Kyoto is one of the most popular destinations in Japan, to the point that it has become a global symbol of the overtourism phenomenon. I’ve been to Japan a few times now but had not visited Kyoto. The thought of fighting my way through crowds wan’t appealing, but I knew I had to see for myself.
I nearly went last year when I was in Osaka. I had four nights there and I thought I could sneak a day trip to Kyoto during my stay. After some online research it soon became apparent that one does not simply visit Kyoto on a day trip.
What makes the many temples of Kyoto so special is that they are spread out in the hills on the edge of the city, rather than being in a compact old town area in the middle of the city.
Even though Kyoto has a good public transport network, there is no outer ring railway that unifies the main sites. With so many temples and no direct way to get to all of them, visiting Kyoto requires precision planning. For someone like me who likes to roll out of bed and just start wandering around, this is an affront to my usual travel system.
While I was interested to see the famous temples, I also was just as curious to see what Kyoto the city looked like. Most of the photos you see of Kyoto are of someone posing in front of a lonely temple. Kyoto though is a proper city with a population of 1.5 million people. Getting the train from Kansai Airport you see it’s one big urban area from Kansai/Osaka to Kyoto. The Keihanshin metropolitan area (of which Kyoto is part of) has a population of nearly 20 million people, putting it second behind the Greater Tokyo area.
I had three nights in Kyoto, with two whole days to explore. I split my time between visiting temples and urban exploration.
Visiting the temples of Kyoto
Before visiting any temples you have to research first, and also accept that you aren’t going to visit every temple. I learned a while ago what my “templed-out” threshold is, and I was cool with not seeing everything.
I kept finding blog posts that proclaimed to be “the ultimate guide to Kyoto”, written by someone who went there for a day. I used a dedicated Kyoto travel guide to pick out some places, and grouped them into areas so I didn’t back-track.
Everyone will give you an opinion on what the best temple to visit is, but I don’t think there is a single “must see”. In the end I just picked a few famous ones and some nearby those.
The first one I visited was Kiyomizu-dera. This a popular one due to its size and location overlooking the city. Leading up Kiyomizu-dera is Kiyomizu Michi, is a long street filled with all sorts of tourist-trap temptations. If you are trying to kick a mochi or matcha soft-serve ice cream habit, then this street will be a problem for you.
This turned out to be a great temple to visit first as the view gives you an idea of how the city looks. Here you can see the city of Kyoto in a valley, with the surrounding mountains where most of the temples are located.
Even in the busiest of places you can find yourself in pockets of calm where you have the place to yourself.
If you’ve ever wondered why Japan is so clean, they have people scrubbing rocks by hand.
I didn’t see any geishas’, and I wouldn’t have taken a photo anyway as tourists are making geishas’ lives difficult. I did see plenty of tourists in rental kimono which I think is a fun idea. There are rental shops near the major temples.
Near Kiyomizu Dera is Kodai Ji. I picked this mainly because it was within walking distance. These smaller temples are often just as nice.
Here I discovered the Temmangu Ox, who will bear your suffering for you.
Doesn’t hurt to try, right?
My next stop was Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is possibly the most famous temple in Japan. It’s best known for its passageways formed by red torii gates. I had read that you should go early to avoid the crowds. I turned up around midday and there was a sizeable crowd there.
I had considered getting up early, but I was staying in such a comfortable bed I couldn’t bring myself to set an alarm.
Going through the first gates were like going through the gates of tourist hell. The gates at the start are smaller and I couldn’t get past anyone to overtake. I was starting to regret not getting up early.
Fortunately things get better after the first section. The pathway of torii gates goes all the way to the top of a mountain.
After a while the crowds thin out, and there were moments when I had a clear path with no one ahead of me.
If you wanted to get that Instagram moment were you pretend you have the place to your self then this is your time.
While the gates were as aesthetically pleasing as I hoped they would be, I was pleasantly surprised to find what a great nature walk it was.
I was there in summer and it was hot and humid, so if you are affected by heat then getting up early would be sensible. For me this was what I’m used to everyday, so I embraced the sweaty walk up the hill.
It was cloudy and had rained earlier, adding to the atmosphere of the mossy stone shrines along the way.
The next day I went to Tenryu Ji Temple not really knowing what to expect.
There is a separate ticket for the Sogenchi Garden which is attached to the Tenryu Ji Temple. I would have been ok just visiting the garden. I was templed-out by now, but this garden is something else. It’s so picturesque, and a perfect example of a zen garden.
These immaculate gardens do not happen in a vacuum. There are grown adults out there hand-picking weeds (and like the other temple they probably wash the stones as well).
