From Kanazawa I set out for Kyoto, the old capital of Japan and a city that is probably second only to Tokyo in terms of how much tourism it receives. I say “probably” because I’m having a hard time finding exact data on how many tourists visited each major city in Japan last year, but based purely on my own experience in Japan I’d say it’s likely that Kyoto is in second place. It takes about 2.5 hours to reach Kyoto from Kanazawa—there are currently no shinkansens (bullet trains) linking the two cities—and when I arrived at Kyoto’s main train station I first bought a cookie, purely for the purpose of breaking a 1,000 yen bill into smaller denominations, and then I headed outside to the bus station. When you walk out of Kyoto Station you step out into a modern city, which I suspect confuses a few people, given Kyoto’s reputation as the capital of traditional Japanese culture. While it is true that Kyoto is home to seemingly countless shrines, temples, and other important cultural sites—largely thanks to the fact that General Douglas MacArthur specifically forbade the city from being bombed in World War 2—the city is just as developed as most other cities in Japan, particularly the central region around the train station. In fact, if you look at a sightseeing map of Kyoto you’ll note that most of the big-name attractions are away from the city center.
It took a few minutes for me to find the correct bus that would drop me off where I was going, and then I had to get in line and wait awhile for the bus to show up, but soon enough the bus arrived and I was on my way. The place I was staying in Kyoto was in the Gion District, which is northeast of the train station and right around the area of Yasaka Shrine. Gion is home to a number of teahouses and other traditional buildings, as well as the city’s most famous geisha district. As the bus got closer to where I needed to get off it became increasingly crowded, mostly with school kids and I very nearly missed my bus stop because it took me so long to exit the bus. Thankfully, one of the school kids was kind enough to tell the driver that I needed a few more seconds to squeeze past everyone and get off. My guesthouse was locate a block and a half away from one of the main streets, back in a region of Gion that had an old, atmospheric vibe to it. After checking in and unloading my stuff I walked to a grocery store for food and this time got a large bag for everything, thus not repeating the stupid mistake I made in Kanazawa. It was already the evening time when I got back from the grocery store and I spent much of that night trying to plan out my days in Kyoto. Rain was in the forecast for the next morning, and I figured that on my first full day in the city I’d try to get to most of the stuff I wanted to see in the central and eastern parts of the city, and on the following two days—when the weather was supposed to be better—I’d focus on the big sightseeing attractions farther out in the north, south, and west of Kyoto.
There would be no waking up late while I was in Kyoto and on my first full day I was out early to get as much done as possible. I started by just walking around the Gion District. Aside from a few moments when large groups of kids in school uniforms passed by, it was really quiet in the neighborhood that morning. The overcast skies were releasing on-and-off drizzle—just enough to make everything look wet but not enough to warrant me using my umbrella. While I was walking around I realized that I needed to pull some more money for the next few days, so I made a quick stop at a 7-Eleven and then started walking towards the Gion’s geisha district. Along the way I was stopped by an American couple who were trying to find a particular Starbucks that was located in the Gion. Good thing for them I had a pocket wifi device and I was able to locate it on my phone using Google Maps and then give them directions. Seriously, I cannot emphasize enough how handy that little thing was—it was easily the best investment I made during my time in Japan. Anyways, I reached the geisha district, and much like the rest of the Gion it was still waking up and not too many people were walking around. I didn’t see any geishas there, or at any other point while I was in Kyoto, but I’m guessing they normally operate later in the day when the businesses are open, and they probably also don’t like the rain. As an aside, if you ever go to Kyoto or some other place in Japan with geishas, please don’t be the gaijin jerks that hang around and gawk at them. It’s very rude and I can’t imagine that the geishas enjoy tourist hordes crowding them and trying to get selfies. If you want to see and photograph a geisha, please do it the proper way and make a reservation for a performance at one of the establishments where they entertain guests. Sorry for the rant, let’s get back to my story.
I then went and paid a visit to Yasaka Shrine. The shrine is the site of Kyoto’s biggest annual festival, the Gion Matsuri, which is held each year in July, and both the shrine and the festival date back over a thousand years (though I’m guessing most of the buildings are not that old). In the middle of the shrine you can find the main hall with three bells that you can ring after making an offering, and a dance stage that has about a hundred lanterns hanging from it. Each lantern has on it the name of a local business that made a donation to the shrine’s upkeep. After photographing the shrine I walked to Central Kyoto, where I went into the Nishiki Market. Sometimes referred to as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, the Nishiki Market is a covered shopping street that’s five blocks long and sells a variety of fresh food, as well as cookware. I walked the whole length of the market, and even though I didn’t buy anything there was a fancy pair of chopsticks that caught my eye and I briefly considered purchasing.
