Kyoto, big city located on the main island of Honshu, in the Kansai region, south-west from the Biwa lake, is full of beautiful temples and sanctuaries. Nothing special to see in the modern town, according to us, a quiet and boring provincial town if you compare it to the buzzing Tokyo, however the cultural aspect and the typical night areas such as Pontocho or Gion are worth visiting!
Using the shinkansen
From Tokyo, you can use your JR pass and get on the shinkansen, very very fast Japanese train! And a big surprise, it is like a subway, as there is a shinkansen leaving Tokyo for provincial cities almost every 3 minutes, and no one is 10 seconds late! Amazing, Japanese style! Around 2h45 from Tokyo to get to Kyoto with the shinkansen.
A comfy journey going through Mont Fuji on our way to Kyoto! Also some time to prepare our arrival with our preferred guide, “Le guide du Routard”!
Even if it is quite obvious, Kyoto knew how to keep the traditional millennial Japanese way of life and protecting its very rich cultural and architectural history but also became a modern city trying to follow the fast-paced evolution the economy, following its neighbour Osaka. The city with 1000 temples, lot of things to see and to do and obviously if you are in Kyoto, it is because you LOVE temples! We stayed 5 days, the proximity of relevant touristic areas make it quite simple to move around the city and the bus network is quite easy to use (no subway here).
We chose a hotel near the train station (around 20 mns walking) in order to stay near everything, and because we knew we were going to take the train while keeping sleeping in Kyoto to go to Fushimi Inari or Nara, around 1 hours train from Kyoto. The modern and beautiful train station is to be noted, and is actually the main point for every traveller going to Kyoto.
One of our firs visit was dedicated to the Western part of the city, notably the very enjoyable area of Arashiyama. Located at the border of the city, near the forest and the countryside towards Sagano mountains, we reach it with the small old-fashion train road (JR line Sagano, stop SagaArashiyama). The Kinkaku-ji, the Golden temple, is maybe the most iconic symbol of this neighbourhood and one of the most visited temple of Kyoto. You may not be the only one there…However, don’t waste too much time there and head straight to a quieter part of Arashiyama, near the bamboo plantation and the Tenryu-ji temple at north.
The bamboo plantation is a must see, a real zen area! And at night, the site is also very interesting with all the lit lantern which give another atmosphere, even more peaceful.
Our day at Fushimi Inari sanctuary
Today we wake up early, walk to the train station and take the JR line Nara to stop at Inari (5 mns Kyoto station, 140¥ / ~1,20€ sans JR Pass). You will then cross an residential area without any interests and reach later the Fushimi Inari Taisha sanctuary. And then be prepared for a long day of walk! Up and down! You will go through thousand of toris, vermilion crossbars which are everywhere. Founded in 711 to celebrate the rice goddess Inari, the sanctuary is even today well conserved and you will be able to see workers who always work to paint and maintain the crossbars. Indeed, many businessmen or other rich people make their names written on them and maitain them in exchange of thousands of yens.
Fushimi, the illustration of Japan
We started the walk going through all the toris early morning, they are built either in the valley or on the hills, following the up and down mystical way. Better to go early to avoid all the groups of Chinese tourists and it will allow you to enjoy quietly and peacefully the sacred site, a good way to visit this iconic and religious sanctuary. These toris can be seen in the movie “Geisha”, and they really create a unique atmosphere at early morning, it is also possible you assist to some live ceremonies.
So be prepared with good mountain shoes, take your map while arriving at the bottom of the hill and climb all the way up to have a magnificent and panoramic view of the valley, nested between the two big cities of Kyoto and Osaka. In Japan, a real mountainous country, most of the population is living in the valleys, also a geographical explanation used to describe the specific allocation of population, often concentrated in metropolis. The place of Fushimi Inari, protected by the numerous status of sacred foxes, is definitely a paradise for those who love taking pictures! Don’t know if it open by night but should be amazing as well…
A small break in modern Kyoto
A small break in modern Kyoto! To be honest, the city itself has not major interests according to us, above all when you are coming from the lively, buzzing, cultural and dynamic Tokyo. The big roads are convenient to travel by bus but are quite ugly, the city is also very sleepy compared to Tokyo and we noticed a big proportion of retired and elderly people as it seems the city is not very dynamic economically but also liked some comfort after walking everywhere to see the multiple temples. We could enjoy the traditional onsens near our hotel (don’t be shy! To enjoy these very hot baths, not mixed, you have to be completely naked in order to relax after a hard working day as many Japanese do). The food is of course an excellent way to relieve a bit the pressure, enjoy sushis, sashimis, katsu don…
Cats bar! We needed to try this unmissable experience in Japan, having a hot chocolate or coffee in the middle of cats! But in afternoon they are very very sleepy so not recommended at this time of the day!
In Kyoto, it is possible to do some shopping: Much less crowded than Tokyo, it is also less expensive. Either looking for food, medicines or clothes, Kyoto can be a good place to resupply 🙂
Back to the temples
But as you guessed it, the major problem of Kyoto is is really full of tourists. What is funny as in Kyoto we could sometimes imagines ourselves the only tourists in this very big and spread megalopolis of 40 million people. In Kyoto, Chinese are invading the temples! Below the Kiyomizu-dera, a complex with a Buddhism center and a shinto sanctuary (6 million tourists per year). We didn’t stay too long because of the crowd over there. But it is gigantic and cannot be missed if it is your first visit, and you can have a good panoramic view of the town.
Very touristic temples !
We go a bit far away to discover smaller and less popular temples, also good as they are less busy and cheaper. We also desperately tried to visit the manga museum (I was a big fan!) and the Nijo castle but both were closed for the end of year festive season unfortunately.
Last visits and Kyoto by night
Don’t be mistaken, nightlife in Kyoto is extremely quiet compared to Tokyo. It is a provincial and calm city and we found out it was a bit a city of “old people”! However the famous areas of Gion and Pontocho are typical, very beautiful with the lanterns everywhere and if you are lucky enough, you could catch a glimpse of a geisha! These traditional Japanese areas can be pricey, above all at night time, be prepared and adapt your budget depending of the place you will have your dinner/drinks.
So definitely, Kyoto is a must see if it is you first trip to Kyoto and the combination Tokyo-Kyoto-Nara is a very complimentary first glance at Japan (next time you will go to Japanese Alps, Osaka and more!). The advantage of Kyoto is its location, centrally located between Tokyo and the other points of interests in Honshu island.
Where did we sleep?
- Arklead Gojohorikawa: Quite a strange name for a good little hotel in Kyoto. Around 20 mns walking from Kyoto station (take a taxi if are coming from Tokyo or another city with all your luggage), the hotel offer clean and spacious rooms for a very reasonable price! Anyway everything is clean in Japan…It is not a ryokan but a normal and basic hotel managed by friendly owners who will help you organize your trip in Kyoto. You have bus stations and a onsen (traditional hot baths where Japanese relax) near by.
Bonus, Kyoto, Nara & Nikko in video!