Japan is full of variety and diverse social norms, everywhere you go you’ll find individuality which is always refreshing to see. However, Kyoto is a place of tradition. Once the capital of Japan, the history of Kyoto dates back thousands of years, yet the evidence of its past is still vivid and vivacious – through colourful shrines, temples and castles scattered throughout the stunning city. The Geisha District in Kyoto is oozing this tradition, and there is no better place to discover the beautiful culture of Japan.
“a cultural concoction of traditional and contemporary eccentricities”
I spent my time exploring the unique characteristics that stand to Kyoto and why it’s individually, one of the most iconic and significant representations of tradition in Japan and it’s vastly vibrant past. Japan is a country of quality, development and modern mannerisms that have swept through the streets leaving a cultural concoction of traditional and contemporary eccentricities that need to be indulged in. Kyoto has become a place of fascination to the western world since Hollywood movies have been made depicting a glamorous life of Geisha, traditional female Japanese entertainers. (Memoirs of a Geisha is a novel turned movie, both highly recommended) The tradition has been left behind in most parts of the fast paced developing country, but not in Kyoto, the heart of Japan’s Geisha world.
Unfortunately because of this, you’ll find many people flock to the area, but nevertheless you will find peaceful spots amidst the crowds. Between the hustle and bustle of temple hopping and street shopping, make sure to take an hour or so and slow down. The majestic, alluring atmosphere of one of many zen spots is where it’s at. Take time to meditate or read a book beside a charming pond, with the soothing sounds of water teasing your senses you can’t help but melt into the magic of the environment around you and become part of it.
Although there are plenty of sites to see, and captivating qualities to consume, here is a day guide to how I spent my time and I was VERY happy with what I saw. Between temples, gardens, Unesco sites, and museums, I more than dipped into the cultural pool of Kyoto, considering the time frame I had I’d say I managed to get to waist high at least. I stared my day at an ungodly hour for my liking, and was on my feet for most of the day so be aware of the tourist-load. Even hand picking a few sites and really taking them in should leave you with a love for Kyoto and the magic it entails, and like me it will leave you yearning to come back before you even leave!
SIDE NOTE :
As you may know by now, I’m not a big spender. I don’t have wads of 10,000 yen notes to be spending on Geisha performances and expensive tea houses. Although there is money to be spent in Kyoto, you can also find the cheaper side of it without suffering on quality. Many temples and shrines are free, and on average the price for the admission, when I did have to pay was 500 or 600 yen (about €4 or €5).
This is a must in Kyoto, a Shinto Shrine located on Inari Mountain, South of the city. With thousands of torii gates paving the way to the hilltop (233m high with incredible views of the city below) the bright colours surrounded by forestry, statues and shrines dedicated to the god of rice makes for a pretty picture and an even prettier walk through the tunnel. With its ancient past dating back to before the capitals move to Kyoto in 794 – you can feel the spiritual aura and significance in the air as you stroll. My first stop, and one of my favourites, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is also free and open 24 hours so you don’t have to worry about money or time!
Take the JR line from Kyoto Station, 2 stops 140 yen to JR Inari Station. Alternatively take the Keihan line to Fushimi Inari Station and walk a few minutes to the shrine.
This shrine is one of the most famous in Kyoto, dating back 1350 years. It is home to many festivals and cultural events throughout the year. There are performances on the main stage, with hundreds of lanterns surrounding the stage. There is also the Haiden (offering hall) and Honden (inner sanctuary) clustered together. Located between the Gion district and Higashiyama District, you have plenty to explore walking through the area. Also located right next to it is the Maruyama Park, another suggested wandering route for the outdoor lovers. Again, all this is free and open 24 hours a day, although I’d advise going during the day to see the performers, and grab some street food in the stalls filling the street to the shrine.
Take bus 100 or 206 from Kyoto Station to Gion (about 20 minutes) or get the subway to Gion Shiju Station. Walk straight to the end of the main road and you will be greeted by the beautiful Shrine.
As you pass the Yasaka Shrine and start to wander through the Higashiyama district, you will find there are many temples and shrines to see. I decided on the Kodai-Ji zen temple as my next pit stop which didn’t disappoint. A Unesco world heritage site that was built 1606 in memory of one of Japans greatest figures in history, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, established by his wife Nene. The temple is a picture of beauty and history, but the zen garden surrounding the structures is even better. As you stroll through the majestic, picturesque garden and soothing water surrounding your path, you’ll find a mausoleum for Hideyoshi and Nene, two tea houses and a bamboo grove.
Admission is 6oo yen, but absolutely worth it, and it also includes access to the Kodaiji Sho Museum dedicated to treasures of Hideyoshi and Nene, aswell as some beautiful exhibits of lacquer artwork dating back thousands of years. Take some time to walk through this temple, which was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the busy streets just outside.
The last remnant of Hokanji Temple, this 5 story Pagoda is one of the prettiest landmarks of the Higashiyama area. What’s better is you can even step inside the historic structure for 400 yen (a rare opportunity) and see the view of the neighbourhood from the Pagoda itself.
simply follow the road from the Kodai-Ji Temple, and look up! The Pagoda stands tall at the centre of the district.
Built in 780 beside the Otowa waterfall, Kiyomizudera translates to “Pure Water Temple” and is one of the most iconic Temples in Japan. This Unesco World Heritage Site has many features and fascinating shrines. The wooden structure of the main stage juts out from the hilltop, 18meters from the ground below and makes for a stunning view. Admission is 400 yen, a small price for what you get to see. Bare in mind the crowds can get in the way, and you won’t find much zen moments here to that of Kodaiji Temple, but it captures your spirit in its own way.
Head north up the street past the Pagoda and the Temple is waiting for you at the top of the market street. Stop in one of the teahouses on the way.
As you walk from the Yasaka Pagoda to the Kiyomizudera Temple you will discover the old traditional qualities of Japan, with wooden shops and cobbled alley ways full of traditional food and fine art, it’s a perfect walk between spots and you could spend half a day just wandering this stretch of Japanese tradition in itself.
If you have time, and you’re all templed out then there are numerous museums waiting for your attention. The National Museum is a prime example. There are a variety of ancient artefacts and artworks throughout Japanese history on display, from samurai swords, Buddha statues and modern Japanese/Asian art. There are also exhibits of ceramics calligraphy, and costumes that give you a glimpse into Japanese history and customs. The museum is also located in the Higashiyama district, within walking distance from your previous locations. (Also located right across the road is the Sanjusangendo Temple if you have time, energy, and superman powers enough to fit this into your day as well). Admission is 520 yen.
In this you will find a few Unesco World Heritage Sites that depict a historic picture of Kyoto, some beautiful scenery and zen gardens for some downtime and reflection in the midst of your busy touristic day, shopping and food heaven in the old traditional streets of Japan in the Hiyashiyama district to indulge and soak up some culture, and finally a stop at one of the oldest and most distinguished museums of Japan to uncover the true history of the country in all its glory. I hope you find this itinerary useful and you get what you want from your visit to Kyoto! If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing from this perfect day I spent in this perfect place.
Each of these destinations are within walking distance from each other, except for the Fushimi Inari Shrine which is only a subway away. Upon arrival at the subway station in Gion, head north and follow the itinerary to the end through to the Museum which is at the other side of the district. Everything is very well sign posted and you will easily make your way from Yasaka Shrine to the Museum.
Please let me know your thoughts! Have you been to Kyoto? Have these places made your list? Would you recommend any other features? I’d love to hear from you! I too want to go back to Kyoto, and I’ll be in need of a new itinerary so please get in touch!
This article is available for download through GPS My City, click here.