Kyoto is a bustling, modern city interspersed with ancient temples and shrines, where geishas can be spotted amongst suited office workers. It’s a fascinating place to visit and makes an ideal base for exploring further afield. We stayed in Kyoto for five nights. We spent three days sightseeing in Kyoto and made day trips to Nara and Osaka, which are both less than an hour away by train.
Kyoto is located around 286 miles south west of Tokyo. Thanks to the wonders of the bullet train, you can get there in just over two hours, although we opted to stop at Hakone en route for some Mount Fuji spotting. Fares are quite steep at Y14,170 (£86) one way. We purchased a two week Japan Rail Pass to cover the cost of most of our travel.
On its way to Kyoto, the bullet train skirts around the outskirts of Mount Fuji, with some great views interspersed with telegraph poles and factories.
Kyoto has an extensive transport system. City Buses will get you to most of Kyoto’s attractions, although traffic can be heavy, so journeys may be slow. There is a flat fare of Y230 per journey. There are several train and metro lines operated by different companies. The JR Sanin and Nara Lines are included in the JR Pass.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the Kyoto Tower Hotel Annex. The hotel isn’t actually directly annexed to the Kyoto Tower Hotel, it is a 5 minute walk along the road and round the corner. Most of our accommodation in Japan was quite expensive, but at £175 for 5 nights, this one was worryingly cheap. The room is quite small, but it’s clean, comfortable and has all mod cons, just in a rather compact form. It certainly has a great view of the not-as-close-as-expected Kyoto Tower. Especially at night, when it is illuminated in red, white and blue.
|Day 1||Bullet Train to Kyoto|
Accommodation – Kyoto Tower Hotel Annex
Dinner at Ippudo
|Day 2||Kinkaku-ji |
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Dinner at Kokkio
|Day 3||Fushimi Inari Taisha|
Dinner at Tops Café
|5||Arashiyama Bamboo Grove|
|11||Fushimi Inari Taisha|
Kyoto Day 1
We spent our first afternoon in Kyoto travelling to the north east of the city to visit a couple of temples joined by a canalside path. This required catching a bus. Ironically, having just covered 234 miles in 2 hours, it took us over an hour to cover the 5 miles to the temple. Someone needs to invent a bullet bus.
We caught the No 17 bus from in front of Kyoto Station, which is accessed by an underpass come shopping mall. It is supposed to be a 43 minute journey, but took us over an hour, almost all of it standing. Each time the bus stopped, more and more people got on. Nobody ever seemed to get off. Maybe they couldn’t – they were probably stuck. In Bournemouth, when a bus is full, it skips stops. None of that namby-pamby nonsense here. At every stop, more people got on and everyone had to squeeze tighter and tighter together. At particularly busy stops, there was a man to help shove people into the ever decreasing space. Contrary to my suspicions, we made it to Ginkaku-ji without being crushed to death and squeezed out of the bus and walked to the temple.
A short walk from the bus stop along a road lined with souvenir shops and cafes brings you to Ginkaku-ji. ‘Silver Pavilion’ is a pavilion surrounded by a traditional dry sand garden. The temple dates from 1482 when it was a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who desired a place to retreat from the turmoil of war. The temple is called the Silver Pavilion because the shogun planned to line the roof with silver, however he never got round to it (typical man). After his death, the villa became a temple.
You can’t enter the pavilion itself. Entry to the garden costs Y500.
Walkways lead through the gardens of meticulously raked sand. I couldn’t help wondering how the poor gardener feels when it rains and he has to start raking all those patterns again.
You can follow a path (what am I saying – this is Japan, you must follow the prescribed route) up the mountain to a viewpoint over the city.
To reach our next destination, the temple of Nansen-ji we walked along the Philosopher’s Path, which follows a stream (Lake Biwa canal) lined with trees and plants. It ranks as one of Japan’s top 100 best walks.
The entire trail is 11 miles long and there are a number of shrines and temples along the way. We covered a mile long section to Nansen-ji Temple.
