Japan: Kyoto Part I

No trip to Japan is complete without visiting Kyoto. Once the capital of Japan and now recognized for its rich historical value. Kyoto offers countless temples and shrines to its many visitors from around the world. Traditional Japan is best offered here.

Kyoto completely dazzled me back in 2009 when I visited for the first time. Even after having visited over a handful of times now, I still get mesmerized by the many inspiring sites during my trips.

I highly recommend arriving to Kyoto Station and going to the information center to grab a city map and purchase bus passes for however many days you will be visiting. Unlike the rest of mainland Japan, there are no trains to access various parts of the city. In fact, Kyoto is unique as there are no tall buildings, vibrant store signs or trains cluttering this beautiful city. Even the McDonald’s found around Kyoto opt out of using their iconic red and yellow trademark colors for brown and yellow to preserve Kyoto’s low key aesthetics. Also, keep in mind that there are entrance fees for nearly all of tourist sites, which also close at about 5 pm, so you will have to plan accordingly.

I’ve compiled a list of my favorite Kyoto sites worth checking out:

Ginkakuji and the Philoshophers Path

Though its name translates to the Silver Pavilion, the temple is not made up of silver at all. Still, it’s a site worth checking out since it is such a serene and tranquil place. The shops nearby are a good place to buy some souvenirs as the prices seemed the most reasonable compared to the more populated sites from around Kyoto. Don’t forget to stroll down the Philosophers Path located in the same vicinity. You’ll see several signs and a map of the area to help guide you.

Take a relaxing stroll down this stone path and see for yourself why it’s worth checking out. It’s very beautiful during the spring as there are hundreds of cherry blossoms decorating the path and the soothing sound of water running down the canal really sets the mood. One of Japan’s most famous philosopher, NIshida Kitaro, is said to have meditated through this path daily on his way to Kyoto University. This canal is connected to the Lake Biwa Canal located in Shiga Prefecture. Check out my Shiga Trip write up to see what the other side of this beautiful canal looks like. There are fish swimming in the water and a gang of hoodlum cats that usually hangout in the area.

Nijo Castle

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is very large. Plan to spend at least an hour and a half during your visit. I suggest renting an audio guide for 500 yen if you are not part of a tour group as there is a lot to learn about this site. It’s beautifully decorated on the inside and on the outside. The defense systems featured inside the castle along the corridors connecting the buildings are unique. The Japanese gardens are of course very beautiful and there is a stone structure towards the rear of the site which is the former castle that burned down long ago. You can get a good view of the over all castle grounds if you climb to the top.

Kinkakuji  Temple

As you can see the Golden Pavilion is in fact made of gold leaf. This site is iconic, no trip to Kyoto is complete without a visit here. With that said, expect very large crowds of people during the peak afternoon hours. The Golden Pavilion overlooks a beautiful pond that compliments the site very well. You can be in and out of here in about an hour depending on the foot traffic.

Kiyomizudera

Kiyomizudera translates as the Pure Water Temple, which is perhaps Kyoto’s most celebrated tourist site. This UNESCO World Heritage Site stood out to me the most during my first time to Japan and it was a very satisfying feeling to come back and experience it once again. The best aspect of visiting Kiyomizudera is getting to Kiyomizudera. Along the hike up the long hill you will encounter many souvenir shops, restaurants and traditional streets that beckon you over. This is  a good area to end the day as there is plenty to do. I highly recommend visiting during the sunset, you’ll definitely get a nice view of the city, it’s just beautiful. Spend some time walking around Higashiyama District, there is beauty everywhere!

Kenninji

Located right next to Gion is the overlooked Kenninji Temple, a very nice temple that features beautiful art and gardens. If you are in the area do stop by, It’s totally worth cheking out!

Gion

Gion is known as the geisha district, if you are lucky enough you may get a glimpse of a geisha or maiko strolling the area. I was lucky enough to spot a geisha during my first visit to Japan and it really rounded out my trip. Geisha and maiko entertain customers in the local tea houses found in Gion and in the Higashiyama District. If you are feeling hungry, I highly suggest heading to Pontocho, which is next to Kamogawa River near Gion. Pontocho is a very pleasant area brimming with nice restaurants.

There is a lot to see and do in Kyoto. You will not have a dull moment! I saved my favorite Kyoto travel sites for last so check ’em out here: Kyoto Part: ll . Happy Travels!

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