Firstly, about Kyoto – It is a city on its own right, but one that is very rich in culture and history, as it is the city with the highest number of shrines in Japan. It has 400 Shinto shrines and several other smaller ones. It is accessible via High Speed Rail 3h from Tokyo and you can purchase a JR Pass that will bring down the price of the return tickets, which will also allow you to take JR trains anywhere in Japan.
Kyoto is easy to get around by bus, as long as you have Google maps to guide you. You can purchase a one day bus pass at 400yen from any bus driver.
Here are the top temples I’d recommend you not to miss if you don’t have time:
Shrines and Sights
The first four sights listed here are located in the same vicinity and you are able to walk to see all four sights in over half a day:
Kiyomizu-dera is a must visit! It is one of the biggest temples in Kyoto and it consists of a main hall, pagoda and shrine, built on a wooded hill overlooking Kyoto. The temple was originally associated with one of the oldest schools within Japanese Buddhism, but formed its own sect in 1965, and it is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.There is a trail up the wooded hills where you can see some of the Kyoto city from a bird’s eye view, and it is especially beautiful in spring (cherry blossoms) and fall (maple leaves).
*Note: Its main hall is currently covered up for restoration works till March 2020.
Kodai-ji was established in 1606 in commemoration of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s greatest historical figures. It features richly decorated interiors and is surrounded by beautiful Zen gardens, including a beautiful rock garden. There is also two small teahouses up a path behind the main temple, and the return path bath to the temple features a small, beautiful bamboo grove.
Maruyama Park is found further up after the visit from Kodai-ji and it is especially beautiful and great to visit during the Cherry Blossom season.The below two locations are in further up in Northern Kyoto and I would recommend you to visit these two temples together with Arashiyama Bamboo Forest:
Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion a Zen temple with the top two floors entirely covered in gold leaf. This temple was originally the retirement villa of a shogun and was then converted it into a temple. It is especially beautiful as is built next to a pond and the reflection of the gold temple with the carefully landscaped pond makes it look right out of a painting.Ryoan-ji
Ryoan-ji is located near Kinkaku-ji, and is very famous for its rock garden. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to visit this one due to lack of time. The rock garden really makes you feel very Zen and along with it you can also visit the Hojo, which is the former residence of the temple’s head priest, and also the temple’s restaurant where you can get a taste of traditional Kyoto tofu cuisine.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
To get to Arashiyama, you need to take either the normal train, or a JR train. From either station, it would be around 10 – 15 mins walk to get to the bamboo forest. Standing amidst the tall, soaring green bamboo is really unlike any other feeling – You get a sense of calmness settling over you and walking along the path makes it feel almost like you’re entering a spiritual path when there’s nobody around.
Finally, you can squeeze out half a day to visit the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha, which is the most unique of all temples as it features a trail with 10,000 Tori gates lined along the way.
Nishiki Market is food market in central Kyoto. Here, you can find Kyoto specialties such as roasted chestnuts, sesame soft serve ice cream made with hand pounded sesame, mochi, and several food varieties. Many of these stores are operated by families for generations, and everything sold at the market is locally produced and procured. Do also stop by for sushi at Hide Sushi, a 10 seater tiny sushi bar. It serves an affordable 8pc sushi set at only 1000 yen. The sushi is very fresh and well seasoned by chef.
I’d recommend everyone not to miss this! There are a couple of tofu restaurants in Kyoto, but this was the only one we had time to try and it turned out to be the right choice! The tofu is served in several courses in different styles – grilled, poached, hot and cold, and with different textures – In hard blocks and soft silky tofu style. I seriously had never had so much tofu in my life and still feel like it wasn’t enough.
Day Trip – Nara Deer Park
I can’t resist putting this in but if you have one extra day, please make the trip down to Nara Deer Park! You can take a train down from Kyoto Station to Nara Deer Park directly via the Kinetsu line in just 35 minutes.
Within Nara Deer Park, there are actually several shrines and temples and the park is quite sizable. The most significant of all is Todai-ji, a temple that was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan. Todai-ji’s main hall features the Big Buddha and it is the world’s largest wooden building now housing a bronze Buddha 15m tall.Hope this guide inspires you in visiting this old city where you can immerse yourself in Japanese culture!