Kyoto Travel Guide – Part 3

Ok – on to Part 3!  I’ve saved the biggest “travel” day for last.  This day will also take you to some of the most iconic and photographed sights in Kyoto.  Definitely not to be missed, even if it is a bit of a hassle hopping from cab to train to foot.  It is possible to do this completely using public transport, but I’ve personally never been a huge fan of buses and honestly, if you’re not good at matching up kanji (Japanese written characters), it might be a bit difficult to find the correct one.  Maybe I just suck at buses, who knows.  I’d say “splurge” and go for a taxi for the parts inside Kyoto city proper – I put splurge in quotation marks because they’re really not that pricy in Kyoto.  Save yourself the hassle and make sure you get to see all of these places.

We’ll start up North and work our way down South.  It is completely possible to spend hours and hours wandering around Fushimi Inari, so if a nice hike is one of your top priorities, maybe start South and work North.

I totally forgot to cover this earlier – how much does it cost to get in to all these places?  Visiting a temple will cost you anywhere from ¥200-¥700, which is roughly $1.25-$6.00.  A lot of shrines are free, open areas that you can wander around.

If you’re starving at can’t figure out where to eat in Kyoto, check the bottom of this post.  I have my favorite restaurant listings down there.

Ryoan-ji ˚ Kinkaku-ji ˚ Nijo Castle ˚ Fushimi Inari

Kyoto Map 3

Interactive Google Map

Ryoan-ji
Ryoan-ji Temple is known for its amazing rock garden. You sit along the edge of the garden on the old wood floorboards of the temple and are supposed to quietly reflect upon the zen of the garden. I can’t remember which exact image this reminds me of, but it’s definitely iconic. Maybe I’m thinking Karate Kid or Kill Bill…
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Make sure to look up.  There are tons of amazing small details to be found in every nook and cranny.

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Yesterday you hit up Ginkaku-ji…don’t worry, you’re not the only one constantly confusing them name-wise.  Kin means “Gold” and Gin means “Silver” – so the gold and silver temples.

From Ryoan-ji it’s an easy commute to Kinkaku-ji.  You have a few options; walk, bus, or cab.  If your feet aren’t too dead , I’d recommend the walk.  It’ll take you roughly 15-20 minutes depending on your stride and is a super simple route to follow.  If you get lost, just look for the signs or ask a local “Kinkaku-ji wa doko desu ka?” and they’ll point you in the right direction.

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Ginkaku-ji doesn’t exactly live up to its name, bit Kinkaku-ji is as brilliantly gold as one can image. The Pavilion sits along a pond and offers perfectly picturesque photo spots. It’s dazzling.
Kinkaku-ji
This version of the temple was re-built in 1955 after it burned down in 1950. Lots of old buildings in Japan were completely made of wood and paper…so fire was a serious issue.
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Ryoan-ji Temple is known for its amazing rock garden. You sit along the edge of the garden on the old wood floorboards of the temple and are supposed to quietly reflect upon the zen of the garden. I can’t remember which exact image this reminds me of, but it’s definitely iconic. Maybe I’m thinking Karate Kid or Kill Bill…
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The temple’s real name is actually Rokuon-ji, which means Deer Garden Temple.
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Make sure you enjoy a leisurely stroll through the gardens surrounding the pavilion. I was absolutely in love with this tall, spindly trees. Not sure what they are – some sort of pine?
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Many temples have a small area where you can sit down and enjoy a cup of matcha (green tea) and wagashi (Japanese sweet) for a few hundred yen. This wagashi had lovely gold leafing on the top of it.
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The hill behind Kinkaku-ji is called Daimonji-yama. The bald area on the hill is the character (kanji) for Dai, which means “Big”. Every year at the end of a huge festival, the light the kanji on fire.

Next stop is going to be Nijo Castle, smack in the center of the city.  Cab it if you can.  A taxi from Kinkaku-ji to Nijo Castle should run you around $8.
Speaking of taxis – taking taxis in Japan is a breeze.  Even if your driver doesn’t speak any English, don’t worry.  Just tell them your destination and they’ll more than likely know where it is. If you’re having difficulty communicating, some times they will have a card with phrases in English you can point to (though this may only be something they do here in Tokyo).  Kyoto taxis are much cheaper than Tokyo, too, so don’t worry about breaking the bank.

