Kyoto is a very special and beautiful place to visit. It is best known for its many temples and holy sites. It is also known for the Geishas that walk around the Gion district. To me, Kyoto felt more authentic and real than Tokyo. Sometimes, in Tokyo, you can become overwhelmed by how fast everything moves. In Kyoto, everything runs a bit slower.
The Shinkansen aka Bullet Train, aka The Shink
As I mentioned in a previous post, E and I elected to get JR Passes for the length of our stay in Japan. We were able to use these to take the Shinkansen, also known as the bullet train, from Tokyo to Kyoto. The train zips through the countryside faster then any other train I have ever been on. We reserved our seats for our train to Kyoto at Narita when we first arrived. The Shinkansen is rather convenient in that it leaves from several big stations in Tokyo. We took the earliest train available, 6:34AM, so as to not waste ANY time in Kyoto. PLEASE NOTE: Japanese trains run ON TIME. If you are even a minute late you will miss your train!
We found our seats on the train and settled in. The time flew by. There were outlets on the train so we were able to maintain battery life on all of our electronic devices, including our iPhones and our Pocket WIFI. There is no FREE WIFI on the Shinkansen so the Pocket WIFI came in handy. It was nice to be able to catch up on emails and social media, and chat via Whatsapp with family members. At least once or twice during the ride, an attendant comes through the cabin with a selection of snacks and drinks for purchase. We made sure to stock up on snacks before leaving Tokyo at the Shinjuku Lawson’s convenience store.
While many people sleep on the Shinkansen, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to enjoy the amazing view of the Japanese countryside. From the Shinkansen you have a GREAT view of Mount Fuji on a clear day. Some of my best photos of Mount Fuji came from our time on the Shinkansen. Kirimi, our little sushi friend, had a great time on the Shinkansen.
We finally arrived in Kyoto around 9:00AM. I had arranged for a volunteer guide to meet us at our hotel at 9:30AM so we could start sightseeing immediately. Upon arrival, to our surprise, our guide was already waiting for us in our hotel lobby, at the ibis Styles Kyoto Station. We quickly dropped our bags at reception and were on our way for a day of wandering around Kyoto. We saw many shrines and “attractions,” and experienced a little of what it is like to live in Kyoto on a daily basis.
It was a LOOOOOOOOOONG day with lots of walking, but we saw so many special places. At the end, we walked for over 15 miles and spent 10 hours with our guide. E and I both conked out at 7:30PM that night. Exhausted doesn’t even begin to describe how we felt. Below, I’ll walk you through our favorite attractions/spots.
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
Our first stop was Fushimi Inari, a Shinto shrine, which is made famous by its many orange torii gates of varying sizes. The torii gates along the trail are donations by individuals and companies, and can see the donator’s name and the date of the donation inscribed in black on the back of each gate.
We hopped on the subway; Fushimi Inari was only a few stops away from Kyoto Station. Upon arrival, I was taken aback by how many orange torii gates there were at this shrine. You will see them all over Kyoto, but never as many in one place like at Fushimi Inari. It was like nothing we had ever seen before. It was fun to wander through the gates and take pictures. It was all so beautiful.
The Silver Pavilion aka Ginkakuji
In Kyoto there is a Golden Pavilion and a Silver Pavilion. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we were only able to pick one to visit. Our tour guide had recommended that we visit the Silver Pavilion. I am so glad we listened to him. The Silver Pavilion was so peaceful and calm; we were instantly relaxed upon entering the grounds. There is a beautiful garden area and running streams of water. It was so picturesque, even in the dead of winter. There is a viewing deck at the top of the hill, which is a must see. The view is pretty special, as you can see most of Kyoto.
The stone path for the Philosopher’s Walk begins at the Silver Pavilion and ends in the neighborhood of Nanzenji. It runs approximately 2 kilometers and is lined with homes, shops and cherry blossom trees. While unfortunately we were not there during cherry blossom season, it was still a beautiful time to be walking through the area. We stopped a couple of times along the way to take everything in. We also stopped so I could rest my feet. SO MUCH WALKING! One stop we made was at a local shop where two women were painting small postcards with watercolors. They were selling their work for 100 YEN each. We purchased 4 different postcards. Two for us and one for each of our mothers. Our mothers loved them! We selected paintings of pagodas and flowers. They serve as a nice reminder of our time in Kyoto. The two we kept are hanging over our bed. If you are in the area, I would highly recommend walking through Philosopher’s Walk. It is gorgeous any time of year!
Maikosan – It’s Geisha Time
While we didn’t make it to Gion, our tour guide didn’t want us to miss out on the Geisha experience. He selected a local authentic Japanese restaurant for us to eat lunch at. They served a selection of soups, noodles, sushi, ramen etc. We each selected our bento boxes and dug in. So much tuna and soba!
During the meal, one of the waitresses informed us that a Maikosan would be arriving at the restaurant shortly and would be performing several dance numbers. We couldn’t turn that down! We had never seen a Geisha before. The Maikosan was 16 years old and had the most beautiful makeup, hair and kimono I had ever seen. She danced with pride and grace. At the end of her performance, they opened up the floor to questions. Anyone could ask the Maikosan a question about her life, her choices etc. I wanted to know how long it took her to do her makeup everyday. I don’t recall the exact amount of time but I do remember being shocked! She also explained that there are different levels of Geishas and she was a Maikosan, otherwise known as a young Geisha.
In the back area of the restaurant, there was a lovely little garden that we took some time to walk around in. It was a nice relaxing stop during our marathon day of sightseeing. We wore some pretty funky shoes while walking around! See above.
Our last stop of the day was Kiyomizu-dera. At this point, my feet felt like they were going to fall off. I was in no mood to continue walking. Looking back, I would have regretted missing Kiyomizu-dera. It is on a large hill and has a spectacular view of Kyoto. We arrived shortly before what all my photographer friends call “magic hour.” The sun was coming down and the lighting was perfect. We walked up what felt like 1000 stairs, but what awaited us at the top was worth it. That view is something from a dream. Make time for Kiyomizu-dera; you won’t regret it.
** While we were there they were doing some construction and I found these adorable elephant street barriers. Cute Japan Kawaii everywhere!
Before heading to our Haru Cooking Class we stopped at Nishiki Market. It is a 5 block stretch of alley made up of shops, food vendors and coffee shops. Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” this lively market is known for its fresh produce, seafood, souvenirs and Kyoto specialties such as Japanese sweets, pickles, sushi and dried seafood. We were there on a Wednesday so about half of the stores were closed. There was still so much to see and taste! We selected some vegetable tempura from one stand and tofu doughnuts from another. So many fun and tasty snacks! We also picked up some curry crackers to bring back to the US. They have been a great reminder of our time in Kyoto and a delicious snack for our weekday lunches. Definitely visit for some interesting Kyoto deliciousness.
NEXT STOP: OSAKA, AKA THE KITCHEN OF JAPAN