Monday 9 March 2020

What to do in Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto, before Tokyo, was the capital of Japan. Today, it's a cultural playground with hundreds of historic, architectural sights including Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. It's a charming city full of scenic, winding streets and beautiful, old traditions and I highly recommend that you pay it a visit on your trip to Japan.

North/South/East Kyoto 
Fushimi Inari Taisha
  • Opening hours: 24hrs 
  • Admission: free

The shrine with a thousand torii gates. This shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto spirit/god of foxes, fertility, rice, tea and sake, of agriculture, general prosperity and worldly success. In Japan, more than 1/3 of all Shinto shrines are dedicated to Inari however, the main one is Fushimi Inari which sits at the base of Mount Inari.

Japanese companies have donated thousands of red torii gates to the shrine in order to have Inari grant their business success and fortune. These gates aren't cheap as they start from 400,000 yen (approx. £2,900) for the small-sized torii gates. Visitors going to pray usually give offerings of rice, sake and other foods to the please the fox messengers (kitsune) who are thought to plead with Inari on the worshipper's behalf. On my journey up the mountain, I came across plenty of fox statues with small dishes of in front of them.

Before my trip to Japan, I read that you should visit the shrine either early morning or late night due to the crowds however, I don't think that it makes much of a difference. The entrance of Fushimi Inari is rammed however, the higher you trek up the mountain, the more the crowds dissipate. So if you're wanting that Instagram-worthy shot, you're going to have to work for it.

Half way up the mountain, there's a beautiful view-point where you can sit down with a cone of vanilla and soy bean ice cream (so delicious!), admire the scenes of Kyoto and catch your breath. You then have the choice to retreat down the mountain or continue trekking upwards. My partner wanted to continue upwards as his justification was that we're here so we might as well. Well, I wouldn't say that the extra hour uphill walk was anything more special than the halfway point but I've done it now so I have no regrets. Fyi, the total hike amounted to around 30,000 steps. Your feet will hurt but it's worth it because, you know, Japan.

Nishiki Market
  • Opening hours: 9am-6pm, some vendors closed Sunday & Wednesday

Kyoto's kitchen is visited by both locals and tourists alike. You're able to sample all kinds of goodies from fruits and nuts to fish and tea without being obligated to buy anything however, after tasting, you're probably going to want to buy them! There's also non-food options available such as fans, chopsticks, small ornaments and garments. Make sure that you have cash with you as I didn't see any card machines being used in the market.

Kyoto Pokemon Centre
  • Opening hours: 10am-8pm

Amazing. Wonderful. Fun. Made my purse cry. This was the first Pokemon centre that I visited during the trip (and ever in my life), and I enjoyed every moment of it. Shelves full of Pokemon plushies, phone cases, trading cards, t-shirts and more. Each Pokemon centre has exclusive merchandise and at the Kyoto store, it was Pikachu dressed in traditional Japanese attire, either male or female. I chose the female version in plush and keyring form. Kawaii!

  • Opening hours: 6am-6pm
  • Admission: 400yen

Kiyomizu-Dera translates to pure water temple and is a Buddhist temple in the east of Kyoto. The temple has a large, wooden roof and sits on top of the Otawa waterfall. The waterfall splits into three streams and is said to cause longevity, success at school and a prosperous love life. Visitors are enouraged to drink from only one stream as it is seen as glutenous to drink from all 3 streams.

I was fortunate enough to visit during the autumn illuminations which meant that the temple was dimly lit from 5.30pm-9.30pm. This created a beautiful, romantic atmosphere (which is probably why my partner proposed to me here!). Unless you have some professional photography gear, it might be a little difficult to get some good night shots however, that shouldn't matter. Simply go to absorb the atmosphere and admire the autumn foliage.

West Kyoto 
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
  • Opening hours: 24hrs
  • Admission: free

The iconic Arashiyama bamboo grove. A short 10-15 minute walk through a sea of people surrounded by stalks of bamboo. To be fair, I was expecting it to be a lot more crowded than it actually was so it was actually a pleasant surprise to be able to find spots where I could take pictures with no one else in them.

Tenryuji Temple
  • Opening hours: 8.30am-5.30pm, closes 5pm October-March
  • Admission: 500yen, additional costs to enter the buildings 

Founded in 1339, the buildings of Tenryuji have been lost in fires and re-built again over the past few centuries however, the gardens remain in its original form. This Zen temple really has the most landscape garden. Words and pictures will do it no justice, it's something that you have to see with your own eyes. Relaxing on a bench within the temple's gardens, eating fried potato sticks coated in a sweet syrup whilst admiring the endless views of the gorgeous autumn foliage - it was surreal.

Sushi Naritaya
  • Opening hours: 11am-4pm, closed Wednesday

This small eatery is hidden away off the beaten track and only has a few tables inside so put your name down on the clipboard outside of the restaurant and be prepared to wait 15-20 minutes. It's definitely worth it though. Order a set and make sure you request at least 2 portions of unagi. Trust me, you'll want more of that melt in your mouth eel. My partner has always wanted to try uni and having the opportunity to do so, we thought why not. It tasted fresh and briny but nothing spectacular. Once you've finished your meal, head next door for some delicious, creamy ice-cream.

Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama
  • Opening hours: 9am-4.30pm, closes 4pm in winter
  • Admission: 550yen 

After crossing the picturesque Togetsukyo bridge and trekking up Mount Iwatayma for 30 minutes, you're greeted by at least 100 Japanese macaque monkeys. The monkeys are running around, doing their monkey thing. There's signs around advising you not to touch, stare or stand too close. You can purchase nuts and fruits to feed the monkeys but you have to do so from inside an enclosed building. Yes, you're the one inside the cage - it's brilliant! The monkeys can get quite aggressive towards each other so stay vigilant.

At the top of the mountain, you can also marvel at the beautiful views that Kyoto has to offer - mountains, rivers and colourful autumn foliage. Definitely one of my highlights from the trip.

Kimono Forest
  • Opening hours: 9am-4.30pm, closes 4pm in winter
  • Admission: free

When leaving Kyoto, I stumbled across the kimono forest in the Arashiyama area. A pathway of vibrant pillars were dimly lit as the day turned into dusk. Each pillar displays a kimono design, with the art installation showcasing 32 different designs in total. It was a pretty sight to see on the way back to the train station. 

As I had set aside time to make 2 day trips to Kyoto, I tried to group places together in terms of proximity so that one activity wasn't too far away from the next. That way, I could fully optimize my time in Kyoto however, I can tell you now that two days is not nearly enough time to cover everything that Kyoto has to offer. It's a breath-taking city and if possible, I would have loved to spend at least a week there, wandering around the districts and taking in the gorgeous views.


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