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Nijo Castle (or Nijo-jo) was built by the first shogun of the Edo period. I remember my dad telling me stories about a castle he visited in Japan that had squeaky floors – and this is it!
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Squeaky floors? Well, either this shogun was very smart or very paranoid.  He wanted to make sure no one could sneak up on him.
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The amazingly detailing on the gate leading to the main palace.

Nijo Castle has incredible gardens surrounding it.  If you happen to be there during cherry blossom season, you’ll been in for a treat.
I didn’t end up taking lots of photos of my trip to Nijo, as it was bitterly cold that day and I refused to take my hands out of my pockets.
Most sights in and around Kyoto will offer free audio, book, or guided tours in many different language.  If I remember correctly, Nijo has one of those little phone looking things that you type a number in to and listen to the guide.

From Nijo Castle, cross the street to the South of the castle and hop on the Tozai Line from Nijojomae Station.  Get off at Sanjokeihan Station and switch to the Keihan Line (which is technically in Sanjo station, but the two are connected).  6 stops will take you to Inari Station.  As soon as you exit the station, you’ll be directly in front of my absolute favorite shrine – Fushimi Inari.

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The entrance to Fushimi Inari. This is one of the, if not THE, most iconic shrines in all of Japan. If you saw Memoirs of a Geisha, you’ll definitely recognize it. Or if you’ve seen any advertisement ever made for the Japanese tourism industry.
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One of the many buildings scattered around the grounds.
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The main shrine building.
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Fushimi Inari is the fox shrine. In Japanese mythology, foxes are known as messengers.
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You can purchase a wooden fox plaque that is blank. You then draw on a face and write your wishes or thanks. They’re left at the shrine to be burned to send to the Gods.
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Torii gates are really what this shrine is known for. Fushimi Inari is located on a hill that is absolutely covered in pathways of torii. Each torii is donated by individuals or corporations. It’s interesting to see the mix of very old gates right next to sparkling new ones. It seems like the true theme of Japan to me – the old next to the new.
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There are multiple areas dotting the hill that contain family shrines. Some have offerings, others seem to have been forgotten about long ago.
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There are always shrine cats to be seen. Perhaps this one plays with the fox spirits.
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The torii are never ending. It is a rather large mountain, so this is an amazing hiking spot that could easily take up hours of your time.
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Take every path way you can find. Every detour. Explore every small nook. The shrine is massive, so you’re guaranteed to find something interesting. Unfortunately I can only read very basic kanji, so I’m not sure who or what most of these little areas are dedicated to. Drop in a coin, ring the bell, say your prayer, clap twice, bow, and hope that whichever God’s shrine you’ve stumbled on to shines favor down upon you.

And that’s it.  These are the places I’d recommend in Kyoto.  I’m sure you’re starving after I’ve drug you all over the city.
Kyoto is known for kaiseki, tofu, sukiyaki, and matcha desserts.  I don’t really have any recommendations on kaiseki specific places, as it’s not something I actively seek out.
You can easily pop in to any restaurant along Pontocho (an alleyway/street that runs along the river) and have an amazing meal.  It’s hard to go wrong with food in Kyoto (or Japan in general), but here are a few places I know are great.

Morita-ya – Delectable beef, either sukiyaki or shabu shabu style.  The ladies running the restaurant will cook everything for you, so there’s no fear of user-error.
Komaitei – Another amazing beef place.  Pretty much near identical with Morita-ya, so if you can’t get in to one, try the other.  Both have outdoor terraces so you can sit along the river when the weather is nice.
Ippodouchahokissashitsukaboku – It’s ok if you can’t pronounce it.  This is an old traditional tea shop where you can order different types of Japanese tea.  There are many sets offered, which include a small pot of tea and a small Japanese sweet.
Saryoutsujiri – Parfaits good enough to warrant a massive live winding down their stair case pretty much constantly.
Akebonotei – Cheap, easy, and on the way up to Kiyomizu-dera.  It doesn’t have the highest ratings, but I personally found their yuba (tofu “skin”) set to be really tasty.

Kyoto Travel Guide – Part 1
Kyoto Travel Guide – Part 2

 

 

 

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