Simply put; if you had only one city to visit during your Japan stay, make it Kyoto.
No, not Tokyo in spite of all its awesomeness, not Osaka in spite of its nightlife and definitely not Nara or Kanazawa or Hokkaido for that matter!
If you are short on time just scroll down through the pictures and you will know why. You don’t even have to go through the text. it’s that obvious!
It is so culturally important that when it was shortlisted for the cities to be atomic bombed during the world war; it was spared as the loss was deemed to be insurmountable (Read this for more). Not that Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t matter; but you get the swing. Kyoto has always been important and as a traveler thankfully it will always be on any must-see list!
It is home to innumerable shrines, a bamboo forest, and the famous Gion Geisha district. It was the imperial capital too. So you see Kyoto has a lot going for it.
We spent three short days in Kyoto and they were the most wide-eyed three days ever! Every shrine is a work of art in itself. The Shinto and Buddhist admixture of beliefs are nowhere more evident. Let me give you a brief about the main spots.
Must see places in Kyoto
- Arashiyama Bamboo Grove: As you walk through this bamboo grove you are shaded by the shoots that cast a shadow all through your path. The light filters ever so slightly through the gaps enough to illuminate your path and broaden your smile. This kind of feels out worldly and eerily serene. But then, there come the crowds and it’s not so magical anymore. But nevertheless, its still sits on top of my list which has so many amazing places. And that’s saying something, isn’t it? Just have a look at the pic and tell me if it isn’t wonderful. Spend at least a few hours and take in the cool breeze and check out the antique train that occasionally runs through it!
2. Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine: This awe-inspiring Shinto shrine has around 10,000 Torii gateways. They symbolize the passing of prayers from people to the deity. The gates are painted Vermilion red which is considered a talisman against evil, The color is made from mercury and red earth. This mixture has been used to preserve wood since ancient times and it surely presents a great photo op. No wonder it was recently voted the most popular spot in the whole of Japan. You will see statues of Foxes everywhere. They symbolize messengers of the deity. This relatively easy trek through the gates is a definite must do in Kyoto. (Website)
3. Kiyomizu-Dera temple: Otowa-san Kiyomizu-dera Temple was founded in 778. As per our guide, an old man appeared in a dream to Kenshin, a monk who had led an ascetic life in Nara, and said: “Go north and find a crystal spring.” Inspired by this vision, Kenshin walked north and discovered a waterfall in Mt. Otowa. Though destroyed over ten times, this shrine has been resurrected every single time and its grounds are pretty elaborate now. Kiyomizu-dera Temple is a temple of the Kita- Hosso sect. After it was opened, it adopted the doctrine of the Hosso sect, one of the six sects of Nara Buddhism. It now also provides a vantage point to view the city from atop. The cherry blossom trees and the main shrib=ne jutting out of the hill adorns many brochures nowadays. That’s no mean achievement in Kyoto where all the sights compete for eyeballs! Check out their awesome website.
4. Kinkaku-Ji Temple: You cannot miss this golden pavilion. Apart from its similarities to the golden temple in Amritsar in India where too the reflection in the surrounding moat makes for amazing photos; the whole temple area is as soothing as a crowded temple can get. Dont let the crowds get to you. Loved the backdrop too. Amazingly serene! (Website).
Originally the principal seat of the Kamakura period, this villa of Saigonji Temple Mikage was handed over to one Yoshimitsu. After the death of Yoshimitsu, it became a temple by a will and was remodelled to its present state.
5. Shoren-in Temple: This under-rated temple has a classic Zen garden and peaceful surroundings. Thankfully its never crowded to enjoy the tea that is served here. You will remember this cuppa more than any other. The elements of a Zen garden here are an example for anyone wanting to try it at their homes! Pure bliss!
6. Nijo Castle: This was the seat of power of the Shoguns and has a beautiful moat all around it. You will surely be enthralled by the intricate wood carvings and watch out for the Nightingale’s floor in Ninomaru Palace.
7. Gion: Though Gion is placed at number seven, don’t for a second try to miss this place. You’d get a better feel of this place and the nuances of Geishas if you have a guide or if you are on one of the walking tours. It is filled with the classic Japanese teahouses and each house is a great photo op in itself. Add the orange lighting at night and it turns magical. You can easily spend a few hours strolling here and may even spot a Geiko (Geishas of Kyoto) Maiko (Apprentice Geisha). While you are at it watch out for the characteristic symbols of each district of Gion including the lantern designs. You can catch a Maiko show or tea ceremony if free.
8. Sanjusangendo: This temple used to be the place of archery competitions. Now its famous for the 1001 statues of Kannon- the god of mercy. There also 28 statues of deities most of which are derived from Hindu mythology. Indians will surely relate to names like Indra, Garuda, Shiva and Vishnu among others. That was a pleasant surprise, to say the least. Seeing them being depicted in an entirely new style that I had never come across in Indian temples was enlightening and also kind of liberating. Hard to explain it! Photography is not allowed inside. The photos you see are courtesy https://sanjayrao1010.files.wordpress.com. I have laid out the Indian versions of the same gods on the right for the interesting comparison between the two styles of architecture.
9. Other than the ones listed above do check out the imperial palace, Helan shrine, Kurama Dera and Ginkaku-ji to name a few.
10. A day trip to Osaka can also be equally rewarding especially the Himeji castle. read about it on my collaborator’s post here.
- A bus pass helps. A chauffeured car is better if you are short on time. It will be worth it as there are just too many to see.
- Be prepared to walk a lot as most of the temples are over huge areas.
- Best time to visit is Spring (March-May) and Fall (October-November)
- Watch out for those speeding cycles!
- Stay at a Ryokan, There are many of these traditional Japanese inns. It surely makes the whole experience that much more memorable.
- We stayed at the Ryokan style Ryokufuso. It was a different experience. They also have a public bath upstairs. It was an experience for sure!
- Check out the Nishiki market. Its a feast for both the belly and the eyes.
- If you do see a Geisha, don’t try to approach them for photos. It is considered rude and they won’t stop for you anyway.
- Japan Visa for Indians: One of the most professional and traveler friendly embassies that I have come across. They respond to every call and email diligently. Do check their website for the visa process. Should take 5 days to process. (Embassy Site)
- What I Read: Its impossible to not fall in love with Gion and Kyoto once you read this seminal piece by Arthur Golden. There can’t be a more elaborate depiction of Geisha’s life than ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. An absolute must read. Amazon link
9. What I Saw: You can’t escape the Geishas hee too. Watch the movie version of the book. Won’t disappoint you. IMDB
10. On the way from Tokyo to Kyoto via the Shinkansen (Japanese bullet trains), keep an eye out for the Mount Fuji. Best seen from the seats on the right. read more on my collaborator’s blog post here.
12. You do get a lot of cheap flights to and from the nearby Osaka airport. Why not add a few day trips from Osaka while you are at it!