If you missed part 1 of this trip report, you can catch up by clicking here.
Kyoto is a hard city to describe. As we were planning I thought of it as a historic city, full of contemplative temples and shrines. That was certainly accurate but my brain had mostly stopped there in expectations. Even with those minimal expectations, Kyoto was the aspect of the trip that I was probably most excited for (that and DisneySea). While Universal Studios Japan was fun and Osaka Castle understated yet beautiful, I was eager to get to Kyoto.
We took the train from Osaka to Kyoto without much issue. The train stations and train lines were very easy to figure out, even for foreigners such as ourselves. Using Google Maps and then following train station signs never led us astray. We opted for an Airbnb in Kyoto as the hotel prices were quite high during Sakura (Cherry Blossom) season. Our rental was about a 10 minute walk away from the JR Inari Station. We purposefully picked that location because we knew Fushimi Inari (one of Kyoto’s most famous shrines) would be a priority for us. I have no regrets on where we stayed and that would be in one of my top 3 areas to stay in Kyoto. It is arguably the cheapest area when looking for house rentals.
Our only real mishap of the trip was finding our first Airbnb. I put the wrong address into my phone and ended up about 10 minutes past our destination. We were hungry and hauling a bunch of luggage so it felt like a bigger deal than it actually was. I messaged our Airbnb host and she graciously responded with new directions for us. After about a half hour detour, we found where we were staying and happily dropped off the suitcases that we had dragged behind us all day. I find it funny that our biggest issue of the trip wasn’t the language barrier, traveling across the world or anything health wise. Instead, it was me looking in the wrong spot of the Airbnb app (completely in English) for the address. Feel free to judge me!
Food! While we anticipated a late lunch, time had kind of gotten away from us. We went back to Kyoto Station and ate at one of the restaurants in ‘Ramen Street’. If our trip had been a bit longer this is a place I would have happily visited again. On the 10th floor of Kyoto Station there are nine different ramen restaurants all lined up next to each other. Each place specializes in ramen from different areas of Japan. All of them looked good and were pretty cheap. Frankly, I don’t remember the restaurant’s name that we ended up at (I was too hungry) but we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.
We explored the beautiful and modern Kyoto Station for a few minutes after dinner. The station has 15 floors with numerous shops and restaurants throughout the complex. On one of the higher floors there is a sky bridge with sweeping views of the station and central Kyoto.
The afternoon and evening had been a bit rainy and we decided to use that to our advantage. Most tourist attractions tend to clear out with a little rain (Disney Parks included) and Kyoto’s temples were no exception. We decided to walk from Kyoto Station to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. This was about a half an hour walk. Taking the subway is a quicker route but we were interested in seeing the city and saving a little money here and there. The walk was pleasant, aside from a little rain and cold that got to us. Darin impulsively bought an umbrella that made the rest of us Seattleites make fun of him for the rest of the trip.
The Kamo River runs throughout Kyoto and, much like the rest of the city, is unassuming but has beautiful banks and color.
Before arriving at Kiyomizu-dera, travelers find themselves in the Higashiyama District. This district is full of narrow streets and wonderful shops and restaurants. The architecture is gorgeous. We went back a few days later and the streets were completely swarmed but, on this evening, the rain had relatively cleared them out. Not only were temples and famous sights gorgeous in Kyoto, but there were plenty of districts that were wonderful to walk around. I wish we had more time to explore all of those districts. This was one of my favorites.
Even though I was enjoying myself I was getting slightly impatient solely because I had turned a corner and got a peek of what was ahead. Kiyomizu-dera was one of the temples I was most excited to visit and it certainly did not disappoint. During cherry blossom season several temples have a nighttime illumination and that’s what we arrived for. There were some gorgeous cherry blossoms in the front of the grounds but, being first time visitors, they couldn’t outshine the temple’s buildings and paths. Here’s some photos.
Kiyomizu-dera was founded in the 700’s and is a Uniseco World Heritage Site. This temple offered a greater variety of things to do than any other temple we visited. The buildings and grounds were at such a large-scale that it’s hard to not be stunned. The beautiful views of Kyoto and the grand red buildings are what stood out most to me but someone else could go and have different, equally justifiable, favorite parts.
The temple is currently under some construction but I would still highly recommend it. I would also recommend the nighttime illumination as the crowds were lessened and we missed out on very little of the temple’s offerings.
While not my absolute favorite site in Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera would crack the top 5 and is a must-do. As we left, I didn’t know how anything would top that experience. It was one of the grandest places I’d ever visited and, without a doubt, the most historic. I would have been okay if this was the trip’s peak, Kiyomizu-dera is that astounding.
We walked back through the Higashiyama District, which was virtually empty at this point. After the long walk back to Kyoto Station, we decided to head back to our house. We quickly contemplated a stop at Fushimi Inari but were pretty tired.
The next morning we slept in a little later, around 9, and then went off to Western Kyoto. The trip to the Arashiyama District, which holds many of Western Kyoto’s highlights, was very simple with a change of trains at Kyoto Station.
The first stop on our itinerary was Daikaku-ji Temple. Wooden platforms led guests around the tranquil and incredibly detailed grounds. Daikaku-ji’s highlight, for me, was the beautiful landscaping and the artwork inside of the buildings. I was very tentative in taking photos here because I thought I saw a sign that said it wasn’t allowed. Turns out you can take photos, just not of any direct places of worship. Trust me though, the inside of some of these buildings are incredible.
In hindsight, we should have explored Daikaku-ji a little further. There are free areas that we kind of neglected, only going inside the temple. I would recommend this temple as the architecture and detail it lets guests in on is very different from the Silver and Gold Pavilions. I would go as far as to say Daikaku-ji was the most unique of the temples we visited, offering a very spiritual and/or contemplative experience. While other temples had a wow moment, these grounds were just gorgeous to walk around and soak in.