When I got to the end of the market I then moved on to two of Central Kyoto’s largest attractions: Nijo Castle and the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The castle was first in line. Nijo Castle was built in 1603 to be the shogun’s residence in Kyoto and is one of Japan’s best surviving castles. At the center of it is the Ninomaru Palace, where the shogun stayed when he was in town. The palace hasn’t changed in the last 400 years, aside from the normal wear and tear you’d expect from a building that old, and gives you a good look at what a palace was like in Japan’s feudal era. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside Ninomaru Palace, so I can’t show you what the interior looks like, but I can say that the rooms are very well decorated. In the back of the Ninomaru Palace you can also find a Japanese landscape garden. Once I wrapped up my time at Nijo Castle I then walked over to the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Located in a large park and surrounded by long walls, the Kyoto Imperial Palace used to be the residence of Japan’s royal family until the emperor and the capital were moved to Tokyo in 1868. The original palace unfortunately burned down and what you see today is a reconstruction that was built in the 1850s. None of the buildings can be entered, and part of the palace was covered in a tarp for renovation work when I was there, but admission was free.
At this point I had hit the end of the line in terms of places I could reasonably reach in succession on foot. It was also now in the afternoon and I needed to pick up the pace, so I caught a bus to Ginkakuji Temple, aka the Silver Pavilion. Ginkakuji used to be the retirement villa of a shogun that loved the arts and was converted to a Zen temple after the shogun’s death. Contrary to what its name might have you think, Ginkakuji isn’t made of silver, and in fact I don’t remember seeing silver anywhere when I visited it. The reason it’s called the Silver Pavillion is because it’s modeled after Kinkakuji, which is known as the Golden Pavilion (and which I’d be visiting the next day). As I was approaching the entrance to the temple, multiple busloads school kids in sailor uniforms arrived to also tour the temple. “Man, the entire junior naval academy showed up” I thought to myself. Inside the temple one of the first things you’ll see is an impressive dry sand garden with a giant cone that’s called the Moon Viewing Platform. The rest of the temple is comprised mostly of zen gardens and there’s a path you follow that takes you through the temple grounds. At one point you’ll go uphill and from there you can look down on the temple and get a limited view of Kyoto, but you won’t be able to clearly see the city’s other landmarks. Due to the fires and earthquakes that have repeatedly struck Kyoto over the centuries, the only two surviving original buildings in the temple are the Silver Pavilion villa itself and the main hall, neither of which can be entered by the public.
From Ginkakuji Temple I decided to walk a stone pathway called the Philosopher’s Path that runs from Ginkakuji down to the Nanzenji neighborhood. The path got its name because of a famed Japanese philosopher who walked this route each day on his way to Kyoto University. Personally, I don’t think I became any wiser by walking this path, but it was scenic. Along the way I stopped at Honen-in Temple, which has a pair of dry sand gardens and a nice entry gate. It’s a peaceful little temple without the crowds of Ginkakuji, though it’s definitely been “discovered” by tourists. I then continued on to the south end of the Philosopher’s Path and found myself very close to Nanzenji Temple. The temple complex belongs to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism and has a massive Sanmon Gate (outer gate). Similar to Ginkakuji, Nanzenji Temple was originally the retirement villa of an emperor and was converted to a temple after his death. In the rear of the temple you can find a something that you wouldn’t expect in a Japanese Zen temple: a large aqueduct running across the temple grounds. The aqueduct was built after Japan opened up to the outside world and near it you can find footpaths leading up into the hills behind the temple. I went up one of the paths for about five minutes before turning around and coming back.
The reason I didn’t go any further up the hills was because I was in a hurry to get to Kiyomizudera Temple. On my way to the bus stop, however, I came to the realization that even if a bus was waiting for me there to immediately take me to the temple I’d arrive with less than 45 minutes before the closing time. While it was certainly possible that I could cover the temple in that amount of time I decided it would be better not to rush it and I walked back towards the Gion District, seeing as how it wasn’t too far away. To get there I passed through Maruyama Park and there I noticed some people dressed in traditional Japanese outfits. If you visit Kyoto you’ll likely see at least a few people walking around in kimonos and if you want to try one yourself there are lots of stores around the city where you can rent one for the day. Maruyama Park is right by Yasaka Shrine, which is close to where I was staying in the Gion, and in a few minutes I was back at my guesthouse. After dinner that night I went out to get some evening and night photos of the area. Yasaka Shrine had a several other people walking around it that night, but when I got to the geisha district I found it completely overrun with tourists. Despite the crowds, I got an idea for a good photo involving the hanging lanterns and even though in the end I didn’t quite capture the photo I trying to get, the night’s photoshoot still turned out mostly fine.
