Our journey from Hiroshima to Kyoto was much longer than expected! Instead of a less than 2 hour journey on 1 bullet train, it turned in to a much longer journey on two trains. The only explanation being that the shorter trip more expensive – surely that is what we paid for when it was in the itinerary? When we finally arrived in Kyoto, the guide suggested everyone have lunch but I for one was not prepared to waste another 1-2 hours faffing so after leaving our bags in the hotel (back to small bags only), a few of us headed straight out to visit the Nijo-jo Castle.
Built in 1603, Nijo-jo Castle was the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu (one of the lead characters of the Age of Samurai) and when his Shogunate ended in 1867, the castle became the Imperial Palace. It was then donated to the city as a historical site and in 1994 became a UNESCO world heritage site.
You enter the castle grounds by crossing the moat and then entering the main walls of defense through the East gate before reaching the inner or secondary circle of defense and entering through the beautiful (and apparently Chinese style) Karamon Gate. The attention to detail and stunning colours and carvings were breath taking.
Inside the second defensive walls, you finally reach Ninomaru Palace. You could not take photos inside the palace but we were given an information leaflet and there were signs in English that gave brief information about the rooms as we made our way around the various buildings, connected by corridors and “nightingale” floors, that “sang” as you walked. It was really more like squeaking! Some say this was a security measure to warn of intruders, however I also read that this is actually just through wear and tear of 100 years of feet!
Either way, the singing floors and the beautifully decorated ceilings and sliding walls were well worth the visit. As were the beautiful gardens surrounding the palace.
We then walked back to the train station and caught a train to one of the most iconic sites in Kyoto – the Fushimi Inari Shrine, with its thousands of red (actually a colour called vermilion) torii gates. The Shinto Shrine (dating back to 794) is one of the most important shrines dedicated to Inari , the God of Rice, whose messenger is a fox (lots of fox statues around), but despite that, the main reason crowds flock here is to see the torii gates and explore the mountain paths up Mt Inari, which are lined with rows of the gates – called Senbon Torii (“thousands of torii gates”).
The lower gates around the Shrine itself were beautiful, but also packed with people. The higher you get, the less people there are, but also the less perfect the gates became. I guess it is much harder to do the continual maintenance required up there. We continued up until we reached the “beautiful view” noted on the trail maps and it was definitely worth the walk. We could even see as far as Osaka in the distance but we didn’t stay long as dusk was beginning to fall and insects were beginning to come out.
Today was Day 7 of our JR pass that has got us around the country this far, so it was time to say goodbye to it, and rely solely on our trusty sucia card which makes travel on most public transport so easy (as long as you have enough money on it)!
Despite already being a long day, it was not over yet as there was still more to see. So we were soon back on the train, heading to Hanami-koji Street in the Gion area, the most famous geisha district in the city, lined with old wooden machiya merchant houses. Of course, we were hoping to be lucky enough to spot a Geisha (or Gieko as they are called in Kyoto) as they were on their way to work. And we were!! The first was spotted as just a glimpse from behind, but we then were in the right place at the right time to have 2 pass right by us as they rushed to their appointment.
By this time it was after 6pm, and of course we had missed lunch, so we went on the hunt for food. We crossed the river and walked down numerous lanes in the hope of finding somewhere open and with space and finally ended up in a German Beer house!! Not really the ideal spot for dinner in Japan, but the food was good, as was the beer so I can’t complain. We finally made our way back to the hotel to check in at 9.45pm and of course my roommate was already asleep! It was a long but great day.
Our first morning in Kyoto and I was keen to get up and out early. I had agreed with “the Irish” that we would meet in the lobby to leave at 8am. Not surprisingly one of them came down at 8.05 and then is going to have breakfast 🤦🏻♀️! As much as I enjoyed their company, and I really do, sometimes it is easier just to do things by yourself lol.
After a couple false starts finding our train platform in the huge station, we traveled out of the city and followed the crowds to the Arashiyama Bamaboo Grove (probably 1.5 hours later than I would have liked to have arrived 🥴). There was lots of people and didn’t really look much like the photos you see – I definitely think there is some photo editing going on there!
Now I had read a bit about the forest online, including statements such as “serene and dreamlike” and the sound of the rustling wind through the bamboo being named as one of the”100 soundscapes of Japan”. If you dream about crowded pathways through bamboo forests or if lots of people talking, well this “soundscape” is for you lol. Honestly, it was nice, but I would not rate it highly amongst other things I saw in Kyoto.
After walking through the busy forest, we managed to find a lovely quite suburban street to walk back on. A nice contrast from the crowded paths and an opportunity to see how people lived.
On the map, our next destination did not seem far away but there did not appear to be any direct transport, so we had to take 2 buses to reach Kinkakuji, better known as the Golden Pavilion. With the top two floors of the Zen temple covered in gold, it definitely lived up to its name, and the building, and its reflections in the small lake in front of it were stunning.
The temple was most recently rebuilt in 1955, but it started life in 1408 as the retirement villa of a Shogun before becoming a temple after his death. You cannot go in the temple itself, but the views and the gardens are a lovely distraction from the busy streets outside.
Before our next bus we stopped for a delicious, decadent crepe and after the bus, we found a cute, and very small restaurant where we had some tempura mochi and a beer. It was a very local place with low tables though I think we got the western version, with more leg room under the table lol.
