On our fourth travel day to Japan we headed from Tokyo to Kyoto by bullet train. From all the places we saw on our trip, I think that Kyoto really stayed in our hearts. It was different than what we had imagined, but I really understand now why everyone told us to visit there. We were there in November, so we saw some amazing fall colours at the same time that we saw beautiful buildings and views.
There are about 1.5 million people living in Kyoto, and they have 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites there. So there is so much to do and see in this city. Kyoto was the capital of Japan until 1868, and they are now trying to protect all those historical neighbourhoods. Our best memories from Kyoto are:
GION GEISHA DISTRICT
One of the coolest things we did in Japan was a visit to the Gion Geisha District in Kyoto. Even though there are so many tourists in these small alleys, you can still sense the history there. We were not sure if we would be able to see geishas, since I had read that you are extremely lucky if you see one on your trip. But we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and in a short while we saw almost ten geishas on their way to work. I was so thrilled! Definitely one of my bucket list items. I will tell you more about geishas in a later post in the future.
There are several good restaurants and tea houses in the Gion Geisha District. But it seemed to us that they were always full; the same with the little stores close by. But this area has a lot of souvenir shops and sweets shops if that is what you are looking for. We also saw many kimono rental shops where you can rent a kimono for a day.
We also visited another geisha district called Pontocho. We did not see any geishas there but it was a lovely place for the evening stroll. The little alleys were full of restaurants and tea houses.
Fushimi-Inari-Taisha is not part of the UNESCO World Heritage List, but in my opinion, is one of the best sights in Kyoto if not the best. It is a big shrine located at Inari mountain and you can hike up by following a "torii" alley. Torii is a Japanese gate used usually at shinto shrines. The hike up will take about two or three hours, but you can always turn back after an hour and the road will lead you back to the shrine. During your hike you will see many smaller shrines which are guarded by foxes. The foxes are said to be the messengers of Inari.
Also the buildings at the shrine on the bottom of the trail are beautiful. Fushimi-Inari is a very popular site and there is always a lot of tourists there. If possible, you should plan your visit on a weekday and go as early as you can. The higher you hike, the less people you will see. Visiting Fushimi-Inari is free of charge.
KINKAKU-JI TEMPLE AKA THE GOLDEN PAVILION
On our next day in Kyoto, we purchased tickets to the K´Loop bus. It drives around Kyoto and stops at UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a few other places too. We soon discovered that it was not the best choice for us, since the bus did not drive back to our hotel in the afternoon. We still used the bus to go to Kinkaku-Ji aka the Golden Pavilion, and on from there.
The Golden Pavilion is one of the best sights in Kyoto. Do not leave without seeing it! Already at the gate we noticed how many tourists were there, and to see the Kinkaku-Ji, you have to stand by a little pond with all the other people. It got very crowded and there were security officers to guide people to the right places. It kind of broke the atmosphere of this beautiful place. But the view was worth it and the rest of the park didn't seem so crowded. I would recommend visiting here early in the morning and during the week.
The Golden Pavilion was built in 1397 but the original building was destroyed by a fire. The building today has three storeys and it was built in 1955. Two upper floors are covered with pure gold leaf. The building is used to restore the remains of a Buddha.
Nijo Castle was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site we saw in Kyoto. That is because our hotel, Guest House Rinn Nijo Castle was located right next to it. The castle was built in 1626, and it has suffered under several fires and typhoons. It has been open to the public since 1939.
After you purchase a ticket you will be able to visit the castle and its gardens. When going inside the palace, you will have to remove your shoes, so don´t forget to bring socks! There is no furniture inside the palaces, and photography is not allowed, but it is still an interesting tour. In Ninomaru Palace you will notice something special; the wooden floors make a sound almost like birds chirping when you walk on it. It is said that the purpose of this sound was to warn the residents of intruders and assassins. There is a big beautiful garden in Nijo Castle and you will be able to feed carp that live in the garden pond.
This shrine is easy to visit at the same time you visit the Gion Geisha District since it is very close by. There are hundreds of lanterns that are lit in the evenings, so I would recommend visiting after sunset. You can also access Maruyama Park from here which is a popular site for cherry blossoms in the spring time. There are many souvenir and street food sellers in these little alleys.
We could have stayed in Kyoto for longer. We felt like we missed many interesting places since we wanted to move on to our next destination. We would have at least visited the Silver Pavillion, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and Fushimi Sake District. I had imagined that Kyoto was a smaller and more compact city where the sites are pretty close to each other, but it took a lot of time to move around in the city. We also ended up walking a lot, so every once in a while we needed a little bit of rest.
Kyoto really is an amazing city!