An optimal guide to self-exploring Kyoto – The city of culture.
The first stop on my trip to Japan was Kyoto, and what a ‘culture’ shock it was (pun intended!). To me, Kyoto was the complete opposite of Tokyo. It felt like a big town more than a city. With minimum high-rises, abundant greenery and a list of must see temples and shrines, Kyoto was the perfect representation of the cultural side of Japan – a side that is sometimes lost in the western depiction of the country that focuses more on the modern elements. Almost every other attraction I went to was a UNESCO world heritage site. The city is beautiful, the people extremely friendly, the streets safe and the public transport convenient.
I would recommend a minimum of 2 days in Kyoto and that’s about how long it would take to cover the ‘Must-Sees’ list at a medium pace (not rushed but not relaxed either). Anything less than 2 days doesn’t really make sense. In fact, 4 days would be the perfect duration. I tried to do everything in 2 days and felt really rushed and tired by the end of it. Pacing yourself is very important so you’re not too tired to see all the other amazing cities and sites that Japan has to offer as well!
All attractions listed in this post are easily accessible via train or bus. I would just put my destination into ‘Google Maps’, choose the public transport option and follow the instructions. As simple as that! There is a LOT of walking involved though. So if you’re not used to carrying around your DSLR and don’t care for 24 MP pictures, a decent phone camera is sufficient. Most of my pictures of Kyoto came from my iPhone (and my mind, of course!).
Cameras out? Bus pass purchased? Here we go!
Here are the places that I mark as a ‘Must-See’:
#1. Kinakakuji (Golden Pavillion):
The Zen temple with its gold leaf exterior layer (say whaaaa!) stands alone on a man-made pond and reflecting the sun radiantly. I needed shades to look at it through all the brightness, jk! It looks like a scene from a movie. The self-read guide, which is handed out for free at the entrance, provides a good summary of the history of the temple. I spent about an hour and a half walking around taking pictures and reading the pamphlet. It’s hard to believe that the temple was originally built as a retirement villa. Imagine living there!
Location from Kyoto: North
Open Days: All Days
Timings: 9 AM – 5 PM
Ticket Price: 400 Yen
Suggested Duration: 1.5 hours
#2. Kiyomizu dera (Pure Water Temple): UNESCO world heritage site
The Buddhist temple is located on top of a small hill that is not accessible to vehicles for the last ~1 kilometer (approx. 1/2 mile). The only option is to climb up to it. The good news is that the slope is not too bad and the path is routed through a market (Higashiyama District) full of souvenirs, tea, sweets, street food (the pork buns were wow!) and all kinds of things with reasonable prices. If you have time on your hands, this can be a leisure stroll with frequent stops. Please note, the market closes at the same time as the temple, which is 6 PM.
As the temple is on top of this hill, it offers a breathtaking view of Kyoto! The entrance leads to a main hall with a wooden stage. This provided a beautiful view of the Koyasu pagoda across the temple grounds to the south and of the city of Kyoto to the west, so this is an excellent spot to click away. There is a one-way bridge that connects the main hall to the pagoda that I would recommend crossing over to.
I went here around sunset time which gave me a good view but not-so-great pictures of the city as the sun was glaring right at my camera (also, I’m not be best photographer, so please ignore me if you know what you’re doing). For good photo opps, morning trip might be better.
Also, PORK BUNS!!
Location from Kyoto: South
Open Days: All Days
Timings: 6 AM – 6 PM (Shrine and Market)
Ticket Price: 400 Yen
Suggested Duration: 2.5 hours
#3. Fushimi Inari taisha (Shrine of Good Fortune)
As the name suggests, this Shinto shrine is believed to bring monetary prosperity to its visitors. The shrine’s iconic orange Torii gates are featured in several movies shot in and/or about Japan (ex: memoirs of a geisha). The good thing about this shrine is that it is open 24×7 making it convenient to fit into any part of your schedule, and it’s free to visit! (#budgettraveler)
The main shrine is located at the base of a mountain and there are several smaller shrines located behind it as you start to climb up. The Torii gates form a gateway marking the path to climb with breaks every now and then that allows the visitors to walk over to the smaller shrine sections.
For a full blast of the coloring of the shrine and the gates and to be able to climb up the mountain (partially or fully) for a beautiful view of the city, morning visits would be the recommended option. However, I did not regret my choice of visiting it after sunset. The pros were that the lighting at the main shrine gave it a stunning look and the limited lighting at the smaller shrines gave it a very eerie and creepy look, which I absolutely loved. There were barely any people at this time and I didn’t have to tread on other visitors to walk around.
The cons were that the main sources of light were the moon and my phone’s torchlight app, making it hard to get good pictures at the smaller shrines and making even the short climb more adventurous than it should be (Not sure if this is a con though, it was a little exciting!!). I kept running into security guards patrolling the area so it seemed very safe.
Open Days: All Days
Timings: All Day
Ticket Price: Free
Suggested Duration (no climb): 1.5 hours
Suggested Duration (with climb): 3 – 4 hours
#4. Nijo Castle: UNESCO World Heritage Site
The wooden castle has two main areas to cover: the main castle building and the extensive gardens outside. One thing I realized touring Japan, is how much the Japanese implement the philosophy of aesthetic simplicity and how far back it dates. So I took an English class in college where the topic was to try and analyze wabi and sabi so I was familiar with the idea but had dismissed it as a ‘concept’. I never translated it to an actual way of life! I didn’t truly understand how much representation the ideology has in cultural and modern Japan till I visited the country, and then it hit me like a 10-wheel truck. Nijo castle is an amazing example of this. (Sorry for the tangent)
The main castle building has a royal outer layer but the interiors are just as simple. The paintings on the walls are beautifully drawn with deep colors and the minimalistic approach to furniture makes them the main object of attraction in the room. It’s such a wonderful balance of richness and plainness that makes the experience very visually pleasing. Pictures are not allowed inside the castle and the rule is enforced very strictly.
There are summaries written at the entrance of each room and each garden section, making self-touring easy and informative. The gardens are extensive and well-maintained. There is a little tea-shop at the heart of one section of the garden. I highly recommend taking a break and sipping some tea / coffee here while relaxing and taking in the garden. The tea shop is a no-noise zone so look forward to some quite self-introspection time.
Check to see if the castle is open the day you are planning on visiting as it is closed on particular days.
Location from Kyoto: Central
Open Days: Closed on Tuesdays in Jan, Jul, Aug and Dec. Closed for a few days in Dec / Jan.
Timings: 9 AM – 4 PM
Ticket Price (Yen): 600
Suggested Viewing Time: 2-3 hours, depending on the tea break.
#5. Philosopher’s Path
This walkway goes on for several kilometers and is used by residents of all ages to stretch their legs. The path is lined by trees on both sides providing ample amount of shade. It winds through old and new housing lanes in Kyoto and gives a very non-touristy local feel. A sunny afternoon stroll or some light biking in this area is a wonderful way to relax from a hectic touring schedule and get into the vacation feel.
If you have accommodated for the above list and want to explore other AMAZING places and activities that Kyoto has to offer, check out my Kyoto – Extended Recommendations post.
At a glance: