In only 2 hours by bullet train you can journey to the Japan of your imagination. Pagodas, zen gardens, geisha, and colorful shrines; Kyoto is filled with cultural history and relics of Japan’s storied past. Even its visitors dress the part as many people rent traditional dress to wear during their stay in the city. We only had two and half days to experience the perfection of Kyoto. This is certainly not enough time to see everything, but enough to fall madly in love with the city.
Ryokan & Kaiseki
Of all of the ryokans we stayed in throughout Japan, Tamahan in Kyoto was the most authentic and delightful experience. Tamahan is located in the Southern Higashiyama district on what is considered to be the most beautiful pedestrian only street in the city, Ishibei-koji Lane. This small family run ryokan isn’t for the budget friendly traveler, but if you are only in Kyoto for a few nights, it is worth the splurge.
Like all traditional ryokans, the room has tatami floors futon beds, and Japanese-style wooden baths. The room serves as both a place for sleeping and eating, with kaiseki meals served for dinner and breakfast.
Kaiseki is multi-course Japanese dinner made of perfectly plated dishes. The meals are an expression of time and place and are considered the embodiment of “omotenashi,” which means wholehearted hospitality. Traditional courses and dishes include the following:
- Sakizuke, an appetizer served with sake
- Nimono, a simmered dish
- Mukozuke, a sashimi dish
- Hassun, an expression of the season
- Yakimono — a grilled course
- Hanmono or shokuji, a rice dish
- Dessert with matcha tea ceremony
The orange gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha are probably one of the most recognizable sites in Kyoto. Be prepared to climb on this journey to the top of the mountain. As you progress you will gradually drop the crowds you will experience near the base.
The main shrine of this important cultural property sits at the base of Inari Mountain. Endless steps and torii, traditional Japanese gates climb the mountain linking the main shrine with others. Many of the structures on the property date back to the year 711.
You will notice foxes (kitsune) throughout the property. These animals are regarded as messengers and often have a rice granary in their mouths. There is an area where you can write your wish on a small wooden fox head and hang it near the shrine.
As you continue to climb through the orange gates they change in size, shade, and decorative flair.
Step back in time in the Higashiyama District where you will find the best preserved neighborhood in Kyoto. Walk the narrow stone streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka lined with shops that maintain their traditional design. Today the shops are filled with local specialties such as Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, sweets, and souvenirs. As you can see nekos (cats) are very popular in Japan.
Yasaka Koshindo Temple & Hokanji Temple
The five story Hokanji Temple gracefully towers above the lower reaches of the street as you climb to Kiyomizu-dera Shrine at the top. The delicate pagoda built in 589 is certainly reminiscent of old Kyoto.
Along the way pop into the colorful Yasaka Koshindo Temple, located in a small alleyway off the main street. Worshippers here write wishes on squishy round balls that honor the good faith monkeys. It believed that the monkey with bound feet and hands represents the control of the playful and desire-driven creature everyone has inside of them.
I am happy to see that the monkey isn’t very effective at squashing this playfulness.
At the top of the hill you will find the Unesco World Heritage Kiyomizu-dera Shrine and surrounding structures. This shrine was built without the use of the single nail and the large veranda jutting over the hillside provides a panoramic view over the city. I seem to be missing my photos from shrine and beautiful waterfall in its courtyard, but the surrounding shrines and pagodas bursting in bright orange hues are equally as impressive.
Another famous district in Kyoto is the Gion district where if you wander the streets at night long enough, you may be lucky enough to spot the illusive geisha along Shijo Avenue. We were fortunate enough to see a few accompanying a group of Japanese businessmen for the evening.
By day, the streets are far more lively filled with tourists visiting the shops, restaurants, and ochaya (teahouses). The buildings in this area are famous for their narrow property frontages built to reduce taxes that were charged by the street frontage. To keep the charm of the neighborhood in tact there are also quite a few restrictions on some typical tourist activities.
Kenninji Temple sits quietly just on the edge of the Gion District. Founded back in 1202, it is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. Although it doesn’t receive the fan fair that other Zen temples such as Ryōan-ji do, I found our early morning visit far more ‘zen’ than the packed gardens of Ryōan-ji.
Kenninji consists of several large halls and gates with a few dozen smaller buildings arranged around them.
The main temple, Dharma Hall, has an amazing painting of twin dragons on the ceiling. This was painted in 2002 to commemorate the temple’s 800th anniversary.
Below are a few pictures from Ryōan-ji do.
Arashiyama is the more rural sight-seeing area of Kyoto. The district if filled with many temples and shrines such as Ryōan-ji do (shown above) and Kinkaku-ji (the golden pavilion), both Zen temples. One of the main attractions is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The walk amongst these soaring stalks is out of this world. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t capture the magic of this place in pictures.
At the terminus of the grove you will find the Zen temple, Tenryo-ji. The grounds filled with dogwood trees, koi fish, and rock gardens are a peaceful way to end your time in this part of town. This garden must be absolutely stunning in spring. Unfortunately, our visit was in February, still months away from the blooming season.
Street Food & Drink
While Kyoto is famous for its Kaiseki dishes, the street food is not to be missed! Dango, sweet dumplings made of mochiko (rice flour) served on skewers, fried fish cakes, matcha (green tea) ice cream, and sake bars are were all enjoyed by us often.
It is hard to compare the places we visited in Japan to claim a favorite. However, a visit to Kyoto should be on everyone’s itinerary.