Why pick Kyoto when travelling to Japan for the first time? Kyoto survived the Second World War largely intact as it wasn’t made a target for many American bombing raids. The temples, houses and important city buildings didn’t need to be rebuilt following the war. This is lead it to remain a center for Japanese culture, especially older culture, and this can make a wonderful introduction to Japan.
It can be visited on its own or if you have time, it can easily be included in a longer Japanese tour. It is only an hour from Osaka by train and about three and a half hours from Tokyo by bullet train.
If you decide to focus on Kyoto, the most likely entry point is Kansai Airport south west of Osaka. From here you can catch the Haruka JR train via Osaka to Kyoto main station. Generally this is direct with two stops in Osaka, but it is possible you may have to change train in Osaka if there are any train works occurring. If you have bought a Japanese sim card in the airport, you can follow your journey on mobile phone.
Kansai was hit by one of the unexpectedly high number of typhoons to pass over Japan in 2018 – typhoon Jebi, and was out of action for a few weeks while it was repaired. The international runway was underwater for several days and many flights were cancelled. Also a ship drifted into the causeway connecting the airport’s man made island to the mainland, cutting off road traffic for several days and impacting rail traffic. This hadn’t happened before but is a sign of the changing weather patterns across the world.
Fortunately for our trip the main runway had reopened, and the causeway had trains running again, but not a good time for the airport or its staff.
Arriving in Kyoto, you come out of the train station on the north side to see the Kyoto Tower high above the city. Going up this to the observation deck is a good way to get your bearings in the city. You can make out the line of the Kamogata River on the eastern side of city and the station complex below to the south, with the main railway line snaking off to the east. The city lies in a plain or basin with wooded hills to the east, west and north. Looking to the south west is an urban landscape stretching to Osaka.
The observation deck has information boards and telescopes so you can pick out landmarks, but looking down to the north you can see there is a large temple close to the station. This is the Higashihonganji Temple, and entry to the temple grounds is free. A good place to start your exploration of the city. Opposite it to the east there is a garden with a lake – Shosei-en Garden, which you might want to look at before heading off to your hotel. Also in the station area there are many restaurants where you can eat if you are hungry after your journey.
Many of the temples in the city are free to look at the grounds, but you pay to go into the buildings. Also there may be separate gardens which you often have to pay for. With so many temples in the city, you will need to choose which you want to pay for, or the costs can mount up.
Rather than catching taxi’s around the city, or figuring out the local transport straight away, we chose hotels that were within walking distance of each other, (see the hearts on the map). Obviously this depends on how much luggage you bring – we choose to travel as light as possible. We picked three hotels that allowed us to see different parts of the city over the ten days we were there.
Our first hotel, or in this case Japanese guesthouse, was in South Higashiyama on the other side of the Kamo river from the station. It took about thirty minutes to walk there, and as it was quite a hot day, we were glad to find a beautiful little restaurant near to the guesthouse to wait until check in time.
The Kamo river is a popular spot with the locals for walking and cycling, and has an impressive variety of bird life for a river in the middle of a city, evidence for what a clean city Kyoto is. There isn’t a huge traffic problem either as many of the locals cycle around the city, and you should be able to hire bike. The grid like nature of the city means you can easily cycle down one of the quieter parallel streets off the main roads.
Higashiyama is next to a range of wooded hills running north to south and here you can find some of the best temples of the area. Start off with the Kiyomizu-dera temple early in the morning. This as well as the main temple has a Shinto shrine and a short walk through the woods to the Koyasu Pagoda. It is a pleasant way to start the day before the crowds. There is a small cafe for a drink and snack if you get there early enough by the Otowa waterfall, which the Japanese believe can bring success, love and long life from drinking the waters.
From a base on this side of the river you can explore the sights of Higashiyama and spend time in Gion, where you may catch sight of Maiko or Geiko. Gion is busy by day, but quietens down at night and walks in the area are quite pleasant in the evening before getting something to eat. Gion centres around Shijo Dori street, which has good people watching when strolling under the green canopies of the shops. Starting from the river and heading to the Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park. Nearby is the temple of Chion-in which is one of the major Buddhist temples and has two Japanese Gardens in the grounds (you have to pay). If you are lucky you may catch a Buddhist ceremony in the main temple conducted by the monks, and don’t forget to check out the huge bell before you leave.
Going further north into Higashiyama there are more major temples and museums and galleries, but it depends how close you are staying to these as to how far you want to walk. By bike you can get further into the area. There are also many beautiful old streets in the area to explore, the Yasaka Kamimachi area is good with its beautiful pagoda and there are canal side walks in north Gion that are pleasant.
We also stayed on the west of the Kamo River near Imperial Park. By now we had figured out the trains and were able to make journeys to the edge of the city to places like Kibune and Kurama in the north. These have beautiful shrines in the woods and you can walk between the two villages on a woodland path. Kibune has some pleasant restaurants to eat at by a noisy stream, and Kurama has hot springs to bathe in.
We went out to Arashiyama, to see the famous Bamboo Forest, which is mobbed with tourists. Arashiyama though has quite a few places to visit and you can walk more pleasantly away from the crowds by the river. If you like you can hire a boat to punt you up the river. We walked up the west bank and found a tiny shrine in the woods with a good lookout. If you like monkeys there is a monkey park you can climb up the hill to, and make some simian friends.
No trip to Kyoto would be complete without visiting the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine south of the city on the train line at Inari. It’s 10000 vermillion Torii gates stretching to the top of the 764 foot hill are something to behold. If you don’t like being in crowds, get there early in the morning, or you can even go up at night for a somewhat spooky experience. The statues of stone foxes and Japanese gargoyles are sure to make you jump in the dark. You may even see a few cats out for their nightly prowls.
Our ten days gave us a good taste for the city, and we hope this blog gives you some ideas. It would definitely be possible to stay for longer – there is so much to see, and with Osaka being so close, you could even make day trips there to sample its food and vibrant street life.
Photographs from the beautiful city of Kyoto.
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