“Kyoto is old Japan writ large: atmospheric temples, sublime gardens, traditional teahouses and geisha scurrying to secret liaisons.” Lonely Planet
Kyoto, the capital of Japan for over a thousand years and now known as the cultural capital, was a much anticipated place for me on this trip. The chance to see a more traditional side of the country and hopefully spot an elusive Geisha or two. There is certainly no shortage of temples, shrines and gardens to visit but when on a tight two-night schedule we had to be selective of the places we most wanted to see.
We walked to the famous Gion District, a historic neighbourhood with narrow streets, wooden houses and home to geishas and maiko (appreciate geisha). The Higashiyama District, with its sloping pedestrianised lanes lined with small shops and cafes, is framed by the Yasaka Pagoda (Hokanji Temple). Many traditional Ryokan’s (Japanese Inn) are located in this area along with the Yasaka Shrine (Gion Shrine). Locals were dressed in their traditional colourful kimonos as it was a Sunday as were visitors who hired them from the many kimono rental shops in this area.
We ate in Pontocho Alley, a narrow atmospheric street in Gion with small restaurants on each side, venues on the east side have terraces overlooking the Kamogawa River. Prices vary and there’s a lot of set menus especially on the river side, ask for an English menu before you commit. On the hotel’s advice we also dined in one of the many preserved machiya houses in Hanami-koji Street (also in Gion) that are now upmarket restaurants lit by lanterns, as we left we saw just one geisha who was rushing away. You can arrange to see a geisha show or a private dinner with geishas at an Ochaya (teahouse) which is quite expensive and must be booked in advance – read more about Kyoto geisha culture HERE
Kyoto is a bike friendly city so we decided to embrace this. However when agreeing to a casual bike ride I didn’t take into consideration a) the scorching sun and b) it would a 20km round trip!! Saddle sore didn’t even cut it!! (FYI you can’t take bikes on the trains, we asked!) We cycled from the centre of Kyoto to the western outskirts of the city to the base of the Arashiyama Mountains (aka Storm Mountains) where the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is located.
Across the Togetsu-kyo (Moon Crossing) Bridge tucked away behind a very busy tourist street is the Zen Buddhist Tenryu-ji Temple and its immaculate gardens. Adjacent to the temple are the stunning tall bamboo trees that form the peaceful grove lining Bamboo Alley, one of Japan’s most photographed areas. There are smaller areas of bamboo full of tourists and you must go up past the temple to see the main bamboo grove. Top tip, go early in the morning to avoid the crowds. You can also see wild Japanese macaque monkeys at the nearby Iwatayama Monkey Park.
There’s two stations here and plenty of traditional food options and souvenir shops on the main street. Look out for the Kimono Forest in the Randen Arashiyama station, 600 cylindrical pillars made from colourful, patterned Yuzen Kimonos native to Kyoto.
Like everywhere we went in Kyoto the much photographed Fushimi Inari Shrine was jam packed with hoards of tourists. This famous shrine, dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, is free to enter and has an impressive 10,000 vermilion (orangey-red) coloured torii (gates) lining the mountain trail to the top of the Sacred Mount Inari. You enter the shrine via the Romon Gate and pass by the honden (main hall) where respects are paid to the deity (god). The entrance to the torri hiking trail starts with two parallel rows of gates that create a tunnel know as Senbon Torii, which translates as thousands of torii gates.
The hike to the summit can take a couple of hours but you can turn back at any point like we did as we had a train to catch to Osaka. Top tip, if you are looking for a less busy spot to take photographs keep going up the hill through the gates as most people give up quickly. At the bottom of the temple grounds are street food sellers and souvenirs aplenty, if you looking for a tacky Japan gift or fridge magnet this is your spot.
There’s lots of places to eat and drink in Kyoto with a huge variety of cafes, restaurants and bars to suit all tastes and budgets. Try everything from a local kaiseki (multi-course) meal, yakitori, udon noodles, ramen and tempura to fancy cocktail bars and Michelin starred establishments. We sampled Okonomiyaki, Japanese savoury pancakes, yakitori and udon bowls and a rather tasty miso eggplant dish. Even the futuristic Kyoto station has lots to offer with shops, restaurants and entertainment, the Food Hall at Isetan in the station comes highly recommended.
Kyoto was the historical and cultural place that I hoped it would be with so much to see and experience. We only saw a small part of what was on offer, we didn’t even have time to visit the iconic Kinkaku-ji temple (Golden Pavilion) so I would recommend staying as long as you can. Those who do have longer trips planned should check out www.insidekyoto.com for top tips on where to stay and what to see.
Top Tips for visiting Japan
- Purchase a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) for use on the trains available in 7, 14 and 21 day denominations. Purchase online before your trip and pick up upon presentation of your passport at the airport when you arrive. We bought the Green pass (first class) where you can reserve seats in spacious carriages for easy and comfortable travel. Using the JR pass is easy, just show your pass to the guard at entry and exit points rather than using your green tickets in the machine. Be aware that trains are ALWAYS on time.
- Purchase a data-only sim on arrival at the airport for unlimited data during your trip (kiosk opposite the JR desk at Nagoya airport).
- Buy a PASMO travel card for use on the Tokyo Metro (like the Oyster card in the UK) and buses. Cards can be purchased at station ticket machines and credit must be loaded in cash. English and International instructions available so it’s pretty straightforward.
- Cash is king although most places do accept credit cards.
- Consider using a luggage service (wish we had on parts of the trip). Luggage is collected and sent to your next destination so you can travel lighter on the trains.
- Carry your passport with you to avail of tax free shopping for purchases over ¥5000. Receipts are stuck in your passport and removed by custom officers at immigration on departure.
- Convenience stores, such as 7/11 and Family Mart, are on every street and sell everything from hot and cold takeaway food, fresh fruit, baked goods and alcohol to medical supplies and toiletries. Be mindful that while it’s not illegal to eat and drink in the streets it is frowned upon. Bins are few and far between so keep your bags for rubbish.
- Some hotels offer complimentary HANDY smartphones in your room that you can use for FREE throughout your stay. It offers unlimited 4G internet access, local calls and guide to the city you are staying in. Use it for google maps and restaurants recommendations etc.
The views in this post are all my own based on my experience. Unless otherwise stated all photos © Jo Brett 2019. All rights reserved. Geisha photo used with courtesy of http://www.fun-japan.jp/intl