Where your trail will obviously bring you for the historical and spiritual experience.
There is more than 2000 temples & shrines scattered around the city. So, obviously, you’re gonna have to pick which ones you want to see. Many, many websites will give you their top ten or so places to see. Some of them you can’t miss, and others you will visit without knowing you would or what it stands for.
We got there at full peak of Hanami, the cherry blossom season, and this was our first encounter with Sakura cherry trees, so we were obviously in awe before the tremondous beauty of the trees.
This post will not be exhaustive, as there is so much to see in Kyoto. Plan at least 3 to 4 (exhausting) days.
Kinkaku-ji & Ryôan-ji rock garden
Also know as the Golden Pavilion. Probably one of the most famous sites in Kyoto (with, I’d say, Fushimi Inari, the red toriis). You’ll notice the hype upon arrival, the place is massivily packed with selfie sticks and cameras. But you can’t bypass it, it is still magnificent, with the temple covered in gold leaf, reflecting in the pond.
Right next to it, a 15′ walk or 2′ bus ride away, is the Ryôan-ji and its worldwide famous rock garden. Once again, you’re not allowed to take pictures inside so, since I bought a drawing of it, that will act as my souvenir picture.
Ginkaku-ji & Philosopher’s path
The Silver Pavilion is less crowded than the Golden one, and therefore more laidback. The temple itself is not coated with silver, contrarely to what you might expect. I personally think it should be named after the grey sand garden, known as the Sea of Silver Sand, that looks like a layer of silver from atop the hill you climb along the circular route.
The route then brings you down to a nice moss garden, always a treat.
After the temple, you won’t want to miss the Philosopher’s path, a peaceful canal along which you can stroll for several kilometers. Hundreds of Sakura trees line the canal all along, making it extremely beautiful during Hanami, the cherry blossom season. You can stop in shops & cafés along the way, or turn off to smaller temples also.
The Kyoto landmark, the procession of thousands of red toriis is actually a little out of the city.
The Shinto shrine is located on a hill, and the whole experience consists on walking up the said hill through all the gates. There is so many, they are practically glued to one another. Count on a couple hours if you plan to walk up the whole area, which I’d say you should. Getting at the top shrine will be your reward, and you’ll appreciate the different pause spots along the way. Expect to get hot! Don’t worry, you’ll obviously find some vending machines on the way.
My advice: go there a little before sunset. The ambiance in the dark is fabulous, with the lighting of the path scrambling through the toriis. Another upside is that the place will be much less crowded! You’ll almost feel like you have it to yourself.
In order to get to Fushimi Inari, we took the Nara line from Gion, no need to change. It’s a five minute walk from the Inari stop.
This buddhist temple is home to a big Buddha, up to now, nothing exceptional, you might say. What is is the 1000 Kannon statues, 500 on each side of the lotus Buddha, in 10 rows and 50 columns. The statues are clad in gold leaf. Truely impressive. Accompanying them are 28 statues of guardian deities.
No pictures allowed, so I’m putting up pictures of the postcard pack I acquired at the shop.
For the full story, this was not on our schedule (if we had one) and, I don’t understand why, is often bypassed by guidebooks, surprisingly. A friend strongly recommended it on a comment on, well, the famous social network. So we went, and felt lucky we did. Due to the fact that this was unexpected, this turned out to be one of my favorite places in town.
We did a quick stop on our way to Fushimi Inari, as it is a 3′ walk from Shichijo station on the Nara line, and continued on afterwards, arriving later but therefore at a better time, as I said earlier.
Bamboo grove and Tenryu-ji
On the north-west of town is the other famous landmark, the Bamboo grove.
Upon arriving in Arashiyama, you’ll probably wonder where the heck it is. Well, that’s because it’s not the only thing to do over there, as often in Kyoto.
We actually ended up doing things backwards, and starting with following the river up a little. We walked through the park, facing the mountain full of Sakuras. We then strolled through the Okochi Sanso garden, at the top of the grove, before going down the grove, against the crowd going up. After all, why not. We finished with the Toryu-ji and its breathtaking garden full of more and more Sakuras, beautifully spread around the temple.
But of course, you can do this circle the other way around. The price for the Toryu-ji felt a little steep, but I must stress out that it is well worth it during the cherry blossom.
To get to Arashiyama, we easily took the Hyaku line train from Omiya, because we happened to stay not too far from that station, changin at Katsura. You can also take the Sanin Line from Kyoto station, if that works better for you.
Imperial palace & Konoe park
Visitors can tour freely the palace grounds, but cannot enter any buildings. Also accessible is the Sento Imperial palace, and its gardens, who are said to be beautiful. Unfortunately, visitors are limited to a fixed number per day, and you have to apply in advance with your passport.
During Hanami, don’t miss the north-western corner of the park, with its many big Sakura of different colors. You’ll probably witness many locals sharing a meal underneath the trees, surrounded by photographs.
Kiyomizu-dera & around
Yet another landmark, a big wooden temple resting on very high sticks. Unfortunately undergoing works at the time we were there.
Stroll around the compond to find a three tier pagoda further away, .
After that, don’t miss on the san-nen-zaka & ni-nen-zaka streets, that are kept in their traditional state. Too bad they are overcrowded.
If you can, find the Ryozen Kannon, a huge buddha erected in honor of the soldiers, japanese and foreign, that died in the Second World War.
After all this, if your legs are still functioning, and if it is Hanami – Cherry blossom season, end your walk in the area at the Maruyama park. It is full of cherry trees, extremely stunning in full blossom. As usual, locals come here for pic-nics, even if it is raining!
Once again, another landmark, another castle. But with a beautiful garden, a mix of water, rocks and nature.
At that point, I must say the building itself felt less appealing to me. An often seen wooden castle. Still worth it if you choose to visit this one only.
Strolling through a market is always a pleasure.
Here, you’ll find all the weird wood you were looking for, as well as some very pink souvenir shops, and other chopsticks stores, etc…
It is very central, one long stretch under the glass dome-like roofs you’ll often meet in Japan.
At the end of it, you’ll find a temple, probably for the vendors to go pray during breaks, and a whole other area that’s more like an outdoors mall.
Gion & Pontocho
Gion is worldwide famous for its nightlife and geishas spotting.
Unfortunately, we didn’t spend much time there, and by daytime, so we didn’t see much.
Pontocho is a street right accross the river from Gion, with tons of restaurants and bars. Hit it if you’re into having a fun night out.
How to get there and around
You’ll probably come into Kyoto by Shinkansen, so I’m not going to go into details on that.
Kyoto runs a subway and also many buses. As in Tokyo, subway stops can be far apart from one another. So you might have to walk a bit to find one.
Two or three Kyoto City bus lines, call Raku Buses, can come out practical, as they circle around several tourist. hotspots. Line numbers are 100, 101 & 102. They charge a flat fare, and announcements are made in English as well as in Japanese.
Also, the Suica charging card will work in Kyoto! Meaning you can keep your card if you come from or go to Tokyo before or afterwards.