Kyoto was the capital of Japan for almost 1000 years (between the 8thcentury to the mid-19thcentury) and therefore has many wonderful old buildings and cultural attractions. There are 17 UNESCO world heritage listed sites (we only made it to four!), masses of temples and shrines, beautiful gardens, many museums and great food.
However, it also has a problem with over-tourism, the with number of foreign visitors increasing from 500,000 in 2008 to around 8 million in 2018. This means that some attractions are extremely busy and there have been campaigns from locals for tourists to be more respectful. We had a great time in Kyoto, and although we visited some of the ‘must-sees’, we really enjoyed heading to lesser-known sites. It was definitely good to experience Kyoto without the throngs of tourists – dressed up in kimonos and wielding selfie sticks…
Kiyomizu-dera, Southern Higashiyama and Strolling through Gion
On our first afternoon we walked up Chawan-zaka (Teapot Lane) to Kiyomizu-dera, at the base of the Higashiyama (Eastern Mountains). This was our first venture out and about in Kyoto, the crowds in the narrow, steep lanes leading up to the temple were quite off putting. However, it was to be expected for such an impressive site, with the temple perched on the hillside, presiding over Kyoto. The main hall (with the famous veranda) was undergoing renovations but we still enjoyed visiting the temple precinct, pagodas and Tainai-meguri which was an interesting experience in the dark! The huge trees used in the construction of main hall with its 160+ pillars were also pretty incredible.
After Kiyomizu-dera, we walked down to Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka (Two year slope and Three Year Slope) which are in an area of traditional shops, restaurants and wooden houses. The streets were still quite full of selfie hunters, but it was fun to browse through the shops and we tried a couple of snacks (not sure how traditional – but we didn’t have the ubiquitous matcha ice-creams).
There are amazing temples throughout the area and there were sights all along our walk back to our hotel. It is highly recommended to do a self guide walking tour in Higashiyama. Also, make plans to stroll through Gion in the evening. It was lovely to walk through the streets lined with old buildings, and very quiet as people hadn’t ventured out in the cold. We even managed to catch a glimpse of some Maiko travelling between their evening entertaining jobs.
Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji
Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji were the only places in Kyoto that I had visited before, as part of a school trip 20 years ago. Not surprisingly, they hadn’t changed at all and are still very beautiful in their own different ways.
We got to Kinkaku-ji early (once we had found our local bus stop) and didn’t have to jostle too badly to get some superb views across the reflection pond of the Golden Pavilion. The main hall is covered in gold leaf and is spectacular, although has burnt down serval times, most recently event in 1950 when a mad monk set fire to the pavilion. The walk around the grounds is also nice, passing the monk’s quarters, several babbling brooks and a group of statues to throw coins at for good luck.
Not far down the road (it was an easy walk through the outskirts of suburban Kyoto) is Ryoan-ji. The main attraction here is a very famous rock garden of 15 stones, although it is said that only 14 are ever visible from any location. Instead of the immediate visual impact of the gold leaf, this is a more meditative place and viewing the rocks and intricately raked stones from the temple veranda (of course in socks), was very relaxing.
Arishiyama has become very famous, with flocks of Instragrammers drawn to its Bamboo grove. It was fun to walk through the bamboo forest, but considering some people call it out as one of the ‘must see’ attractions of Kyoto, I thought it was a bit underwhelming. Maybe I’ve just been in more awe-inspiring forests!
The next door Tenryu-ji was definitely worth visiting and had a lovely garden. The buddhist temple’s garden is one of the oldest in Japan (dating from the fourteenth century) and makes use of the technique of shakkei (borrowed landscape). This use of background scenery, the surrounding mountains in this case, makes the garden appear larger and more majestic, as it stretches into the forested mountains behind. We enjoyed strolling around gardens, which would be amazing in cherry blossom or autumn-foliage seasons.
We also visited Okochi-Sanso, the estate of a famous actor. It was another lovely garden with a good view over the Kyoto valley and included a warm cup of matcha tea.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari Taisha, at the foot of Mt Inari, is the head shrine of the 30,000 Inari shrines across Japan. It is famous for the masses of vermillion tori gates that frame the winding paths up the mountain (vermillion is a an amulet against evil forces). It is a huge shrine complex with five shrines, many sub-shrines and over 4km of trails to explore.
Inari is the Shinto god of rice harvest, commerce and business – many of the tori are donated by companies who are seeking support for their business. The messenger of Inari is the fox, so there are also many fox images throughout the shrine (sometimes with keys in their mouth, which represents the key to the rice storehouse). I even bought a small fox figure with my fortune inside (English version!).
