We spent in Kyoto three nights and almost four days, and I really suggest you to do the same, as there is so much to see and do in this amazing city – for many the true symbol of Japan's history and culture.
The city itself is not that big, and it's very easy to tour thanks also to the wonderful network of busses (plus the metro) that we happily used to go quickly from a place to the other. The problem is in fact, that there are so many temples and gardens that are worthy to visit, but they are all scattered across the town. For this reason, I decided to separate the central and eastern part from the western part and Arashiyama, which is another popular destination.
The Kamo-gawa river - and its parallel canals - that runs north to south is also a good point for orientation, as most of the temples of the eastern side (Higashiyama and Gion) are on the right of that. The street grid system is also very convenient for touring Kyoto, with its main arteries of Gojodori, Shichodori and Oikedori (parallel) and Kawaramachidori and Karasumadori (perpendicolar).
You will most certainly arrive at the beautiful Kyoto station, which is surrounded by modern buildings and shops and lays pretty much at the center of the city.
We decided to stay in the more quiet part of the town of Shimogyo Ward, between the river and a canal, and half-way from the Kyoto station and the major temples of Higashiyama. The newly-renovated Hazuki Inn is a small but lovely ryokan managed by the very kind Takase-san. Right next to it there is also a small family-owned restaurant where we had a delicious dinner the last night.
The area right around Kyoto station is very busy and lively, with shops and most of the Kyoto's modern buildings. But besides the Imperial Palace, that we visited in 1999 and Nijo-jo castle, there isn't much to see. If you walk north though, you will enter the very popular area of the famous Nishiki-kōji Street Market and lively (especially at night) and traditional (because of the geishas) Pontochō, which is where many restaurants and teahouses are, many of them overlooking the canal or the Kamoga-wa river. The river actually is where many locals hang out in the evening after work, drinking and chatting – Italian aperitivo style – and we enjoyed doing the same!
We started our temple-tour on the right side of the river with the amazing Sanjūsangen-dō, housing 1001 gilded Buddhist statues, which we really recommend to see (no pictures are allowed inside so it's a truly memorable experience). We then walked along the Kyoto national Museum to the Kiyomizu-dera temple - certainly one of the most popular in Kyoto but literally submerged with tourists! The hill where it's perched is indeed very scenic and pretty (especially if you decided to visit it inside and go to the terrace) but the amount of (Chinese, especially) tourists take away a lot of the charme. From there you can walk up or down the famous Kiyomizu-zaka street (full of shops and souvenirs) and through the much more enjoyable Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka, two historic alleys that pilgrims used to walk to get to the temple and that host some of the oldest townhouses and teashops in Kyoto. From there we walked down to Kōdai-ji temple which is surrounded by a nice park and borders the beautiful area of Bishanmocho, Komatsucho (where we visited also the Kennini-ji and the Zenkyoan temples and finally, Gion.
The famous and old area of Gion (now very popular for the old geisha houses) is in fact comprising also the much busier and lively neighborhood of Shinbashi. The two areas are in fact separated by the big Shijo-dori avenue, that leads you from the river up to to the beautiful Yasaka-jinja shrine, a must-see especially at night, when the lanterns are all lit-up (the entrance is open 24h). We enjoyed walking also through the quaint and timeless alleys of Shinbashi-dori, along the Gion-Shirakawa canal, where also some of the fancies restaurants of Kyoto are, and then crossed the Sanjo-dori bridge and walk along the Kamo-river, which especially lively in the evening, after work, because it's neighboring the popular area of Pontocho, where many izakayas and restaurants are. We ate delicious yakitori here.
On the second day we started early in the morning to get the train (you can use the JR Pass) to Fushimi-Inari Taisha, 20 minutes south of the centre of Kyoto and definitely a place to see, even if extremely crowded. We were there around 8:30 am (the shrine is actually open 24h so you can visit it any time) and we were able to walk up under the 10,000 red tori with relatively few people and it was absolutely worthy the long climb to the top (the furthest you go, the less tourists you encounter) - it takes about an hour to complete the entire loop through the mountain along also thousands of stone foxes.
The same day of Fushimi-Inari we took the train back to Kyoto station, visited the Nishiki market and then took the bus north to probably the most celebrated temple of Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji (or Golden Pavillon). The site is very crowded but that doesn't diminish the impact of seeing this beautiful wooden temple covered in gold, surrounded by a lovely lake and the picturesque Ryōan-ji garden. But we enjoyed more the marvellous Gikaku-ji (or Silver Pavillon), that despite being less ostentatious than the golden pavillon, lays in the middle of a wonderful dry garden and it's much less crowded and peaceful. The two temples are not near, but we took the bus between them, which is really convenient. From the Silver pavillon on the north-east corner of Kyoto you can take the Philospher's path and walk down to Nanzen-ji temple, which is another must-see and vast site on the hills of east Kyoto, and that we visited twenty years ago. next to the temple there is also another beautiful garden, Konchi-in.
After visiting Arashiyama on our third day, we went back by bus to the north end of the city to enter the beautiful Philosopher's Path, which passes along a canal through an idyllic and quite area of Kyoto nestled between the hills, the historic houses and some amazing and lesser-known temples. You shouldn't miss to visit this part of the city! We loved Honen-in temple (especially because we were the only people visiting on one magic late afternoon) but there are many others that I wished we had the time to see! We then took the bus home from the residential area of Nanzen-ji.
Even if the famous temple of Kinkaku-ji is closer to West Kyoto, I included it in the Eastern/Central part of the city, since you can easily visit it by bus when you do the classic tour.
As for the famous area of Arashiyama, a pleasant town west of Kyoto full of temples, gardens and a monkey park, you can plan one full day of sightseeing, taking advantage also of the convenient JR train (Sagano Line) that takes you directly there from Kyoto station.
We arrived very early (8 am) to be among the first one to visit the famous Bamboo Forest (15 minutes walk from the Saga-Arashiyama station), which is easy to find next to the entrance of the famous Tenryū-ji temple and it's gardens. The forest covers actually a pretty wide area, but the path that you can take is a pretty short one and full of people trying the get the best shot without anyone! From there we walked north, past the famous villa of Okochi Sanso (that we didn't visit because a little pricier, because it included a tea ceremony), along the pretty Ogura Pond to the countryside and hilly area of Jōjakkō-ji Temple, Nison-in Temple and Giouji Temple, which has a beautiful small garden and that we were happy to visit because mush less crowded that the rest.
We then returned back to visit the beautiful Tenryū-ji temple, which is absolutely worthy even if you have time only for the garden -the whole area is quite big, so reserve there at least one full hour. The day we were there was very hot so we had to stop first to eat and then crossed the bridge to visit on the Arashiyama Moneky Park Iwatayama, where dozens of macaque monkey live (and there is also a research center). The climb to the top of the mountain (where most monkey are) is steep and takes at least 20 minutes, so bring a lot of water! The area around the Takura river is quainter and less crowded than the rest of Arashiyama and we really enjoyed it.
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