Kyoto is the capital of the Kyoto prefecture in the Kansai region, located on the Japanese island of Honshu. The city is a popular tourist destination, and lies close to Osaka and Kobe, the other well-known metropolitan cities within the region. I visited the city with my mum in the tail-end of summer in September — and thankfully, we had lovely weather (with a little rain) during our visit; and had such a wonderful time.
Mum and I spent 5 days in the city visiting its many religious and historical sites, walking its preserved streets, tasting its delicious food, and just soaking in the wonderful Japanese atmosphere — and I just fell in love with the city. Some places just have that effect on you, I guess. I left my heart in Kyoto — and here are 10 reasons why.
1. Passing the Torii Gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is my favorite place in all of Kyoto — and I personally think, the most impressive. I was absolutely blown away by the number of bright red/orange torii gates that line the pathway of the shrine leading up to the top of the Inari Mountain. Locals visit the shrine to pray to Inari, the God of Rice; and others come to explore the mountain trails, or just to admire the thousands of torri gates (like me). There are also many statues of foxes around the shrine, as they are believed to be Inari’s messengers. This Shinto Shrine is said to date back to the 1st century, and a visit to Kyoto is not complete without a visit here. Plus, entrance is free.
2. Strolling Through Arashimaya Bamboo Grove
Kyoto is filled with so many picturesque places — and one that left me in awe was the Bamboo Grove in Arashimaya. We visited the grove early in the morning and almost had the entire place to ourselves — it really felt other-worldly as I walked through the pathway lined by these thick green bamboo stalks reaching up towards the sky. The morning sun was shining through the leaves, leaving a golden greenish glow to the place. While in Arashimaya, we also visited the lovely Okochi Sanso Villa (and its beautiful gardens); and the ancient Tenryu-ji Temple.
3. The Ancient Rituals at the Kiyomizu-dera Temple
The views are gorgeous from the wooden platform of the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple. Despite it being under construction (and raining) during my visit — the lovely views, and the thought of an entire building built without nails still made it pretty amazing. I heard there was an ancient tradition of people jumping off the platform for wishes to be granted, but it is not practiced anymore, of course. There are, however, many other rituals around the temple that still are. There is a pair of ‘love stones’ at Jishu Shrine (set 18 meters apart, and a successful walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed implies that you will find your true love); and the Otowa Waterfall below the main hall, separated into three streams of water representing longevity, success or love (and you should only drink from one). I chose love.
4. Admiring the Golden and Silver Pavilions
The Kinkaku-ji Temple and the Ginkaku-ji Temple may sound almost similar — but they are nothing alike. Kinkaku-ji is the Golden Pavilion, while Ginkaku-ji translates to the Silver Pavilion. Kinkaku-ji is located in northern Kyoto and just like its name, is completely covered in gold leaf that shines brightly under the sun. The Zen temple overlooks a large pond; and has a history that dates as far back as the 14th century, though the current structure was re-built in 1955. Ginkaku-ji on the other hand, lies along the eastern mountains of Kyoto — and is not made of silver. It has a dark (almost black) exterior, which is said to have a silverish glimmer under the moonlight. It was built in the 15th century, and the temple grounds also has a beautiful sand garden, moss garden, and a hill that overlooks the entire Ginkaku-ji compound, and the city beyond.
5. Finding Peace in the Japanese Zen Gardens
I find rock gardens puzzling. I can’t understand how people can sit on benches just (meditating) and staring at these ‘rocks’ for hours on end. A large number of temples in Kyoto feature karesansui (rock gardens); but we made it a point to drop by Japan’s most famous rock garden in Ryoan-ji Temple. It features 15 rocks laid out on a rectangular plot filled with carefully arranged small smooth pebbles. I tried staring at the rocks trying to find my Zen, but all I could think of was how perfectly aligned they were. It was bewitching and fascinating; and I really think rock gardens are beautiful to look at (and not to be missed)… but I still find them very, very confusing.
6. Discovering Beautiful Secluded Spots
It was probably because we visited Kyoto during the low season in summer, but I loved how we could sometimes find pathways and temples that were secluded and devoid of people. The lovely Philospher’s Path (which would usually be crowded during the cherry blossom season in spring) was quiet and still; and the completely empty Honen-in Temple meant that we had it all to ourselves to explore as we pleased. Honen-in is truly enchanting — it is filled with mossy patches of grass and moss-covered roofs. It felt as if I had stumbled upon a hidden temple that had not been discovered for a long long time. And to think there are so many smaller temples in Kyoto just like this. I love it!
7. Learning about the Geisha in Gion
There is just something so captivating about Gion. Maybe its the thought of a chance to see a Geisha, maybe its the district’s historic past, maybe its the wooden machiya (merchant) houses that line its streets, or maybe its the way the willow trees hang above the river — whatever it is, Gion is undeniably beautiful, scenic, and a wonderful place for a stroll. Gion is Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district; so other than dropping by the many ochaya (tea houses) and the famous Yasaka Shrine — I also took the opportunity to dress up as a Maiko (Geisha apprentice) for an experience to be in the shoes (and clothes, and wig, and make-up) of Japan’s most elusive women. Wrote about my makeover here:- My Maiko/Geisha Apprentice Makeover.
8. Hiking the Mountain Towns of Kurama and Kibune
I had a wonderful time exploring the lovely onsen towns of Kibune and Kurama. From the serene walks and mountain hikes, to the historic temples and shrines — it was hard not to fall in love with its peace and tranquility. Our summer visit coincided with the village’s kawadoko tradition, where we got to dine on platforms above the river, and fish noodles out of a bamboo pipe of cold flowing water. Oh, and the myths and legends surrounding the mountains also add to allure of the place. Read more about it here:- Kibune and Kurama’s Onsen, Temples and River-Dining Experience.
9. Living the Ryokan Experience
The historic town of Kyoto is filled with beautiful ryokans, offering visitors the chance to experience traditional Japanese living — rooms with futons on tatami floors, sliding doors made of wood and paper, and gardens in the center of the house. We booked a one night stay at the Izuyasu Ryokan near Kyoto Station, and spent our time relaxing, walking around in our yukata, soaking in the onsen, and sipping green tea. We also enjoyed all our meals (a Japanese breakfast, and a kaiseki dinner) in the ryokan. I had a truly memorable time. Find out more about my ryokan stay:- The Ryokan Experience at Izuyasu.
10. Exploring Kyoto’s Food and Shopping Streets
During my visit to Kyoto, I just couldn’t get enough of all the delicious Japanese food! The city is truly a food mecca — just imagine dining on delicious seafood, thick soupy ramen, delightful green tea desserts and soft, silky tofu. Heaven!! More about Kyoto’s food here:- Top 10 Food to Eat in Kyoto, Japan. And after guzzling all those food down, it makes sense just to stroll along Kyoto’s many, many picturesque and bustling streets. From huge departments stores like Daimaru and the popular Nishiki Market in Shijo-Dori, to historic preserved streets like Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka; the city is really a beautiful mix of the modern, and the traditional. How not to fall in love?