We were now back in the Gion area, we were looking for the Yasaka Pagoda, and stupidly thought it would be at the Yasaka Shrine …. It was not lol. So after a quick look around the shrine, one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto, we walked through the historic Higashiyama area to find the elusive pagoda.
The Yasaka Pagoda is the last remaining structure of the 6th century Hokan-ji Temple complex. At 5 stories tall, it towers over the narrow cobbled streets and other nearby shrines and temples of the Higashiyama area – including Yasaka Koshin-do, a temple popular not for its history but for its colourful aesthetics.
Instead of small wooden tablets that are normally used for wishes or resolutions, this shrine uses kukurizaru, small round colourful balls and they are everywhere, making great backdrops for everybodys photos. Apparently it is very popular with locals in their yukatas for photos – we spotted a few striking a pose or two lol. Speaking of photoshoots – as I have the best phone and the only one with data I have become the photographer and navigator in these self guided days —- it’s exhausting 😂
Despite having already walked so far, the day was not over and our next temple was the Kodai-ji temple. (Sooooooo many temples and shrine in Kyoto). Just behind the Yasaka Shrine, the Kodai-ji Shrine was established in 1606 in memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the stars of the Netflix programme “Age of Samurai”. Both he, and his wife Nene are enshrined here. Unusual for the time, he was very close to his wife and she acted as somewhat as an advisor to him.
Apparently, his successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu helped pay for the temple which has beautifully decorated interiors and beautiful gardens around it, including a lovely little bamboo forest. Whilst enjoy the temple gardens we spotted a giant Buddha which we had to go and check out.
It turns out it was called Ryozen Kwanon, a tribute to “The unknown Solider WWII”. It was built in 1955 and is described as having a “merciful dave that was modelled on its famous sculptor” and is 24 metres tall.
The area in front of the statue is considered a place of peace and good luck and here they have a large spherical “wishing precious stone” or power spot. To have a wish come through you place your right hand on the sphere and walk around it 3 times. We will see how that works out lol.
We stopped back by the Kodai-ji temple for an ice cream, and to spy what may have been a geisha on a video call. Or at least it was someone all dressed up as a geisha, with geisha movements, tucked away in a corner on a call lol. She looked beautiful either way.
We trudged back to Gion, and beyond, across the Kamogawa River to the Pontocho area to find a spot to rest our weary feet and have something to drink. This area is one of the city’s most popular area for eating and drinking and is full of lovely narrow alleys with small resturants. We were lucky enough to find a small place to fit us in and enjoyed some snacks and beer. I should probably mention that often when you sit at a table in a restaurant, you are often given a small plate of something – sometimes pickled vegetables, in this instance endamame beans. You will get charged for these, whether you ask for them or whether you eat them. They don’t cost a lot, may 300-400 yen but I am sure it catches some people out.
I was exhausted after such a long day, but not too tired to walk around the corner to join the queue at the Maccha House, a café chain that is famous for its extensive selection of matcha based drinks and desserts, in particular its matcha tiramisus that we had come for. They were delicious and well worth the short wait.
One last bus back to Kyoto station and another 10-15 minutes getting lost in Kyoto station (how many times have I been lost in Kyoto station 🤔 probably fair to say every time I have been there 😂 but at least each time we find some amazing architecture) before I could final relax after another 18,000 step day! My Sucia card for public transport also got a massive work out today!
On my final morning in Kyoto, I woke super early so decided to go an find one of the many coffee shops in the station (just a few minutes walk from the hotel). Yet another opportunity to get lost of the train station 😂 but at least I got my coffee.
We were not leaving time till early afternoon so we had time to head to the beautiful Kiyomizudera, translated as “Pure Water Temple”. Founded in 780, the temple sits in the hills in the east of Kyoto surrounded by forest, with amazing views out over the city. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and probably my favourite temple we visited in Kyoto, if not in Japan.
As we left the temple it started raining but we still had to explore the beautiful cobbled narrow streets of the historic Sannenzaka and Ninen-zaka areas. Sadly my photos just show streets full of umbrellas lol.
Apparently, legend has it, if you stumble and fall on Ninenzaka, you will die within two years and if the same thing happens on Sannenzaka, death within three years! Now, in the rain, some of the cobbles and stairs can be pretty slippery but we were all lucky to all stay on our feet.
We continued down Ninenzaka to find one of the most famous Starbucks in Japan, maybe the world. It is situated in a 100 year old traditional wooden Japanese tea house. It is easy to walk straight past it’s subtle signage on the outside and inside, it has also maintained much of its original charm. Low ceilings, dark wood, lots of small rooms, some with tatami mats and silk cushions. There is even a small Japanese garden outside. It is probably advisable to check that this is somewhere sit before ordering to drink in, as it is normally very busy.
Time was almost up on visit to Kyoto but we did have time to experience lunch at one of the small restaurants in the train station. You ordered and paid for your food at a machine at the end of the restaurant where you got a ticket and then took a seat. Your food was quickly bought to your table though we had no idea how they knew who was sitting where. I had gyoza and beer and it was cheap and tasty.
Kyoto definitely needs more than a couple of days. Such a beautiful city with so much to see and do.