Kyoto (and Nara) Highlights
Updated: Mar 27, 2019
After Tokyo we hopped on the Shinkansen train to Kyoto. Fun fact, this train ride is about 227 miles and took just about 2.5 hours. This is nearly the same distance (actually slightly longer) than between NYC and Boston, yet that train ride takes an hour longer! Kyoto is a beautiful city with an amazing number of shrines, temples and castles - it was a nice break from endless city that Tokyo was. But as in Tokyo, we covered a lot of ground in Kyoto. Even if we tried our best it would have been hard to see every sight there.
Here’s are some of the Kyoto highlights & favorites:
Kiyomizu - Dera Temple (and surrounding area) - this is a beautiful temple located on the top of a hill. We actually went up twice (once during the day and then once at night because there happened to be a light festival called Kyoto Higashiyama Hanatouro happening in the evening). It’s a cool walk up the hill along streets lined with shops & vendors (many of which are giving out free samples, I indulged in nearly every one). It’s quite crowded depending on time of day, so go early or late if you want to try to avoid that.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest & Tenryu-ji Temple - A nice trip sightly outside of Kyoto, we had fun getting lost in the bamboo forest and exploring the gardens at Tenyu-ji Temple. We also explored a nearby shrine called Gio-ji and stopped at a local restaurant for some warm udon on the way back to the train.
Ryoan-ji (Zen Rock Garden) - I have never seen a zen rock garden before, and this one set the bar high. Serene and calming, it was an interesting sight along with the larger, more ornate temples we had been seeing.
Kinkaku-ji (the golden temple) - this is an incredibly beautiful shrine, but what isn’t captured in the pictures is the hordes of tourists clamoring for photos. As long as you don’t let that diminish your experience, it’s truly a sight to be seen.
Fushimi Inari - Probably my favorite shrine in Kyoto. This shrine is also somewhat of a hike, and for anyone who knows me that is probably no surprise that I liked it so much. We arrived a little after 4:30pm, which ended up being a great time to visit for a few reasons. First, because we got to experience seeing the sun set from the shrine and second, because the number of tourists really thinned out. Apparently most people don’t walk the entire shrine regardless (it takes about 2 hours), so regardless of time of day, I’d encourage everyone to do that and escape the masses at the start.
Nijo Castle: Nijo Castle was close to where we were staying so was an easy sight to see, though not one you will see on every list. This is apparently a great sight for Cherry Blossom viewing, so although we could only see some buds beginning to bloom we could imagine how stunning it would be in the upcoming weeks.
Nishiki Market - Amazing market filled with food and other goodies. We got a matcha treat, but realized soon after that it was something I easily could have gotten elsewhere.
Pontocho Alley - Definitely a spot to walk through at night. Even better, find somewhere you want to eat and enjoy the environment & ambiance of the area!
Stay at a Ryokan: Thanks to some of our Chase Rewards points we had the opportunity to stay at a Seikoro Ryokan. If you are not familiar, a Ryokan is a traditional Japanese Inn, following customs and traditions of Japanese culture. For instance we slept on tatami mats, were given slippers upon entry, sat on pillows on the floor while eating, were given kimonos to wear while in the room, and so on. It’s definitely a special experience and after ending a day of visiting shrines, castles and temples at a Ryokan just feels right. Note: Most Ryokans, including ours, provide food. We opted out of dinner only because it was pretty expensive, but did get to enjoy a Japanese breakfast which consisted of a number of dishes from veggies, to tofu, to salmon and of course green tea!
Ippudo Ramen - There is an Ippudo in NYC, but we’ve never been able to go (there is always an insanely long wait). Since we hadn’t made it to an Ippudo in Tokyo, we decided to give the Kyoto one a try, and of course it was delicious.
Gion Tonto - This was a GREAT okonomiyaki (a dish somewhat like an omelette) spot somewhat hidden within the streets of Gion. It has an old school feel - shoes-off upon entering. It was a great ambiance and good price point.
Kyoshikian - Wagyu Beef spot we found in Pontocho Alley. It was very affordable compared to many of the other steak restaurants we considered and was both delicious and fun. We got to sit at the counter, which was the right choice as we got to chat a little with the Chef
Nara is a day trip away from either Kyoto or Osaka, but we did it as a day trip from Kyoto as it fits in with the shrine / sightseeing that defines Kyoto. Nara is also known for it’s deer population, and I can confirm that they truly do overrun the city. Maybe they were set too low, but Nara definitely exceeded my expectations.
If for nothing else it’s worth going to Nara to see Todai-ji (the Giant Buddha). The Buddha (or Daibutsu in Japanese) at Todai-ji is the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, and it really is impressive. While in Nara for the Giant Buddha, it’s easy enough to check out some of the other temples:
Kofuku-ji: You can’t miss this one as you walk from the train to Todai-ji. It’s also cool to see something that has origins dating back to 669.
Kasuga - taisha shrine: We didn’t know about Kasuga-Taisha shrine until a local tour guide (who we talked to at Kofuku-ji) mentioned it. Kasuga-Taisha is really beautiful, and is known for the interior bronze lanterns and lanterns leading up to the shrine as well.