Kyoto, one of Japan’s most famous tourist destinations, was at the top of our list for places to visit in Japan. Everyone who has visited Kyoto will tell you that the city deserves more than a single day. And while that is true, when we looked at booking accommodation in Kyoto, we were out of luck. We looked about a month in advance (thinking we were getting ahead of the game) and booking.com was almost 100% sold out! We managed to find a few hotels and upscale guesthouse but nothing for under $100 CAD a night, which was way over our budget. I guess we should have expected inflated prices and full occupancy given we were travelling in the busiest time of year – cherry blossom season. When we found a private room in Osaka, a 30 minute train away, for only $40 CAD a night we really couldn’t justify the stay in Kyoto. And that’s how we ended up with one day to see and explore as much of Kyoto as possible.
Being overly ambitious, we decided to not follow the advice we were given and stay in one part of Kyoto,.but instead, tried to see all of the highlights, all over the city. The day we chose to visit Kyoto happened to be rainy but luckily we had our trusty umbrellas (which I think we’ve used all of zero times before this). Of course, every other of the thousands of tourists in Kyoto that day also had umbrellas. Walking anywhere involved a constant clashing of umbrellas and near eye-gouging incidents. A one-day bus pass paid itself off after two rides and given the rain and distances between temples, it was a great investment.
*NOTE: In Japan we visited many temples, however, some were referred to as ‘shrines.’ I didn’t know the difference until now. A temple is for Buddhism and shrine is for Shintoism. Originally, Buddhism was brought from India to China, and eventually spread to Japan. Shintoism originated in ancient Japan. The idea of Shintoism is that there are thousands of different kinds of Gods in this world, such as mountains, rivers, stones, and trees. Both Buddhism and Shintoism are familiar to Japanese people and it is a unique fact that Japanese people have long accepted both religions without conflicts.
Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) is a three-story building on the grounds of the Rokuon-ji (Deer Garden Temple) Buddhist temple complex. The top two stories of the pavilion are covered with pure gold leaf. I imagine that on a sunny clear-sky day the gold leaf would sparkle and shine in a way that wasn’t possible when we visited. Even still, the small path leading around one of Japan’s most popular temples was incredibly crowded and the hundreds of umbrellas made for an uncomfortable experience. We didn’t linger long here.
Entrance Fee: 400 YEN
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari Taisha is an important Shinto shrine most known for the seemingly unending path of over 5000 Vermilion (vibrant orange) torii gates that straddle a network of trails. The trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, resulting in many fox statues across the shrine grounds.
This ended up being one of my favourite spots in all of Japan. I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful orange gates surrounded by dark green trees. I loved how different it was and it stood apart from all of the other temples and shrines we visited. I took hundreds of photos right away thinking that the orange gates would only last for a short stretch. After 20 minutes or so of walking through the gates we realized that the trail was quite a bit longer than we expected and we might actually be able to get a photo on our own, away from the crowds. We stopped to look at a map and discovered that the hike to the summit and back takes about 2-3 hours. Realizing this would take up the remainder of our day in Kyoto, we turned around, content with what we had seen (but definitely somewhere I would spend longer if I had the time!)
Entrance Fee: FREE
Kiyomizudera (Pure Water Temple) was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in the wooded hills east of Kyoto, and derives its name from the fall’s pure waters. The present buildings, including the famed wooden stage were constructed in 1633. The stage gives visitors a nice view of the cherry and maple trees below. The temple is also famously known for the fact that the main hall and the stage were built without the use of nails. At the time we visited, we noticed that several of the buildings were being renovated. As we did not see it was fair to have to pay an entrance fee to the main hall when much of it was boarded up, we only walked around the outside of the grounds.
SANNENZAKA & NINENZAKA
Leaving Kiyomizu-dera Temple you find yourself on Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka, a pair of pedestrian-only lanes that make for some of the most atmospheric strolling in the whole city. They are lined with beautifully restored traditional shop houses as well as restaurants and tea houses. The small streets were crammed with tourists when we visited. There were so many umbrellas that we saw no need for our own, as almost the entire street was covered with other peoples umbrellas.
Kodaiji was established in 1606 in memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s greatest historical figures. When we arrived at the famed temple it was about to close but they said we could still enter if we wanted. Given the entrance fee was quite high, we didn’t want to risk paying and then having no time to look around.
Entrance Fee: 600 yen
I was most interested in seeing the giant Buddha statue I saw peaking out from the parking lot. So it’s a good thing we didn’t pay to enter because as my research just concluded, the statue is in an entirely separate area. The concrete and steel statue is part of Ryōzen Kannon, a war memorial dedicated to the fallen soldiers of WWII unveiled on 8 June 1955. The 24m tall statue is of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, known for compassion.
As it was getting late, we began to work our way back towards the main train station. We walked through the lively neighbourhood of Gion and stopped a couple more times to take photos before hopping on a bus back to the main station. Satisfied with our day crammed full of temples and shrines, we were happy we made it to Kyoto, but I couldn’t help thinking how much we left unseen as we headed back to Osaka.