Kyoto is the ancient cultural city of Japan and its main draw is the many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Tourists come here for a piece of old Japan – admiring the religious architecture, walking down historic Gion and appreciating traditional Japanese crafts.
Convenient day trip option
I visited Kyoto as a day trip from Osaka. It was easy to get to Kyoto from Osaka – just one hour by train. When I first stepped off the train, I wondered if I got off at the correct stop. Kyoto is the ancient cultural city of Japan, yet Kyoto Station is futuristic in design, clad in metal and glass. It even has a 13-storey Isetan department store that threatened to trap me there even before I left the station. Tempting. Very tempting.
The futuristic Kyoto Station is a stark contrast to the rest of Kyoto.
Around Kyoto on foot
It is possible to make it through Tokyo without hopping onto a bus, but not in Kyoto. There is a subway system in Kyoto, but it only runs through the main thoroughfares and is not as extensive as Tokyo’s subway system (at least that was the case when I was there). To get to locations not served by the subway, the only feasible way is by bus (and perhaps also more fitting). But since I wasn’t confident about taking the bus (you board from the rear and pay when you alight from the front), I only went where my feet could take me. Which was not far. Fortunately, the main sights are all within walking distance from Kyoto Station.
Cherry blossoms at To-ji.
The first temple on my list was To-ji. Just a 5-minute walk from Kyoto Station, the Buddhist temple attracted me with pictures of its beautifully-manicured gardens and soaring pagoda. And I was not disappointed.
The five-storey pagoda at To-ji is the tallest wooden tower in Japan.
High above, the pagoda stretched five stories to 55 m and is the tallest wooden tower in Japan. Down below, koi fish and turtles swim in the pond and cherry blossom trees bloom, creating a perfect setting for a pleasant stroll and some turtle watching. If you happen to be there on the 21st of the month, there’s also a flea market with some 1,300 stalls.
The zen gardens and pond where koi fish and turtles swim.
Like church hopping in Europe, the temples and shrines can all start to look the same after a while if you’re not a devotee. But not this one. The Kiyomizu-dera is massive, to begin with. The entrance betrays nothing of what lies beyond. Large halls, spacious gardens, a pagoda, trails, waterfalls and more await those who step through its gates.
A wall of wishing tablets at Kiyomizu-dera.
Perched on the side of a hill and propped up with wooden pillars, not a single nail was used to build the Buddhist temple. Its high elevation makes it feel like a sacred pilgrimage and doubles as a vantage point to see the rest of the city.
The wooden pillars that hold up the main hall of Kiyomizu-dera.
The hilly terrain makes the temple look more magnificent than it already is.
The temple takes its name from the Otowa waterfall and literally means “clear water”. There are three streams of water that make up the waterfall and drinking from it is said to grant wishes. Even as I descended from the temple premises, I couldn’t help but kept looking back in awe at the impressive temple.
The three streams of water from the Otowa waterfall.
On the way to Gion, I was literally stopped mid-stride by a strange sight. A shrine with a stone monument covered with charms. I only realised later this was Yasui Konpira-gu, a Shinto shrine whose main attraction is said stone monument. It is said that crawling through the stone monument with your wishing charm in hand and then sticking it onto the monument will help to break off bad relationships or initiate good ones.
The stone monument at Yasui Konpira-gu completely covered with wishing charms.
I next headed to Gion, the historic district (and also the geisha district) in Kyoto. This is where old Japan shines through, with traditional Japanese houses, crafts and entertainment still being practised. Even if you aren’t the most interested in all that, it is a lovely stroll down cobbled streets with cherry blossoms blooming overhead.
The Kamo River that borders Gion.
Hanami Lane – the Japanese version of a cobblestone footpath-lined scenic walk.
Cherry blossoms white as snow hanging from the trees.
The food scene: exquisite vs everyday
Kyoto’s most famous culinary export is Kaiseki, a multi-course meal where the food looks too pretty to eat. Coupled with a traditional Japanese tatami-mat setting and a zen garden for visual enhancement, it is no wonder that the price is exquisite as well (read: expensive).
Not having the budget for kaiseki, I headed to Nishiki Market instead. Often called “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, it is a covered street of shops (about 130 of them) similar in format to Shinsaibaishi-suji in Osaka. But where the Osaka street touts clothes and accessories, Nishiki Market is all about food. This is where you’ll find all of Kyoto’s famous foodstuff.
The Nishiki Market is instantly recognisable with its colourful covered roof.
A final word: there are some 2,000 temples and shrines in all of Kyoto. So, unless you are on a pilgrimage to visit them all, you’ll need to be selective. Doing your research beforehand will help you narrow down the ones to make a beeline for. And don’t forget to budget time for a stroll through Gion and Nishiki Market. And maybe the 13-storey Isetan department store.