I should say that I am not Buddhist. That certainly doesn’t preclude individuals with different beliefs from having a spiritual experience at a temple. While they are a place to worship for Buddhists, they are also a place of prayer, reflection and wherever else the mind goes for anyone that steps foot there. While some temples and shrines were simply sites for me to see, others brought on those beautiful experiences. I think Daikaku-ji, and its quiet nature, is a perfect place for that.
Part of the reason we didn’t spend as long as Daikaku-ji is because of a packed plan for the day. Next on the list is Kyoto’s famous Bamboo Grove. The walk to the grove was beautiful, as we entered the Arashiyama District. Upon arriving at the walls of bamboo, we were met by this guy playing some beautiful music on whatever instrument this is. I love music and work in it for a living, and I had no clue what he was playing. Upon further investigation, it is called a Hang or handpan. The music was beautiful and peaceful.
In this same area, we met a man who sold prints of his artwork. All of the prints were of sites around Kyoto. We bought several and conversed with him. He found out that we were from Seattle, which excited him as Ichiro Suzuki grew up in his hometown. He was kind and his artwork was beautiful.
The Bamboo Grove itself was spectacular and extremely crowded. If we had gone early in the day or after sunset I think the experience would have been pretty different. As is, I’m happy we saw the Bamboo Grove but it won’t be a priority for me to do when we return to Kyoto.
I would recommend it to first-time guests travelers though. The Bamboo Grove is one of the more famous Kyoto landmarks and different experiences stand out to others. There is no doubt that the Bamboo Grove is stunning.
We left the Bamboo Grove before long and walked toward the heart of the Arashiyama District. This, again, was filled with food and shops galore. We were walking along on this crowded street and all of a sudden turned a corner and were met with this view.
It was spectacular and surprising. I’m not sure how the area hid this river so well but it was a complete shock when we saw it. We were taken aback and decided to soak in the view a little, having lunch right here. The meal was decent but what I’ll remember is staring at this through all of lunch. We roamed around the river a little more after lunch. Here’s a few photos.
After a few minutes of sitting along the river we moved on to our next destination – the Iwatayama Monkey Park. After a cheap fee and fairly aggressive, albeit short, hike up part of Mount Arashiyama, we arrived at the park.
Monkeys! Everywhere I looked and stepped there were monkeys. These are Japanese Macaque monkeys and there were probably a hundred of them at this park. Guests can feed them or just wander around in all of their glory. The park also offers gorgeous views of Kyoto. This is seemingly just an extension of the beautiful Bamboo Grove and Arashiyama District. Even if the hike itself didn’t lead to a barrel of monkeys (I’m sorry for that pun) I’d still consider doing it, as the area is gorgeous and the views were wonderful. Of course, we don’t have to make that decision! Naturally, we want monkeys.
This isn’t what we are used to in America and is far from a zoo atmosphere. While there’s no sense of danger (not just here, but in all of Japan) it does feel like more of a cultural experience and that you are out in the wild.
Iwatayama Monkey Park was a spectacular experience and one of my favorites in Kyoto. I highly recommend it.
We hiked down the hill and, after a brief mix-up on what station to go to, headed back to Kyoto Station. After arriving there we decided to wait a little while on dinner and head to a different nighttime illumination, this time at Toji Temple. This was about a 20 minute walk from Kyoto Station, through central Kyoto.
Toji was another place that surprised me. It was on our list of things to do but not super high on that list. After reading a little blurb about it being one of the best places to view cherry blossoms earlier that day, we decided to go and check it out. Whatever I read certainly wasn’t lying.
Toji Temple is centered around a 5-story pagoda and is the tallest wooden tower in Japan. Toji was founded in 796 and the halls are filled with incredible statues. Nighttime illuminations only helped the views, as the area was well-lit. That said, it was hard to escape some of those bright lights when taking photos. Here are a few that I liked.
Unlike Daikaku-ji, Toji Temple was more of a wow factor. I was blown away by the pagoda and the history here. Of all the temples we visited, Toji had some of the smaller grounds but it certainly packed a punch. If you go during Sakura season, I would recommend the nighttime illumination. The colors are gorgeous and I didn’t feel like the buildings were diminished at all because of it being nighttime.
It probably goes without saying that it’s astounding to find a place like this in the middle of a city. We were walking through what seemed like a modern street, full of up to date apartments and homes and then all of a sudden there was this temple founded over 1200 years ago right in front of us.
We headed back to Kyoto Station and searched for a sushi restaurant. We had looked for the exact same spot the night before and gave up after a long search. This time we had a better idea and found it. Unfortunately, the wait was over an hour so we grabbed some sushi to go and ate it upstairs in the station. We also had some pie because pie is delicious no matter where you are. Sushi is also delicious but far more so in Japan.
The night ended with a quick loop around Fushimi Inari. There are many paths at this place, a mountain lined with torii gates that I’ll explain more next installment, but we just took the shortest and first loop. At night, this shrine has a somewhat spooky but cool vibe. I’m glad we did the shrine both at night and day and ultimately went all the way up the mountain on a different day. It had gotten pretty late and we were all tired.
As we finally got back to our house, I couldn’t really fathom the day we just had. We visited five different places, all of which gave a different emotion and all equally impressive for different reasons. It’s always odd to know that you are experiencing one of the best days of your life as it’s happening but I knew pretty early on that day. The moment we turned that corner in Arashiyama and saw the river, Kyoto became my favorite city in the world. While the trip kept getting better and better, this day will always be one of my favorites. We’ll pick up the next morning in our next installment!
To continue on to part 3, click here.
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