Kyoto: the ancient capital

Kyoto is a difficult post to write…  This is such a beautiful and magical place, with so many places to go to and see, that it might become the longest post ever!!  At any rate, this is one place you can not miss!

We travelled to Kyoto from Kobe, after our work was finished, and as a preamble to travelling around to all the other places we have talked about.  While there, we had 3 days, and we also managed to catch up with Annmarie and Trev once more.  Since it was going to be my birthday, Mariana worked with Trev to plan an awesome dinner, more about that below!

We arrived into Kyoto by train.  From there we headed to our hotel, the Citadines Karasuma-Gojo Kyoto.  This is basically like a slightly upscale IBIS.  It was nice, would recommend it as a cheap and easy place to stay at.

Our first stop in Kyoto was to do a walk we saw in one of the lonely planet guides, which seemed very interesting!  A map of the route is below, and it is definitely one that is work doing in about 6-8 hours.  Just take a bus to the first point and walk the rest of the way!

Kyomizudera temple

This is the temple on top of the mountain, where you can see the city.  It is very beautiful!  While we were there we got a free 15 minute tour from a gentleman who was learning english.  He was super friendly!  We also managed to see a couple of Geishas walking around the temple. When you reach the first gate turn to your left and you will be able to go into a completely dark cave to see a light rock. I can’t remember what it was but it was an interesting experience.


Sannen Zaka and Ninnen Zaka

Two small streets that come off form the main one form Kyomizudera.  These are very small and really give you a feeling for the city!  Lots of small staircases and shops, and if you pay attention you might get a chance to see geishas walking around.  We are sure we saw a few real ones (not tourists dressed as them).


Ishibei Koji

On the left hand side after a bit of a walk, is the Ishibei Koji Alleyway.  this is probably the most representative of all Kyoto streets we saw.  Its just a small lane that goes around with beautiful houses.  It is such a peaceful and quiet place!

Maruyama Koen

This is a large park surrounded by shrines.  While we were there in the middle of winter, everything was quite dry, but in the spring and autumn, all the trees are suppose to be beautiful, and in the middle of the park is a huge cherry blossom.

Shoren In

Past the part there is a huge gate and temple.  This was under restoration while there, but it was still quite impressive!


At this point, we turned back as we had made a reservation to see a Japanese tea ceremony.  The route continues as on the map, and is probably 30-4 0 minutes more!  The tea ceremony is a very beautiful typical activity in Japan.  It was traditionally done to show respect to guests and to be connected spiritually.  We went to a place called Tea ceremony En, which we would recommend.

After this very action filled day, we decided we still had a bit of energy, so headed over to Gion, which is the old Geisha district.  This has quite a different feel to the town, but it is also very nice.  While there, we went to the famous Gion Corner Show, where they showcase 8-9 different disciplines and arts from the region.  It was an average experience, as it was very clearly catered to tourists, and it just does not feel very personal…  we would not go again.

To finish off the day we headed over to Pontocho, which is another very small street that goes on for a few blocks.  this is probably one of the most narrow streets we have been in, and it is just restaurant after restaurant… we wandered around and just stopped in one that looked nice.


Our next day in Kyoto we decided to focus on the North West of the city.  This started with a trip to Arashiyama by train (just a few stations up to Saga Arashiyama).  This place is most famous for its large beautiful bamboo forests, but there are so many temples and shrines as well!  As we exited the train station we started waling to the main area and found a small bike rental shop.  We decided to go for it, and it was a great decision. It was super nice to move around by bike!  There were so many temples, and the total distance was quite a few kilometres.  It was a really enjoyable experience. We followed a route we found in a small handout map they give in the station, be sure to get one!

As we cycled around, there were a few temples and places that can not be missed.  Some of them are:

  • Tenryu-ji temple:  the most famous one.  Has a very beautiful garden and pond.  A very peaceful place!
  • Small temples between Tenryu Ji and the main road:  there are probably 10-20 temples next to each other here.  We really enjoyed rambling around and going into these randomly.
  • Bamboo grove:  This is the main reason why we came.  It did not disappoint!
  • Jojakko Ji Temple:  this is a smaller temple on the top of a hill.  When we were there, there were only one or two more people, which gave us the nicest sense of peace and tranquility.  On top of that, there was a group of people singing buddhist chants in the cemetery next door.  It was very serene.
  • Gio Ji temple:  this is a very small temple, but has some beautiful moss gardens around it.


After this adventure filled morning we stopped at the local ramen house right outside of the train station, and took a taxi to Kinkaku-Ji, the golden pavilion.

Kinkaku Ji

Kinkaku Ji is probably the most popular picture of all of Kyoto.  It is a beautiful golden building in the middle of a pond and with very beautiful surroundings.  This is another must go… but be warned that it will be very full!  Never the less it is worth it.

Nijo Castle

Once we finished at the golden pavilion, we headed over to Nijo Castle.  This, together with Arashiyama, is probably my favourite spot in all of Kyoto…  It is an old castle in the middle of the city that used to belong to the local shogun.  It is very well conserved and has pretty good explanations of things…  My favourite fact i learned there:  All of the floors are made squeaky on purpose so that any invaders/attackers (ninja’s!) would make noise and be caught.  This castle is another one that can not be missed.

To finish off the day, we decided to have typical Kyoto sushi, which is very different than what you are used to.  Since Kyoto is quite a ways from the sea, in the ancient days they would pickle and cook the seafood so it would last longer.  They then use this to make the sushi.  It was quite nice and interesting!  The name of the place is いづ重 (something like Kyoto Wel), and it is know to be one of the best places!  After this, it was time to sleep!

Fushimi Inari

On our final day in Kyoto we went to Nishiki Market and caught up with Annmarie and Trev later.  To start the day off, we headed over to Fushimi Inari Taisha.  This is another temple that is very famous, as it has many thousands of orange Torii Gates.  These gates go up the mountain and around, with a shrine every few hundred meters.  We headed about a third of the way up, as going the full way around probably takes a few hours!  This was another very pretty place.

After this, we decided to go for a little rest in preparation for my birthday dinner!

As a surprise, Mariana worked with Trev to arrange a Kaiseki meal.  This is a typical japanese multi-course meal.  In ours, we were served around 18 dishes!  These included all types of fish in many different presentations.  Most were really good, and a few not so much (some really were pushing the envelope for our taste buds – I’m looking at you herring roe – kasunoko!).  The dishes included  soup, sushi, squid, urchin and many others… it really was a very interesting experience, all served dish by dish and prepared in front of us.  We had no choice in the meal, it is based on what the chef has available, and it really was a very enjoyable and experimental time!  The chef had a very large collection of places, and he serves every dish on a specific plate that will showcase it best.  If you are up for it, the name of the place is Chihana, and it s a 3 Michelin star restaurant.  We recommend you get a japanese person to book it (and you definitely need a booking).  this was a very artful meal!
Here is the picture of the most impressive dish – The End of the Winter. It represents the first flowers coming out under a very thin layer of snow.

Once we were finished with our awesome meal, we decided to head over to one of the shrines as it was the Setsubun festival (fire festival).  Here we walked around and there were hundreds of stalls serving all kinds of japanese food and toys.  It was nice to walk around and see all of the locals taking it all in.  It was also very nice to be able to go into the shrines at night.

Once we finished our festival walk, we headed back to the hotel, as we had a long trip waiting for us the next day (all the way to Takayama).

Other posts about Japan:

Our time in Japan

Koya San: beautiful mountain town

The One and Only: Fuji San

Takayama & Shirakawa-go – Mountain Wonderland

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