Exploring Kyoto: The Ultimate Itinerary
While I was in Japan, I had the pleasure of visiting Tokyo and Kyoto and they were entirely different. Tokyo epitomizes the modern urban experience as residents enjoy an assortment of Michelin starred restaurants, vibrant nightlife and the most state-of-the-art technology. Kyoto, on the other hand, exemplifies tradition, tranquility, and relaxation. If the stars align, perhaps you will even spot a geisha walking along Gion. After spending a few days immersing myself into the Kyoto culture, I thought I would share a few of the sights that inspired me.
Kinkaku-ji ( Golden Pavilion)
Known as one of the most symbolic structures in Japan, Kinkaku-ji (aka the Golden Pavilion) is a Zen Buddhist Temple located in northern Kyoto. Curious as to what makes this temple so unique? Not only are the top two floors completely covered in gold leaf but this structure has burned down numerous times. In fact, the structure below was rebuilt in 1955. Neither rain nor snow nor crowds of people can overshadow this golden splendor.
As you study this extraordinary design, you will notice the variation in architectural styles. The bottom floor, which is built in Shinden-zukuri style, resembles more traditional temples that you would see throughout Japan as it uses large wood pillars and white plaster. The second floor is built in the Buke-zukuri style, typically found in samurai residences while the uppermost floor exhibits characteristics of a Chinese Zen Hall and is topped with a Golden Phoenix.
Despite the droves of people that were there, we wandered around the gardens in approximately 45 minutes and even had time to stop and grab a green tea soft serve, which by the way was the perfect way to beat the heat.
One of the many things I fell in love with during my visit were the ema. Ema are small wooden plaques typically found at Shinto and Buddhist temples where guests or worshipers will inscribe wishes or prayers. These are left hanging at the temple where the spirits or gods are believed to receive those and will remain intact until they are ritually burned at a special event.
These plaques will vary from shrine to shrine and I always find it heartwarming how each of these have been personalized with art work or something from their native country. Most importantly it's wonderful to see so much hope when we often only hear about the despair in the world.
If you visit any number of temples or shrines while in Japan, you may notice "fortune" boxes. These fortunes are known as Omikuji and can deliver good or bad news. After seeing several of these, I finally caved and got one. I was pleasantly surprised with my message, however, if you don't receive a promising fortune, you can leave it at the temple for the gods to take any of the bad auras (aka ju-ju) away.
Tip: Try to come during an off-peak time. We arrived shortly before lunch during peak cherry blossom season, so you can imagine the sea of people we waded through. Even though it wasn't ideal, it wasn't like being in the midst of Shibuya crossing.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Without hesitation, I can say that my visit to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove was by far my favorite excursion in Kyoto. Located on the outskirts of town, Arashiyama has quickly found its way on many travel "it" lists as a top destination.
Photos simply cannot capture majestic beauty of this bamboo grove. With paths over 500 meters long, this is the ideal place for a peaceful walk or even a bike ride if the area isn't too congested.
Embarking upon the path, I felt like I was transported to another world. Suddenly, the clamoring crowds subsided and a sense of calmness and tranquility swept over me. An ideal time for a walking meditation. That day, in particular, there was a slight breeze and I watched as the towering stalks swayed back and forth.
Once you enter the grove, you will notice a significant temperature difference as the soaring stalks only allow a small amount of sunlight to peek through. You might want to keep that sweater or jacket handy.
As the path ends and you reemerge into the hustle and bustle, you will notice several small shops and restaurants nearby. While I didn't have a proper meal in the area, I ate my weight in ice cream and had one of my favorite things on my trip, Fluffy Cafe Latte ( last seen here).
Tip: We didn't take the normal path to get to the bamboo grove entrance. We ended up walking the back way and made it there in record time and avoided SO many people. Since this is a popular tourist destination, it can be especially busy during cherry blossom season. I recommend arriving early, enjoying the morning breeze and then enjoy a bite or coffee nearby.
While you may not be familiar with the name, there's no doubt you've seen these vermillion gates. I subscribe to several popular travel publications and whenever there's an article about Japan, these are inevitably featured.
Fushimi Inari-taisha, one of the most popular Shinto shrines, is located in southern Kyoto. It is most famous for the thousands of brilliant orange torii gates that straddle the walkways and hiking trails. You might be wondering "what's the deal with these gates?" Each gate signifies a donation made by an individual or company. The name and date of the donation are inscribed on the back. Donations range from ¥400,000 to ¥1,000,000.
If you're ambitious and want to hike to the top, it typically takes two to three hours depending on the number of stop. However, if you prefer a leisurely stroll, there are smaller shrines throughout the property.
Tip: We arrived in the early afternoon and went at a leisurely pace. Again, it's peak cherry blossom season so areas were packed, but it wasn't too overwhelming. If you are wanting that "perfect" shot of the gates, there are lulls in between the droves of people, but you better have your camera aimed and ready.
The Heian Shrine is a Shinto shrine located in Sakyo-ku, Kyoto. While this is a stunning structure with open grounds, it's well renown for its charming gardens which were featured in the movie Lost In Translation.
The gardens at the Heian Shrine are one of the best cherry blossom sights in Kyoto. We arrived early on a week day morning and wandering around the grounds. There were very few people there which made for quite an enjoyable experience.
We wandered around the property in approximately 45 minutes. However, if you choose to explore the shrine, I would allocate more time.
Tariff: There's no fee for touring the shrine, however, if you choose to wander the gardens it's ¥600
Tip: Seeing as this is a prime spot for cherry blossoms, I'd recommend coming on an off day and early, if possible.
If your travels take you to Kyoto, I hope you have the good fortune to visit at least one of these sights!
Until Next Time!