of town the Kasuga Taisha Shrine has more lanterns than I’ve ever seen at one temple.
Uji is just a few stops on the Nara JR line from Kyoto and is famous for tea. Nakamura Tokichi (est. 1854) directly down the road from Uji station (with the brown flags) is hugely popular. We signed up and went and explored the town for 2 hours before being seated.
I got the Spring tea set for ¥1,100 which I still think was a bargain given it came with ice cream, sponge cake and sweets. No wonder tea fanatics choose to wait.
Luckily, there were markets on by the river and the Uji Shrine for us to amuse ourselves with. Japanese people lined the river banks basking in the sun. It’s great to see that Japanese people get out and see their own country because they seem to make up a significant portion of tourists in all these places.
I will catch up on this one a little later, but it’s a huge temple between Kanazawa and Kyoto.
It’s 2.5hrs from Kyoto by train (Kintetsu is easier than JR) and is famed as a top spot in Japan for cherry blossom viewing, but is probably also a good spot for autumn colours. Thousands of cherry trees exist in the forests here, but you can see dense clusters up close in the city still.