Charming, poetic and spiritual, Kyoto seems like a world away from Tokyo in distance and culture. I love Kyoto and thought my several days in the city was barely enough.
Even though Kyoto is one of the biggest cities in Japan and attracts just as many tourists, there’s just a different pace in the city: calm and peaceful. I love the streams and rivers snaking through the city, the low hanging trees and plants that find themselves sprouting in between traditional, compact buildings. Even tiny, squat alleyways torched with paper lanterns and hazy with restaurant steam seemed romantic and theatrical – I’m pretty sure in any other city I’d find it incredibly creepy and haunting instead.
Maybe everyone else visiting the city feels it too, adding to the atmosphere. There’s definitely no shortage of kimono rental stores and tourists dressing up in traditional wear for the day. It makes spotting a real life Geisha a bit more difficult, but you can always tell the difference by how they hold themselves!
I could’ve been happy just wondering the streets of Kyoto, but I did hit up some of the touristy sites too – like the temples.
It’s completely overwhelming how many temples and shrines are in Kyoto, think over a thousand!
Here are the ones I went to:
Perched on top of a hill, getting to this temple can be a bit exhausting, but it’s well worth it. There are plenty of food stalls and souvenir shops on the way up and down, making the hike easier. This is definitely one of the busier temples, make sure to go early!
Nishi-Honganji & Higashi Honganji
Situated pretty much right beside each other, these two temples are structured very similarly. They’re less visited, but not any less grand. I particularly love how you can regularly spot locals praying and making offerings at these temples.
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
Striking with all the orange pillars this is a lovely place to spend the afternoon – which will be needed if you plan to hike all the way through. It’s also a steady hill climb, so make sure to bring a lot of water. I wish I had thought of this, but a fellow traveler decided to visit the shrine around dusk and stayed until it was dark. From their photos it looked considerably less crowded and so much more dramatic!
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
It really is just a hike through a giant forest, but the fact that it’s all bamboo changes the entire experience and makes it something foreign and magical. Visiting the forest is free and can be tranquil in moments where you find yourself away from the crowds and their cameras.
I visited the forest via the Tenryu-ji Temple. The temple’s back garden leads straight into a less populated part of the bamboo forest, which was great! It also leads to other smaller temples and shrines on the way.
The forest is pretty far from central Kyoto, so it’s worth it to make it a full day trip. There’s plenty of other temples and shrines surrounding the forest, as well as many shops and restaurants. In a way, it can feel like an entirely different city than Kyoto.
Close to the shopping and entertainment district, Yasaka Shrine shares the same garden with the Shorenin Temple, Chion-in Temple and the Maruyama Park. I visited this in the evening and it was nothing short of magical. I highly recommend it, especially since it’s so accessible from Kyoto’s main night life district
I didn’t really have time to visit many secondary temples – ones that aren’t on the must-see list, but I’m so glad I had the time to visit the Toji Temple. You can see it easily from the metro station, towering over the other modern, low rises in the area.
My suggestion for visiting these highly crowded sights is to go early or late. By early I mean, around sunrise or right when the doors open. Cause come 9am, the tour buses arrive in packs. I personally preferred visiting the temples at night, if permitted. It’s so much quieter and intimate.
Sights aside from Temples
When I was all templed-out, I shopped and people watched my hours away. There’s the Nishiki Market that has a great selection of second hand and thrifty items. Pontocho is a historic narrow street with lots of fancy dining options.
I wholeheartedly wished I had more time to explore Kyoto, especially the contemporary art scene, as well as the famous gardens, but I guess that’s what I’ll be doing the next time I visit.