Next to the Tenryu Ji Temple is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I’ve seen so many images of this garden and I never realised it was in Kyoto. Here is an image I saw of it recently.
And here is the reality. This pathway was absolute mayhem and there was no way I was going to get a clear shot here. This would be the one you need to get up early for if you want to do photography.
Near the bamboo forest is the Okochi Sanso Villa, where a famous actor spent 30 years building a villa and garden.
My next stop was the Kinkaku Ji Temple, which involved two trams and a long walk. I could have got a bus but I liked the added bonus of walking in suburban Kyoto.
Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) is covered in gold leaf and is set in a beautiful zen garden. This was the most photogenic temple out of the temples I visited.
I spotted some pink mushrooms in the gardens.
If you want the premium Kinkakuji experience there is gold leaf soft serve ice cream for 950 JPY ($8.85 USD).
Random observations while wandering the streets of Kyoto
I rarely see photos of Kyoto the city in travel articles, so I wanted to spend time in the city. Apart from Kyoto Tower there isn’t a landmark in the city that you could identify as being from Kyoto.
What I like about Kyoto are the streetscapes such as alleys like this.
There is a river that goes through the city with good walking paths.
This stream was so clean it was like having a slice of the mountains running through the suburbs.
Apparently this is in the “beautification enforcement area”. If this is what beautification looks like then I for one welcome our beautification enforcement overlords.
I’m also all for the enforcement of picking up your dog’s poo. It helps that they make fun signs like this.
In addition to the cleanliness is the orderliness, such as these designated smoking areas which are observed by every smoker.
You can buy cigarettes from vending machines here. I wonder what Che would have to say about his likeness being on cigarettes.
One thing you would never see in Australia is alcohol sold freely on the street from vending machines. Young people like my former young myself is why you can’t have nice things (sorry about that).
While I no longer partake in the consumption of cigarettes and alcohol, I did hit the soft drink vending machines hard. These drink machines are everywhere and the icy-cold soda waters were a great relief in the heat. They take coins, but I wonder how long it will be before it will only be by payment apps like Line (the most popular chat app in Japan).
Line is huge, but somehow Yahoo! has managed to defy its global decline by remaining popular in Japan.
I went by this bubble tea place called Mot Tram, which is Vietnamese for one hundred. Vietnam isn’t famous for bubble tea, so this was the first time I’ve seen a store randomly using a Vietnamese name.
I didn’t take enough food photos to warrant a mention of my favourite eats. I had my fair share of ramen and sushi, and I especially love the standing bars.
One thing I wanted to try was the humble egg sandwich from Lawson’s convenience store. I saw that Anthony Bourdain had posted about it, so I was curious to try for myself as a way to pay homage to the man.
— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) November 4, 2013
I was more nervous to eat a convenience store sandwich than most of the raw fish I consumed. This turned out to be so delicious that I had to stop myself from getting one every time I walked by a Lawson’s (which are everywhere). This was the second Bourdain sandwich recommendation I’ve had (the first being the banh mi in Hoi An).
Visiting temples and cultural sites is good and all that, but half the fun of Japan is marvelling at technology and infrastructure. I was impressed with this automatic underground bike parking system at Kyoto Station.
And seeing things like designated bike lanes with dedicated bike parking is the right way to make a city.
Free wifi across the city is another tick in the civilised city column. With the free city wifi and convenience store wifi I didn’t bother getting a Japanese sim card.
And of course the toilets of Japan are the pinnacle of civilised society. I was at a Starbucks where I found this one, so I dared not use the fourth button (the “Go Nuclear” option?) It looks like the seated person will be blown off the toilet seat, so it’s best to try such special features at home rather than in a public toilet.
Speaking of going to the toilet and things Number 2, there are a lot of details going on in this #wtfjapan advertising poster.
Shopping malls and arcades are also tourist attractions in their own right.
Unfortunately for the Nishiki Market it’s too beautiful for its own good, and tourism has all but destroyed it as a traditional retail market.
Near where I was staying I found the Zest Underground Mall at Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae Station. I’m interested in these underground plazas at metro stations as there is one being built for the Ho Chi Minh City Metro by Japanese contractors. I’m hoping that one day there will be standing sushi bars under the streets of Saigon.
I call my trips to Japan (and East Asia) “infrastructure holidays”. I come here to marvel at functioning metro systems that are seamlessly integrated into the urban environment. These trips give me inspiration for future metro maps for Southeast Asia.
What I liked about Kyoto was that it’s big enough to absorb the tourists crowds and you can walk around feeling like you are in a normal city.
Where I Stayed
I stayed at the Piece Hostel Sanjo where I got a private room. This is a modern hostel experience in a great location.