When it comes to Kyoto, there is simply too much to indulge in with limited time. There are temples and tea houses galore. You can have a day of Unesco Sites scattering the city, an afternoon of Zen visiting some of the most majestic gardens and shrines, or eat your heart out and shop until you keel over. It may be difficult to hone in on your desired day and pick the right spots to make it memorable, but with such tradition steeped round every corner, I can’t say you would be disappointed with whatever you get to see. To visit Kyoto in a day – the Arashiyama district shouldn’t be missed.
It’s a nationally designated Historic site, and is noted for its particular scenic beauty and vastly stunning backdrops. A touristy destination in Kyoto (I know, how unusual), Arashiyama is located in the western outskirts of the city, and is accessible via the JR line, Hankyo or the Keifuku line (about a 30 minute commute from central Kyoto).
The area has always been one of interest, even back in the Heian Period (794-1185) where nobles used to come and enjoy the beauty of the district. With alluring mountains surrounding several Temples, gardens, and the most iconic landmark of the area – the Togetsukyo Bridge, it paints a picture of traditional Japan and you can’t help but get drawn into its history and captured by its character.
You can easily spend the day here, rent a bike and cycle through the neighbourhoods wandering around gardens and peaking through temples. It was one of my favourite spots in Kyoto, as it had a way of slowing me down, as I walked below the beaming sunshine, absorbing it all in for a few hours. I felt recharged and renewed after a morning alone here.
In this itinerary I will go through a couple of landmarks in the area, enough to take you through until lunch where it’s on to the great Golden Pavilion and Nijo Castle, two more iconic landmarks of Kyoto that represent its historic value, beauty and architectural genius dating back thousands of years. Both Unesco World Heritage Site, they truly embody the spirit of Kyoto and its past, which is still very much part of its present.
Financial Side Note: This day itinerary is friendly to your wallet, and although the Unesco Sites come at a price, nothing is over 800 yen (6 or 7 euro). The Arashiyama district can be enjoyed without spending a dime, even walking through the gardens and streets leaves you with a sense of satisfaction, for you and your wallet.
This bridge is the representation of Arashiyama, and holds stunning views with the mountains behind and waters below. Built in the Heian Period and translated to “moon crossing”, it was named by Emperor Kameyama after he thought it resembled the crossing of the moon at night. The bridge spans the Oi River and highlights the elegance of the majestic waters flowing through the district.
Founded in 1339 and ranked in Kyoto’s top 5 Zen temples, Tenryuji is the largest temple of Arashiyama and in my opinion, the one not to miss. This Unesco World Heritage Site was built in the Muromachi Period ( 1338-1573). The temple is home to the most beautiful garden, designed by Muso Soseki who was also the first head priest of the temple. The garden and its features have stood the test of time and are still standing majestically today through all it’s turmoiled past.
Admission is 500 yen, opening hours are 8.30 to 17.00 (depending) and it is located right across the road from Randen (Keifuku ) station.
Located just beyond the north exit of Tenryuji Temple, the narrow walkway through the towering bamboo that blocks off natural light and leaves a picturesque view is something you should see while in Arashiyama. It’s free, it’s central and it’s beautiful!
Now for the fun part – in the midst of all this Zen site seeing and captivating Unesco sites, if you want to laugh a little and have some fun then go visit the monkeys! Located south of the bridge, within walking distance from the bamboo grove, it’s a great activity to throw in the mix. The climb to the top of the park takes about 20 minutes, so you’re blood is already pumping before you reach any monkey business! With the monkeys waiting for you at the top, another thing that welcomes you is the striking view of the city. Feed the animals, take some epic photos, have some tomfoolery and make your way back to the station area for some food.
Admission 550 yen, opening hours are 9.00 to 17.00
Kinkakuji Temple (The Golden Pavilion)
Another World Heritage Site, Kinkakuji which is located north of the city gets its name, The Golden Pavilion from its notably breathtaking structure. A retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, it became a Zen temple (of the rinzai sect) after his death in 1408. It is a great representation of Japanese culture and history, not to mention a picture perfect landmark. There are other points of interest after you take the iconic photo of the golden creation, including the gardens and Anmintaku Pond.
Take the Randen to Kinkakuji, which takes about 30 minutes, for 210 yen. You have to switch trains half way but just follow the crowds of people (heads up, this place is plastered with people!). At the station, the bus stop is to your left, take the 204 or 205 to the Temple and bobs your uncle. Admission is 400 yen, opening hours are 9.00 until 17.00
Your last visit of the day, another Unesco World Heritage Site, not another Temple, is the intriguing Nijo Castle. Built in 1603, for the first Shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867) Tokugawa Ieyasu started what his grandson finished 23 years later, by completing the palace with a castle keep. The castle, and it’s qualities have stood the test of time, and through its past in the Edo Period, and as an Imperial Palace after that, it is said to be one of the best examples of castle architecture in all of Japan and it’s past feudal era – something worth seeing baring that in mind.
You can walk through the palace itself and see the decorative rooms as each has its own story to tell. Then stroll through the gardens as you imagine what they have seen in all its past. With huge walls and the traditional moat surrounding the grounds, you can see how the castle has been protected so efficiently and understand its value thereof.
You can take the bus directly from Kinkakuji Temple, about 20 minutes, 230 yen and get off at across from Nijojo-Mae Station. If taking the subway, it’s the tozai line. The castle is conveniently situated next to the station as well. Admission is 600 yen, opening hours are 8.45 to 17.00
If you are still standing after your day, and want to unwind with some traditional beverages or tasty treats (you will certainly have worked up an appetite by the end of the day) then take the subway to Gion Shijo Station which will take you about 20 minutes, and delve into the divine streets full of delights of the Gion District. With plenty restaurants, street food, teahouses and bars – if you’re anything like me it will be a challenge to pick where to go! After fueling up on food and drink, have a walk around the district, and visit the Hiyashiyama cobbled street which is the neighbouring district only a brief walk away, You can read more about “The Geisha District” in my alternative 1 day itinerary for Kyoto.
And that is about it! If the weather is good to you, this is a perfect way to take in the beautiful landscapes and scenery of Kyoto. Temples, gardens, castles, monkeys and more; you will have witnessed the magic characteristics of Kyoto and why it’s one of the most magical places in all of Japan.
Have you been to any of these places, or would you recommend any landmarks in the areas mentioned above that didn’t make the list? I’d love to hear from you! I’m curious to see what I should see next myself, because I’m not finished with Kyoto by a long shot, but I’m more than happy with my introduction to it.
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