The Shinkansen, better known as the Bullet train, got into the Kyoto station right on time – to the minute. Then started the usual hunt for the right platform to take the metro train to the hotel. It was already dark and there were a lot of local rails passes to choose from. I picked a tourist card which turned out to be the most useless card purchased during the trip. A direct train got me to within a short walk of my hotel which was right on the main commercial street of Kyoto, just across the road from the famous Nishiki Market. The hotel room was fabulous with a daily cleaned and ironed night suit placed on the bed – I somehow didn’t mind wearing the shared Japanese attire. The hotel also had a Sento of its own, which was a good traditional experience to get.
I soon realized that the 4 nights I have are highly unlikely to be sufficient. There is a long list of things to see in Kyoto, and while more are easy and quick to get to, each seems to be a full day exercise. I had some choices to make and not sure if I made the right ones, but I enjoyed thoroughly what I visited. I started with the Nijo Castle, covered the Fushimi Inari, went all the way to Arashiyama, and then walked the lawns of the Tofukuji Temple with stunning fall colors on display. Each of the places deserved more than half a day and there is really a lot to see, but then I didn’t have all the time. In hindsight, I should have tried to sneak in the Kinkaoji Temple, but that is now history.
Nijo castle was quite easy to get to, a short train ride from near the hotel. The Chinese style gate was imposing and impressive and required an entry ticket to pass that got discounted with one of the several passes I had bought. The castle and its grounds are breathtaking and huge. While I had missed the fall colors for Tokyo, this was the perfect time to be in Kyoto. The insides of the castle are mostly empty or have very bare decor mimicking the times the Shogun rulers of Japan lived here. The history is quite amazing and the castle has been expanded since its construction in the middle of the seventeenth century. A 5 story keep was added with provides a beautiful view of the area. There are tree-lined moats, Japanese gardens, and even a small farmers market to enjoy. The market has some amazing local sake tasting and it was too hard to not buy a bottle, even if it meant carrying around a bottle in my rucksack for the day. There was also a food court with some delicious pancakes and more. The place is actually huge and at some point, I was walking faster to not end up spending the whole day here, but easily worth a good half day.
The Fushimi Inari is probably the most recognizable icon of Kyoto with thousands of bright orange gates to walk through and visit each of the 10 shrines as you walk up to the top of the mountain. The crowds begin to thin out as you walk further up and the views get prettier. It was nearly sunset as I was walking up and I ended up with some beautiful sunset shots. It is almost magical to walk through the orange gates, each of which has been donated by Japanese individuals or corporations. There are stops for water and some fruits and food too, but no toilets as its a holy mountain. This place deserves a lot of time, as there is so much to see and absorb, including some small lakes, many shrines, and valley viewpoints.
As you walk up there are several places to stop and ask for a wish. The ritual remains the same, pay up, clap, ask for a wish, and clap again. You can also purchase small replicas of the gate or other religious shapes and then write your name and wish on them and hang them at the appropriate places. It seems like something that typically targets the tourists, but enough locals seemed to be doing this as well. Overall, this place is a must-do if you are in Kyoto. The experience of walking through those gates, the beautiful religious ceremonies, and the views make dealing with the crowds worth it.
Arashiyama was the furthest I ventured from the hotel in Kyoto. A long train ride followed by a short one on the bus to get to the Bamboo forest. But the place isn’t just about the bamboo – there is a small town, a beautiful river, a lot of street food, fall foliage and as always in Japan, many temples and shrines. There is a lot of walking to be done, even to get to the main forest area. Beyond that area is a hill with a series of shrines and temples, some that need several miles of walking. The scenery is beautiful, to keep you company. I only visited a few of the shrines, and they more mostly worth the walk. Some have individual entry tickets and then lovely Japanese gardens or architecture to show for them. Others offer wish-making talismans for sale – you can write your wishes and hang them there. I don’t remember what I had wished for, so I can’t now comment on if it came true. A number of train tracks pass through the forest and the town, making for some good photo moments. You could easily spend a full day here, but I decided to sneak out after half a day. I was keen to have lunch at one of the several small restaurants in the town but during lunch hour there were snaking lines to enter with usually an hour of waiting, at least. I got back to the main Kyoto city and ate at a train station restaurant – the chicken bento box was actually quite good.
Tofukuji is famous for its fall colors in the massive gardens that surround the temple. Famous in Japan easily translates to crowded and I witnessed the second pedestrian traffic jam of my life (first was in Bourbon Street, New Orleans). There were so many people in the main garden that you had to wait for someone to move before taking a step forward. All this despite an entry ticket! The colors though were absolutely amazing and could compare with some of the best I have seen. There were the bright purples, oranges, and magentas, besides the usual yellows and reds. The crowd themselves were in some colorful attire, so they made for a good background for the foliage pics. The temple and the structure kind of got lost in the beauty of the grounds, but they are worth a walk too, especially for the view of the gardens. There was another small market here selling some souvenirs and bottles of sake – I added another to my collection.
Evenings in Kyoto were spent in the Nishiki Market, which was just full of all sorts of eating options, from fancy restaurants to roadside grills. I tried some of everything – delicious fish, shrimps, and octopus right off a grill as well as a lovely sit down dinner of fish, noodles, and sushi. There were also spices to buy and I loaded up on some unusual stuff, not knowing where or when I would use them. There were a number of spicy sesame seed mixes that go really well with kebabs and salads.
No trip to Japan is complete without a visit to a Sento or an Onsen. I got a Sento experience in the hotel and while awkward at first, it is quite a relaxing place to just sit and do nothing. It gives you a unique opportunity to shut down most of your senses and just enjoy the nothingness and hot water.
The Geisha district is the other attraction of Kyoto. While it was nice to walk around the area and find a quiet restaurant to grab a bite, I wasn’t lucky enough to spot one of the highly coveted entertainers.