The main shrine and lower sections of the complex were very crowded, particularly the Senbon Tori (10,000 gates) section. However, the further we climbed, the number of people steadily decreased. There were lots of moss covered side temples to explore and a nice viewpoint across Kyoto at Yotsusuji Intersection, where the main trail and the summit trail intersect. Even further along the path, we had some sections to ourselves and really enjoyed walking through the red tunnel of tori meandering up the wooded hillside.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is also a great place to come in the evening, which we did after our sake tour in Fushimi (see below). The main shrine was lit up beautifully, though it was quite eerie walking through the dimly lit tori.
We visited Nishiki Market as part of a tour. This included a trip to a small local shrine, learning about the various products at the market and of course lots of taste testing! We also checked out the knives at Aritsugu which seemed more like high-end art than kitchen devices. Although it can be crowded in the narrow lane of the covered market, it was delightful to explore. Remember not to eat and walk!
Although the main tourist sites are great (and hence very crowed), the most fun we had in Kyoto was on our adventures slightly off the usual tourist itinerary…
Chasing Plum Blossoms
We were too early for the sakura (cherry) blossom, but soon found out the ume (plum) blossom are just as lovely. One of the main differences (other than flowering season) between the two is that cherry blossoms have a long stem with multiple blooms off the branch, whereas plum blossoms grow directly off the branch itself. I think this makes plum blossoms more delicate, but less showy than a cherry tree in full bloom. We saw beautiful blossoms along the Kamo gawa (river), in temple gardens and the Imperial Palace gardens; but the best place we visited was Kitano Tenmangu shrine.
This shrine worships Tenjin, the deified form of Sugawara no Michizane, who was a scholar, poet, and politician who loved ume blossoms. The grounds of the shrine precinct were filled with plum trees, and for a fee we were able to stroll in the orchard that had the most amazing blooms ranging from white, light pink to deep red. There were even a couple of weeping plums and a tea drinking area from which to admire the gardens.
We were one of only a very few gaijin (foreigners) and also some of the few people visiting that were under the age of 60! Although popular with older Japanese, the vibe was very different to the tourist hordes at some of the ‘must see’ temples and we had a great time admiring the blossoms which were lovely en masse, but also very nice up close.
Yayoi Kusama Art Exhibition
After seeing the film ‘Kusama: Infinity’ and looking forward to visiting her famous pumpkins in Naoshima, we were pretty excited to find out that there was an exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s work at the Forever Museum of Contemporary Art, in Kyoto.
The building itself was in the traditional Japanese style so that we had to take our shoes off and wear slippers on the tatami mats. There was also a lovely garden – sitting on cushions on the floor viewing the gardens did make us feel very relaxed (some might say zen).
The old building juxtaposed nicely with the very modern, dotty world of Kusama. The exhibition featured a famous painting ‘Yellow Trees’, some early works and infinity nets, a room of flower paintings (some glittery) and of course lots of pumpkins including a walk through mirrored pumpkin room! It was not on the original list of things to do, but a highlight of our trip and as a bonus it wasn’t crowded at all.
As part of trying to spread out tourists, one of Kyoto’s initiatives is promoting activities outside of the main tourist areas. We stumbled on an advertisement for sake tasting in Fushimi, just a bit further past the Fushimi Inari shrine. We knew very little about sake and it was fascinating to find out about the brewing process, learn about cedar balls (and therefore know how to spot sake breweries and bars) and wander around the charming Fushimi brewing district.
We were the only people of the Kyoto Insider Sake Experience and firstly we walked down to the Gekkeikan sake brewery and museum. The founder of the original business started brewing in 1637 so there was a wealth of history and some interesting exhibits including sake making tools and the different kinds of rice used. We also visited the on-site mini-brewery where we saw the mash being fermented. There were a couple of sake available for tasting and Mark bought one which had a retro bottle design – it was for drinking on trains with the lid doubling as a sake cup.
After our brewery tour, it was back to the original meeting point for the tasting part of the tour. We were taught about the different varieties of sake and given a handy card with a matrix to show the differences in alcohol and rice polishing. We tasted seven different sake, making notes about what we liked and discovering the range of tastes from light and sweet (almost fruity), to very dry and some much more alcoholic! Next we experienced the same sake with food pairings and were amazed at how much the tastes changed. It definitely showed that different meals are complimented by different sake, much like wine pairing.
This was a fantastic tour, the guides were excellent (with great English) and it felt like we learnt lots about sake in a very fun and interactive way. Highly recommended!
We had four nights (three and a half) days in Kyoto and could easily have stayed for much longer. On our next trip we would love to visit Ginkaku-ji and walk the Philosopher’s Path, splurge on a kaiseki meal, admire weeping plum trees at Jonangu shrine and maybe even try our luck at the difficult booking system for Kokedera temple’s moss gardens. Not to mention heading out on some day trips to Nara and Kurama.
Although parts of Kyoto can be overrun with tourists, as soon as you visit less popular sites, you can have some really interesting cultural adventures. With a bit of planning, walking just a few streets off the tourist drag and some imagination; you can begin to envision what life was like in the imperial city, many years ago.