After the first couple of days in Tokyo, we continue our trip through Japan in Kyoto. By now the worst of that terrible jet-lag (that never seems to end) is behind us. And we’re getting better at finding our way in this country that feels so structured and organised, but is yet so completely different from everything we’re used to.
Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto feels smaller, friendlier, calmer and more traditional. Here it’s common to hear the sound of the wooden sandals (geta) and see women dressed in a yukata (a simpler type of kimono) when you’re walking through the streets. Kyoto feels less overwhelming than Tokyo. I can’t imagine a trip to Japan without visiting Tokyo, but I’m enjoying Kyoto more.
Staying at a traditional ryokan in Kyoto
We have four days in Kyoto. But before I get to explore the city, I spend the first 24 hours having the ultimate Japanese experience: staying at a ryokan. I already shared this in a blog post and video, so I won’t go into more details here. But if we’re talking about amazing things to do in Kyoto, a stay at a ryokan has to be included.
Thousands of Red Shrine Gates at Fushimi Inari-taisha
If you’re wondering where all the tourists are in Kyoto, go to Fushimi Inari-taisha. This is one of Japan’s most popular shrines with thousands of red shrine gates (torii) that never seem to end. It’s especially crowded near the entrance where everybody is trying to take that same photo, preferably without any other tourists in it. But the arcades continue for about 4km up the mountain, so you’ll have plenty of other opportunities for beautiful photos if you just continue walking.
As you’re following the path you’ll keep seeing signs pointing in the direction of the ‘main shrine’. For some reason we’re expecting to find this main shrine at the end of the red shrine gates. And so we keep walking, and walking, and walking. The view is definitely getting better, but then we realise that the maps on the side of the road keep giving us the same ‘you are here’ dot on the map, even though we’re clearly somewhere else right now. It feels like we’re approaching the top of the mountain when we see another map with arrows pointing in five different directions and a message that the main shrine is 40 minutes from here. Another 40 minutes?!
Fortunately a nice Japanese lady comes to our rescue and explaines that the main shrine is the one you see (and is impossible to miss) as you enter the complex. Before you start walking up the mountain…
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Another extremely photogenic sight in Kyoto is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Even though I’m not unhappy with how my photos have turned out, it’s impossible to capture what it’s really like to stand in between these giant bamboo stalks that seem to never stop growing. It doesn’t happen very often, but this place makes me feel tiny.
As much as you’ll want to see the bamboo grove when you’re in Kyoto, you won’t need that much time for it. It’s a relatively short walk. But don’t leave right away, because as you exit the bamboo grove you’ll walk into the beautiful Arashiyama Park with some incredible viewpoints.
And if you’re looking for a nice place to have a traditional lunch, go to Shouraian. I have to admit that I can never get quite comfortable sitting on the floor when I’m eating (what to do with my legs?), something I saw a lot of other guests struggling with. But it’s a beautiful location, overlooking the river, and the food (mostly tofu) is really good.
Night Viewing of Kiyomizu-dera Temple
I hope you have an interest in visiting Buddhist temples, because there’s no escaping them here in Kyoto. There are around 1500 of them in this city. One of the most popular and impressive temples in Kyoto is Kiyomizu-dera (‘Pure water temple’). Located on mount Otowa, surrounded by nature and offering a beautiful view of the city, there’s a lot to see here. The impressive gates, pagoda, waterfalls and several halls make that you want to take your time when visiting.
Three times a year the temple offers a special night viewing. It’s something you don’t want to miss if you happen to be in the city on those days like we are. The spectacular lighting makes the experience unforgettable.
Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji
From one popular temple to the next. What you don’t see here are all the tourists standing on this side of the pond taking the same picture of the ‘Golden Pavilion’ Kinkaku-ji. After that there’s not that much else to do here. But you have to admit, all that gold reflecting in the water is not something you see every day.
Moss Temple Saiho-ji
When I was preparing my trip to Japan, I read a story about a ‘moss temple’ Saihō-ji. Not only was the 14th century garden supposed to be very special, you also had to apply in advance to visit. Not by simply filling in a form online. No, you need to send them a stamped self-addressed postcard with a letter requesting to visit the temple at a certain day. If accepted they’ll use that postcard to inform you when they’re expecting you.
The problem – as if this wasn’t complicated enough already – is that they will only send these postcards to an address in Japan. So you need both a postcard with a Japanese stamp and a Japanese address to send it to. Fortunately there are online companies that will help you with the reservation and deliver the confirmation to your hotel in Kyoto when you arrive.
You can imagine that after going through all this just to visit a temple and a garden, my expectations are high. Our visit starts with a meditation at the temple, followed by writing a personal wish on a piece of wood. It’s not very clear what’s being expected from us and the other visitors, but apparently we’re now supposed to leave the temple to explore the garden.
The garden with 150 different types of moss is really beautiful, but less than an hour later we’ve seen it all. So is it worth visiting? Yes. Is it worth going through all that trouble to get the invitation and pay an additional ¥3000 to get in? Maybe not.
Punk Kaiseki at Giro Giro Hitoshina
Visiting all these temples will make you hungry, so let’s talk about food. On my first night in Kyoto I enjoyed a traditional kaiseki meal, the food of the Kyoto elite. It’s delicious, an incredible experience and something I would highly recommend you try when you’re in Japan. But it’s also expensive.
When it comes to traditions, not everybody will appreciate it when you try to modernize it. At Giro Giro Hitoshina (sometimes called Guilo Guilo) however, they are ignoring that by offering a very affordable – and delicious – modern kaiseki dinner. We’re paying ¥4100 for a 7-course set menu.
Sitting at the counter of this small restaurant we’re talking with the young chefs while they’re preparing the food right in front of us. As much as I’m enjoying the frequent ‘lost in translation’ moments in this country, it’s nice to have someone you can understand explain what you’re eating. It’s informal and often gets loud and chaotic, everything a kaiseki restaurant traditionally shouldn’t be, but it’s fun and I love it. The perfect way to end our time in Kyoto.