Kyoto is Japan’s historic and cultural capital with countless shrines, temples, gardens and traditional buildings. It is one of the most recognised Japanese cities and we were excited to be here. When we first arrived at Kyoto Station, we were stunned by it’s grand modern architecture. Quite different of what we had in our minds, but as we experienced the city more over the days we realised that the old is mixed with the new – creating it’s unique charm and character.
THINGS TO DO
The Buddhist temples and shrines dotted around the city is one the key attractions and because there so many (in excess of a thousand) we could only see a handful. Probably the most iconic is Kinkaku-ji (for the Golden Pavillion) , followed by Kiyomizu-dera (a hill side, wooden temple that provides a city view), Fushimi Inari-taisha (for the hundreds of red arches) and Shimogamo Shrine (one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto).
Templed out? Kyoto has numerous parks and it’s not hard to find a bit of green space to chill and relax your feet after a full morning of sightseeing. Behind Yasaka Shrine is Maruyama Park, a pleasant, easy to reach public park (it’s also popular during the Cherry Blossom Festival in Spring). Grab some snacks from the nearby convenience stores and have a picnic here.
Afterwards if you are still have energy, continue walking south towards to Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka which are part of the Higashiyama District to experience old Kyoto. These areas feature preserved period buildings packed with small shops, teahouses and restaurants along a bustling pedestrianised street.
We were a little bit disappointed how the Gion District has become so commercialised, Hanami-koji Street is the main the street lined with luxury branded shops and over priced resturants. However it is here you might spot a Geisha on their way to a performance show in the late afternoon.
No visit to Kyoto is complete without seeing the famous bamboo forests of Arashiyama, it is about 7 miles north west from Kyoto station and can be reached by train with a couple of changes. The surrounding area is beautiful, with it’s river, forests and parks – it has an out of town feel and you can spend a whole day here.
To get a great view of the city, don’t pay to go up to the Kyoto Tower, instead there is another viewpoint at Kyoto Station. Take the long escalators up at the west side (by the grand staircase), right at the top you will reach a rooftop garden offering free views of the city. If you go down one level through the adjacent The Cube shopping centre you can access the Kyoto station roof walkway, it spans the whole length of the station concourse where you can take in the elevated views – a little hidden attraction and the best thing is that it’s completely free.
Less than an hour’s train ride from Kyoto, Nara has grand wooden temples, perfect Japanese gardens and fairly tame deer that roam round freely in the park grounds. We visited Todaiji Temple, it is one of the largest wooden structures in the world, inside it’s main hall houses a stunning giant Buddha. One of the key things we wanted to experience is to see the famous Nara ‘bowing deer’. Along the main street leading up to Todaji Temple you can buy shika senbei (deer crackers) from the numerous vendors. Be warned, although they look cute some deer can be a little aggressive and take a nip at you.
We finished with a visit to Yoshikien Garden (free to access for foreign tourists), it features three gardens in one, including a tea ceremony garden. We had limited time in Nara but for those who are interested in Sake making and tasting, visit Harushika Sake Brewery.
WHERE TO EAT
The area around the Gion District is probably best avoided, it’s very touristy and many of the resturants there are over priced. During our stay we ate at the shopping centres by Kyoto Station, the resturants are located at the top floors near the rooftop garden and there some food stores located in the basement levels. Another favourite spot was the food court at the new Aeon Mall, with a choice of inexpensive resturants. For lunch we can recommend a visit to Nishiki Market, a long row of shops and vendors selling tasty fried snacks and sweets, there are tiny resturants inserted in between if you prefer to sit.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at two comfortable Airbnb homes; a beautifully renovated house in Tofukuji and a modern apartment close to Fushimi Inari Shrine. These two areas are only a train stop from each other and only 10 minutes train ride to central Kyoto. It is a great base for sightseeing and you live amongst locals giving you taste of Kyoto life.
- Spot the free attractions in the city and don’t fall the tourist traps.
- The more popular temples and shrines such as the Golden Pavilion can get very busy in the afternoon, go early morning if you can to avoid the crowds. Inari Shrine is more pleasant in the late afternoon, less busier and more pleasant to hike the mountain trails.
- Kiyomizu-dera temple is currently under restoration (as of summer 2017), scaffolding now covers the whole external structure but the temple remains opened to the public and the city views are still there.
- If you have a JR Rail Pass, you can use it to get to Nara (JR Nara Line) and some of the services in the city including the airport train to Kansai Airport. The metro and private lines are not covered by this pass, we recommend you get an IC card for this and have some money stored on the card.
- Convenience stores are great and are everywhere but they generally have a higher mark up on a lot of their items, if you stay outside of the city – research if there is a supermarket nearby. They are usually better value and after 6/7pm, many stores discount their sushi – bargain!
Gallery Preview below, to see the full Kyoto & Nara Album click here.