It was another early start for me the next day, though I got a little slowed down before departing my guesthouse and I missed the bus I intended to get on, so I arrived at my first sightseeing destination later than intended. That destination was Fushimi Inari Shrine, located in the southern part of Kyoto. If you’ve seen any Japanese tourism materials you’ve likely seen Fushimi Inari; it’s the shrine with thousands of vermillion torii gates that at certain points are so close together that they effectively form hallways along the trails that go up the mountain behind the buildings of the shrine. I arrived at Fushimi Inari just before 8:00am. There were already a number of other tourists there but with a little creativity and patience you could still get some good photos without other people in the shots. For the first thirty minutes I was moving around the lower part of the shrine, close to where the two main torii gate hallways are, but at about 8:30am I started hearing the telltale sounds of tour bus groups coming up from the bottom of the shrine. At that point I began moving steadily along the trail, climbing higher and higher up the mountain, just trying to stay ahead of the horde. I’m not sure how many torii gates I passed through but it must have been a few hundred. Each gate was donated to the shrine and when you descend the mountain you’ll see on the “rear” of the gates the writings that indicate who donated them. I stopped climbing the trail at the lookout point that’s about halfway up the mountain and took a five-minute break to rest before beginning my descent back down to the bottom. While I could have continued climbing upwards, I had read online that the view from the top of the mountain wasn’t that great, and I didn’t have a lot of time to spare that day, so I chose not to go any higher. I passed throngs of tourists on the way down, and when I got to the lower areas it was an absolute zoo. If you want good photos of Fushimi Inari you need to get there before the tour buses show up. If I’m ever back in Kyoto my plan is to try to show up at the shrine closer to 7:00am.
Leaving the hordes behind, I walked north from Fushimi Inari to Tofukiji Temple, a Zen temple that was founded in the year 1236 and has a large Sanmon Gate that was built around 1425. Tofukuji has several impressive buildings that you can view when you visit, but the temple is best known for the Tsutenkyo Bridge that straddles a gorge running through the temple grounds. Around November of each year the bridge is a popular spot to view the changing leaves of the trees, but unfortunately for me I was there in September, so no colorful trees for me. On the other side of the bridge you can find Kainsando Hall, which is a mausoleum of the temple’s first head priest and the path leading to the entrance of the hall has a dry rock garden on one side and a pond garden on the other side.
I now needed to get from the southern part of Kyoto up to the northern end. From a train station near Tofukuji Temple I took a train to Kyoto Station and there I found a bus that would take me all the way up to the area around the Ninnaji and Ryoanji temples—a roughly thirty minute ride from the train station. First I went to Ninnanji Temple, which dates back to around the year 888, though none of the original buildings from that era have survived to this day. Most of Ninnaji Temple is free and open to the public, but the highlight is the paid area, called the Goten, where the high priest used to live. As you might imagine, it’s a tranquil place with simple but elegant buildings and peaceful gardens. After finishing at Ninnaji I then paid a short visit to Ryoanji Temple, which holds Japan’s most famous rock garden. While I’m personally not that big on rock gardens, I did find it interesting in that the garden is designed so that when viewing it from any position there will be at least one of the bigger rocks is out of view. I spent a few minutes pondering infinite nothingness and then I walked around the rest of the temple before continuing on my way.
It was now the late afternoon and time for another one of Kyoto’s biggest attractions: Kinkakuji Temple, aka the Golden Pavillion. Kinkakuji, like Ginkakuji, was the retirement home of a shogun that was converted into a temple after the shogun’s death, but unlike the Silver Pavilion, the Golden Pavilion lives up to its name, with the second and third floors of the temple’s villa covered in gold leaf. The structure you see today is a reconstruction—the villa has burned down multiple times, most recently in 1950—but is still a sight to behold. When you enter the temple grounds you first get a scenic view of the villa from across a pond and then the path lets you pass right by it before moving on to the other areas of the temple. Despite the crowds, I was getting some decent shots of the villa, but then disaster nearly struck. Earlier in the day I had exhausted the first battery in my camera and switched it out with one of my two spare batteries. At Kinkakuji that second battery ran out of juice, and when I loaded my third and final battery into the camera I found that the third battery had almost no power in it. Up until that point I had been very good about recharging my camera batteries every night, but somehow I must have forgotten to do so the previous night—a particularly embarrassing oversight for me. Switching back and forth between each of my batteries, only turning on the camera for short bursts of photos, and utilizing every trick that I could think of, I managed to get through the entire Golden Pavillion without my camera becoming completely inoperable. Near the exit of Kinkakuji, after passing a small temple hall, I bought a small ice cream treat from a vending machine. I wasn’t all that hungry, but it was some sort of Japanese ice cream novelty that I had never tried before and it was yummy.
