I love to take a bunch of pictures when I travel: of everyday curiosities and details (such as Hello Kitty seat covers on the train and key chains with a plastic omelette and nigiri decorations attached to them), of delicious food items and epic views and sights, of course. And still, there were many moments and experiences in Kyoto which essence and ambience was tricky to capture in pictures, such as the mood of the soft late summer nights of the tropic by the Katsura river. Frogs were giving their loud croaking concert, young locals were sitting and chatting by the river banks and enjoying a beverage, a beer and life, while others were sharing a late dinner on the wooden terraces built above the riverside brooks, lit by rice paper lanterns.
Of course, not everything needs to be captured in digital snapshots, the mental mementos are super special as well. But now, from these reflections let’s dive into my more concrete Kyoto tips!
First, I must say, that before we visited Kyoto, I had an image in my mind that the place is enchantingly idyllic. A colleague of mine had praised the soothing onsens and a Japanese friend had described the classic tea ceremonies he truly enjoyed. So was it, idyllic? Well, yes and no. There are such picturesque historical temples and shrines, traditional quarters where you can spot geishas in beautiful attire and atmospheric ryokans and inviting tea rooms. But, the very centre of the city is made of concrete and for the best, beautiful and traditional parts of the city you need to go a bit further, though not far. Now, let’s see, where to go!
Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion
Now, be prepared to queue for a while to see this shining golden sight. This is described to be Kyoto’s most famous sight. And, it is impressive: the glittering gold pavilion shines in sunlight and is reflected in the pond surrounding it. I’d say that the temple is worth the visit, but you can plan other sights for the day as well, as this one is experienced rather quickly. We took the local bus there but then afterwards hopped into a taxi to get in time to the next sight (monkeys!). The temple is located in the far north west of Kyoto and is not close to the main train lines.
Fushimi Inari is a large and impressive shrine on Mount Inari, famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which seem to go on endlessly. Inari is the Shinto god of rice and foxes are Inari’s messengers. Hence there are many fox statues wearing red scarfs which guard the shrines on the mountain. The hike to the summit takes around three hours, given that there a many other fellow travellers and that you’ll stop for photos and a refreshing water break several times. The large red torii gates along the path are donations, given either by companies or private individuals, and the name of the donor can be found on the side of the gate.
This sight & climb combo was unique and sweaty, definitely worth a day trip. The entrance is free. And though there was a sign warning us of boars roaming in the area, we encountered none, luckily, as my how to meet a boar skill set is a bit rusty.
Kiyomizu Temple by night
This temple area, situated in the eastern Higashiyama area, was especially spectacular during the late evening: the red temple buildings, the tall three-story pagoda and the colourful bell tower were shimmering in the summer night. I read that the Kiomizu-dera’s large wooden stage standing on high pillars was installed in a special way, without using a single nail but wooden joints instead. Check out the web page of the sight to catch the special light-up occasions.
Iwatayama Monkey Park and the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
You can climb up to Mt Arashiyama (about 15 min ascent one way) and visit the home of around 120 Japanese macaque monkeys. You’ll see the monkeys for sure, no doubt about that. The monkeys roam freely there, in their natural surroundings. You’ll likely spot monkey toddlers playing with each other. You can feed the monkeys from the feeding cottage but avoid taking direct eye-contact because that would make the monkeys feel threatened. I liked that the monkeys could run and hop around freely on their own hill.
What else did I want to I suggest? First, the Nishiki Market, a narrow shopping street market with countless booths, shops and restaurants. At this lively and bustling place, you can feast with fresh seafood (or dried seafood, if you’d prefer) and delicious ramen and find for example juicy tofu, all kinds of matcha treats from smoothies to soft ice, cookware and fruit (which by the way were quite costly). A busy yet pleasant experience and a great place to grab for example an appetizer (octopus on a skewer) and a tasty lunch (I enjoyed a rich ramen soup) in one of the compact restaurants right by the market. And not to forget the steak and shrimp key chains purchase. I wonder who needs to have one of those, someone who really likes steak, I guess.
Another tip for especially all the foodies out there is an abundant and instagrammable Kaiseki dinner. Kaiseki is Japanese haute cuisine, a tasting menu consisting of many small and beautiful portions, presented in an elegant way. Our Kaiseki dinner included for example a miso soup, a portion of shredded mushrooms, fresh tuna, delicious fried salmon and as a dessert two tofu-like squares served on a stick. It definitely was an experience, memorable and visual, but maybe more interesting than epic in a culinary way.
All in all, Kyoto really delivered.