Nanzen-ji is one of the most visited temple complexes in Kyoto, and it was easy to see why.
The first building you come to is the enormous Sanmon Gate. This is more like a building with some huge doors in the middle than a gate. For Y600 you can climb to the second floor for views across the city.
As we were short of time, we admired the gate from the outside and proceeded up the path through the temple complex.
Nanzenin Temple is located just behind the rather impressive aqueduct.
It includes the mausoleum of an emperor, a temple hall and a garden centred around a pond. For Y400 you can enter the garden. To be honest, we hadn’t intended to go into Nanzenin, but paid the entry before we realised we weren’t actually at the Hojo, which is what we were aiming for.
The Hojo is the former head priest’s residence. Entry costs Y600 and visitors enter through the former temple kitchen. Here, you must remove your shoes, put them into a plastic bag to carry and don a pair of leather slippers.
The old man managed to select two left slippers, which hindered his progress somewhat.
The Hojo has a pretty impressive garden running around the outside.
It is most famous for its rock garden where the rocks allegedly resemble tigers and cubs crossing through water. To be honest, they just looked like rocks. But they’re very pretty rocks nevertheless.
At the temple toilet you must remove your leather slippers and replace them with plastic ones in case you pee on your feet.
Dinner at Ippudo
We caught the bus back to Kyoto Station and descended into the food court for dinner at Ippudo. Ippudo is a chain of noodle bars renowned for its noodles and its super fast order to table delivery time.
Kyoto Day 2
On today’s itinerary are Kinkaku-ji temple to the north west of the city, then a trip to the north western suburb of Arashiyama, famous for its bamboo forest.
First up, Kinkaku-ji; the ‘Golden Pavilion’. There is an easy way to reach the temple and a way which is free with the JR Rail Pass. The JR Bus, which doesn’t appear to have a number, runs every 30 minutes. There is a far more frequent Kyoto Bus no 205, which costs Y230 and stops closer to the temple.
We opted for the JR Bus and walked the last ten minutes to the temple. Kinkaku-ji is called the Golden Pavilion because in the centre of the complex there is, indeed, a pavilion covered in gold which reflects in the adjoining pond.
The original 14th Century building was a retirement villa for a Shogun Warlord. After his death, the building became a temple. In 1950 it was burnt down by a mad monk, however it was reconstructed in 1955.
We walked along the prescribed route, stopping at a lucky statue, where, if you throw a coin and it lands in the bowl, it is supposed to bring good luck.
I think this was my favourite temple. Even on a overcast, rather smoggy Kyoto winter’s day it was a spectacular sight. It’s also one of the cheapest at Y400. You can pay extra to enter the temple, but we didn’t bother.
Our next destination was the suburb of Arashiyama. Situated around 6 miles north west of central Kyoto, it is famous for its Bamboo Grove. We got the No 205 Bus to Emmachi Station to catch a train to Arashiyama. Arashiyama has two stations; The JR Sanin Line stops at Saga-Arashiyama Station and is included in the JR Pass. From here, it is a 15 minute walk along a signposted, mainly pedestrian path to the bamboo grove. Arashiyama Station is slightly more central and served by the Randen Line.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
We walked through the quaint, if somewhat touristy, suburb to the Bamboo Grove. It’s a very popular attraction, particularly with young people taking selfies in traditional costume.
Adjoining the bamboo grove is Tenru-ji Temple.
Adjoining the bamboo grove is Tenru-ji; a Zen temple with a garden overlooking the mountains. The garden is supposed to mimic the overlooking mountains. I couldn’t see it. But it was a pretty garden nonetheless. It costs ¥500 to visit just the garden, or ¥800 including going inside the temple.
We continued to Togetsukyo Bridge, apparently Arashiyama’s most iconic landmark. The bridge is made of reinforced concrete, but lined with cypress to give the impression of a wooden bridge. On one side it was a pretty bridge flowing over a picturesque river with a mountain backdrop. On the other side was a construction site. Once we had taken some quaint bridge photos without cranes and JCBs in the background, we made our way back towards Saga-Arashiyama Station for our train, stopping at Arashiyama Station on the way.