Late afternoon clouds were moving in by the time I exited Kinkakuji Temple. I might have been able to squeeze in one more bit of sightseeing in Northern Kyoto, but I had already gotten a lot of things done that day, and my camera was running on fumes at that point, so I found a bus that would take me down to the Gion. It took a little over thirty minutes for the bus to make its way to the area around Yasaka Shrine and then I walked the rest of the way back to my guesthouse. The day’s notable events were not over, however. After eating dinner I had the opportunity to make use of the guesthouse’s big wooden bathtub and spend half an hour soaking in hot water. I never visited any of Japan’s famed onsens (hot springs) while I was in Japan but that evening I got something like a private, mini-onsen experience. I came out of that tub steaming hot and it took a long time for me to feel like I had cooled down. The rest of that evening and night I spent blogging on my old website, uploading photos to social media, and taking care of a few miscellaneous things. I also made sure to charge all three of my camera batteries.
For my final day in Kyoto I had two last things to get done before leaving town. After eating and getting ready for the day I loaded up my backpack and left it at the front desk of my guesthouse as I headed out to Kiyomizudera Temple on foot. The temple wasn’t all that far from where I was in the Gion and to reach it I passed through the Higashiyama District. Filled with traditional wooden buildings and narrow lanes, the Higashiyama District feels like something out of older era of Japan, aside from the obvious intrusions of modernity. A lot of the businesses there cater primarily to tourists, but it’s definitely worth it to stroll through this part of town if you’re going to the temple. At the top of the main road running through the Higashiyama District you’ll reach Kiyomizudera’s entrance. The temple is one of Japan’s most famous and like Fushimi Inari Shrine you’ve probably seen it if you’ve ever looked at a Japan travel advertisement. Probably the most renowned part of the temple is its large main hall that was built without the use of nails or screws and has a stage extending out over the edge of the hill that it’s built on. There’s an old legend that says that if you jump off the stage and survive the fall to the ground below then your wish will be granted. I’m guessing the local authorities would rather that you don’t test that legend. When I visited Kiyomizudera the main hall was covered up for renovation work, though the inside and the hall and the stage were still open to visitors. The renovation work is supposed to be done in March of 2020, so if you want a photo of the hall when it’s not covered in a giant tarp you’ll have to wait until then. To experience another legend at Kiyomizudera—one with a significantly lower probability of death—go up behind the main hall to the Jishu Shrine. There you’ll see a pair of stones in the ground. If you can keep your eyes closed and find your way from one stone to the other you’ll supposedly gain good luck in your quest to find love. I didn’t test this legend myself, but I did see someone else doing it. Down below the main hall is probably the second most famous part of Kiyomizudera Temple: the Otawa Waterfalls. Three streams flow over the edge of a shrine and drinking from one of them brings good luck in the form of doing well in school, having a long life, or a successful love life, depending on which stream you drink from. Drinking from more than one stream, however, is considered greedy. If I remember correctly, I drank from the middle stream, so I got whichever luck that one signifies.
With my time at Kiyomizudera Temple finished, I went over to Kyoto Station and then took a train out to the western part of the city. Much like where I live in Colorado, at the west end of Kyoto the city turns into forests and mountains and is a popular place particularly during cherry blossom season and in the Autumn when all the tree leaves change color. I got off the train at JR Saga-Arashiyama Station and from there walked to Togetsukyo Bridge. At the bridge I went down the embankment, which wasn’t the safest thing to do in retrospect, and got some photos of the bridge from river level and then I came back up and walked across the bridge and to take a quick look at the far side before returning back. It was a warm day and lots of people were walking all over the area. The main thing I wanted to do was check out the bamboo groves that Western Kyoto is known for, and I thought I could take a clever shortcut to them through Tenryuji Temple but that plan didn’t work out. Instead I entered the groves from the east side and walked all the way to the west end and back. Even with all the crowds it was still cool to walk around the groves and look up at the canopy towering above me. Getting photos of that place without all the people would have been nice, but you need to show up at the crack of dawn for that. When I left the groves it was a bit after 1:00pm and I needed to get back to the Gion District to grab my backpack, but on my way to JR Saga-Arashiyama Station I stopped twice for ice cream, because a man has to have priorities in his life. The first ice cream I got was some sort of strawberry swirl flavor and the second one was matcha (powdered green tea) flavored.
It took about an hour to get all the way back across town to the Gion District and after I had walked to my guesthouse and picked up my backpack I had to return to Kyoto Station again for my train out of town. An extra day or two in Kyoto would have been welcome, but I had accomplished a lot in my time there. Ahead of me the path continued west. My next destination was Osaka—Japan’s second largest city and the place where I’d eat octopus meat for the first time.