I absolutely love Kyoto. We didn’t even scratch the surface of all that this city has to offer. Once the capital of Japan, Kyoto has so much history to get utterly lost in. Chocked full of temples, castles, gardens, palaces, markets, and more, this city never gets old. As you wander through the streets of Kyoto, you will get just the right dose of traditional and modern. I was lucky enough to spend two days here, but I wish that I had more time to experience more of the area. Read on to learn more about what I was able to fit into two days in Kyoto, Japan.
The Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji, is a Zen temple in Kyoto. The temple was originally a villa owned by a statesman that was purchased by a Shogun. When that Shogun died, his son converted the pavilion into the temple that it still is today. The top two floors are covered entirely in gold leaf, causing the temple to almost glow in the sunlight. The golden Phoenix statue that perches at the top of the pavilion is eye-catching. Honestly, the temple is stunning, but the crowds can be massive, and make taking pictures difficult. If crowds aren’t your thing, I would recommend getting there right when it opens or forgoing it altogether. Admission is ¥400, so it is not too steep a price to go in and see Kinkakuji. The temple is truly beautiful as are the gardens and lake surrounding the structure.
Kyoto Imperial Park and Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Park is free and open to the public, much to our delight. The grounds are lovely, especially during cherry blossom season. Many people will stroll through the palace grounds and just take their time enjoying the outdoors. The park is mostly gravel paths lined with trees and flowers. Visitors may enter the palace grounds without a tour guide, although English tours are available. We just wandered the grounds on our own and read about the buildings as we went. Note that you cannot enter the buildings, just look from the outside. Enthronement ceremonies still take place at the Imperial Palace to this day. Within the park, there is also the Sento Imperial Palace and a small branch shrine of Itsukushima Shrine. Take your time in this park. It is so large that it feels less crowded than a lot of the touristy spots in Kyoto.
We decided to explore the grounds of Nijo Castle towards the end of the day and actually ended up closing it down. Nijo castle was built in 1603 and was the residence of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was later used as an Imperial Palace before being turned into a historical site. The castle grounds are absolutely stunning. You will feel like you are walking into the past as you explore the gardens and pass through the different gates to get to Ninomaru Palace. You can walk through Ninomaru Palace and see some of the offices, meeting rooms, and living chambers.
The other palace, Honmaru, is not generally open to the public but is open on special occasions. The palace is beautiful and interesting to tour, but for me, the gardens are the best part of Nijo Castle. There are multiple gardens overflowing with cherry trees, a plum orchard, ornamental gardens, and lovely ponds with iconic Japanese bridges connecting paths. If you love gardens, this is the place for you. I highly recommend visiting in the spring to catch the cherry blossoms!
We were lucky enough to stay at a hostel that is right down the road from the famous Nishiki Market. This is a five-block market filled with shops and restaurants that just draw you right in. This is the place to find fresh seasonal foods in Kyoto. The market is so much fun to walk down to really get the experience of that local marketplace atmosphere. It seemed to always be bustling. I saw both the locals and tourists while I was there. You may be able to swipe a free sample somewhere, or you can pick up a small snack as you walk through the market. Nishiki Market started in Kyoto as a fish market in 1310. Some of the shops have been owned by the same family for generations. This market is such a cool experience. Because we were staying so close, we made a point to walk through whenever we had a chance.
Another more modern shopping area in Kyoto is Teramachi Street. It is located just a few streets over from Nishiki Market. I had one of my favorite meals there, Butaya Ton’ichi, a tonkatsu restaurant. There are several restaurants and shops on this street. It is outdoors, but still covered from the elements, so this would be a nice option on a rainy day. Teramachi Street literally means “temple” street, due to it being lined with temples and Buddhist shops historically. Basically, everything in Kyoto has some historical significance. Keep an eye out for signs giving a little bit of information about what the street was like in the past.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is an iconic location in southern Kyoto. Known for its pathway lined with vermilion torii gates, this Shinto shrine is a major hike. I honestly wasn’t expecting the number of stairs, but I took it on anyway because the path is just so enticing. You can hike to the top of the sacred Mt. Inari. Fear not, there are stops along the way where you can use a restroom and buy drinks and snacks; there are even some restaurants. When you get off the train, you will walk through some shops and food stands to get to the shrine. I ended up with some matcha mochi on the way there and some takoyaki on the way back.
Entering the path through the gates called Senbon Torii, or “thousands of torii gates”, is an exciting experience. Unless you get there super early, expect to see a lot of tourists. A quick step off the path will allow you to take some pretty awesome pictures without hordes of people. There are multiple trails that shoot off of the main one. Just follow whichever one suits you best. We were able to see some pretty incredible views on our own hike. I did not make it all the way to the top of Mt. Inari, because we had tickets to see a play, but next time I am in Kyoto I will definitely make it to the top!
There is a performance at the Kyoto University Art Theatre that occurs every Spring called Miyako Odori. This performance is incredible. In fact, I have never seen anything like it. The performance is put on by nationally famous geiko and maiko and has been occurring for the past 140 years. Miyako Odori passes seamlessly through all four seasons and will keep you enthralled the entire time. The performance is, of course, in Japanese, but you can purchase a recording in English if you wish. You honestly don’t need it, though. The acting skill is such an art form that you will be enraptured even without knowing what is being said. The performance is primarily song and dance interpreting the seasons. If you plan your trip around any event, I would recommend that it is this one. It is truly a cultural experience that you will never forget.
Not far from Kyoto University is a popular path known as the Philosopher’s Path. Water flows through the middle of the street between rows of cherry trees. In some places, the water was covered in pale pink blossoms floating along as I walked past. Grab a match-vanilla swirl ice cream cone and just enjoy the day as you walk down this iconic path. I saw tourists and locals alike enjoying the beautiful day on this beautiful path.
This part of Kyoto is one that I really wanted to see, mostly because of my obsession with the book Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. Gion was (and still is) the geisha district. There are plenty of shops and restaurants and teahouses in this area. It is most popularly, the place where famous geiko and maiko entertain guests. If you happen to spot a geiko or maiko, please be respectful. They do not want people coming up to them and taking their pictures. Take some time to stroll through the streets of Gion, and explore some of the shops or stop in a nice restaurant.
I could have spent much more time in Kyoto. This culturally rich city has so much to offer. If I had more time I would have loved to visit Arashiyama Monkey Park. I also would have liked to have spent some time in the many museums that Kyoto has to offer. The Museum of Kyoto and the International Manga Museum are two that I would like to see. There are also so many more temples to visit in the area.
If you are planning a visit to Japan, I’m sure that Kyoto is already on your itinerary. I hope that this article helps you in your planning. Kyoto is a wonderful place to really experience Japanese culture and to learn more about its history. If you are heading to Japan and would like to know more about how to get from point A to point B, read my article all about transportation in Japan. My next post will cover my time in Koyasan. Stay tuned!
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