Outside Arashiyama Station is the Kimono Forest. This installation of 600 poles decorated with kimono designs is worth a stop before boarding the train back to Kyoto.
It is supposed to be illuminated at night, but although we visited mid afternoon, there was a storm brewing, so the lights started to come on as we wandered around.
We caught the train back to Kyoto Station. This huge building which looks like it belongs in an episode of Star Trek is a tourist attraction in its own right.
There’s even a huge Lego model of the station, which took someone with far more patience than me 720 hours to build.
We took a gazillion escalators to a Skywalk in the rafters, crossing to a rooftop garden towering high above the city.
As our hotel may (or may not) be annexed to the Kyoto Tower, we were given discounted tickets to visit the observation deck. Normally costing ¥800, we only had to pay ¥300. So we decided to take a look. The Kyoto Tower was built to celebrate the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It is 131 metres tall in total, with an observation platform, reached by two elevators, at 100 metres.
It has good views across the city and beyond, with interactive boards giving you more information about the things you can see.
There’s also a pretty good view of our hotel.
Dinner at Kokkio
For dinner, we headed back down to the food court in the underground mall. There are no English menus, so it was a case of selecting from the photos or plastic food displayed outside. I chose a restaurant which had nice photos. But when we reached our table, we realised that it has a hot plate in the middle and we must cook our own dinner. That sounded like way too much effort, so we try elsewhere and end up in Kokkio, which is a Korean restaurant. Pointing at pictures brought me Chicken Dakgalbi, a spicy chicken and vegetable stir fry, coated in a thick layer of melted cheese.
We pointed at more pictures to order a couple of beers. This did not go so well and we ended up with half a pint of Bourbon and soda.
Kyoto Day 3
Today was our last day in Kyoto before setting off on our epic train adventure and we saved Kyoto’s most popular attraction until last. Suitable fuelled with egg mayonnaise and chicken teriyaki sandwiches, we set off for Fushimi Inari Taisha; a shrine complex consisting of a total of four of paths, lined with thousands upon thousands of torii gates. Plus plenty of stone foxes.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
We took the Nara Line train (included in the JR Pass) to Fushimi Inari Station, which brings you right to the entrance to the shrine. After running a gauntlet of foxes, we came to the start of the torii path.
Inari is the deity responsible for good harvest and success in business. And the fox is believed to be his messenger. Hence the proliferation of shrines and foxes. The monks charge upwards of Y40,000 to erect a torii to bring good luck to your crops/business. Hence the continuous lines of them winding up and up the mountainside.
The complex was extremely crowded with hoards of people all vying to take photos of themselves and nobody else. It’s a 4 kilometre trail. Uphill. With lots and lots of stairs. I figured all we had to do is outlast some of the less hardy tourists and the crowds would diminish.
Obviously, I was right and we got some nice, people free photos en route to a viewpoint overlooking the city.
At this point, we had been climbing for half an hour and I decided there was little to gain from walking up more stairs past more identical red gates. But the old man was undeterred. There is a summit and he was going to reach it.
So I found somewhere to sit and take charge of the coats (they were definitely a mistake today) while he soldiered on up the hill of never ending torri.
Some considerable time later, I started to recognise some of the people coming back down the trail. So I waited expectantly. Finally, the old man reappeared and we could complete our descent and catch our train back to Kyoto.
Dinner at Tops Cafe
We definitely earned our dinner today and went in search of katsu curry. We found a place, Tops Cafe, behind Kyoto Station which has both katsu and an English menu, which was good because (a) we knew what we were going to eat in advance of it arriving at the table and (b) it’s self order which we obviously wouldn’t have managed in Japanese.
To be honest, the system is a little complicated for two foreign wrinklies and we ended up with rather a lot of food. But I had my katsu curry (amongst a whole range of other stuff) so I was happy. And it was a good curry. So I was extra happy.
Then it was time to return to the hotel to pack for our onward journey to Okayama.
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