Our Shinkansen to Kyoto arrived around 10am, so we had almost a full day to kill before we could check into our hotel. Luckily they were able to store our baggage for the day, so we could wander the Kyoto Station area with ease. Our first stop was to Higashi Hongan-ji, a temple complex just a few minutes walk from our hotel. Though the grounds were huge and access was free, a lot of it was under construction and closed to the public. We were able to see one of the main temple halls, as well as a contemporary art exhibit and impossibly adorable schoolchildren chasing pigeons. They also had a display of tools used to rebuild the main structures following fires in the 1880s, including a huge rope made of human hair (!!!); female temple devotees were eager to see construction go ahead, so they cut off and donated their hair for the ropes that would haul the timbers into place.
A few minutes walk from Higashi Hongan-ji is Nishi Hongan-ji, which is home to stunning Buddhist architecture and was our first UNESCO site visit in Kyoto. Another sprawling temple complex, it is free to enter and fortunately nothing was closed for construction. We wound in and out of the main halls and through a small garden towards the back. Photos are allowed in the halls here (unlike at some other temples), which is an added bonus!
Kyoto Station is pretty much an attraction in and of itself. It's strikingly modern in terms of architecture, and is teeming with restaurants and shops, including an outpost of the Japanese department store Isetan. You can get views of the city from the 15th floor (you have to go through a hotel), or at an open-air rooftop terrace at the top of Isetan's escalators. We were staying in the Hotel Hokke Club directly across from the train station, which gave us easy access to train lines to get in and out of town and the central bus terminal to take us around Kyoto (protip: since many shrines and temples are towards the outskirts of town and are easily accessed through public transit, invest in a day pass. One for the city bus only costs ¥500, and one for the city bus, Kyoto Bus, and the subway costs ¥1200).
Gion & Ponto-chō
We spent surprisingly little time in the famous district of Gion, but we did treat ourselves to okonomiyaki at a fabulous little restaurant on Ponto-chō on our first night in Kyoto. We bypassed a lot of restaurants because they were pretty pricey, but the okonomiyaki was inexpensive and fresh, plus we got to eat it the proper way: cooked in front of our eyes at our table! We also spent one evening taking part in and learning the process of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. We went to En and thoroughly enjoyed it, and there are many options around town for around ¥2000 per person. Gion and Ponto-chō are beautiful areas, and there's a reason all the guidebooks advise you spend time walking around there.
After finishing our walking tours in Southern and Northern Higashiyama, we took a bus partway across town to Shimogamo-jinja, another UNESCO site that was open a little later than the others. We walked up to it through the surrounding park, which was shady and tranquil. We were there just before closing so the place was virtually deserted, which I loved because I could snap all the photos I wanted without people getting in the way! It was also free to enter, which was a relief after a day of spending ¥500 or ¥600 to get into other temples, shrines, and gardens.
To actually visit the Imperial Palace one needs to apply for a ticket with the Imperial Household Agency, which Clem and I declined to do once we realized guided tours were only offered in Japanese. We still wanted to see this famous park, so we decided to saunter around the park just before it closed at dusk. As we were there in the middle of March there weren't many flowers in bloom and only a few dog owners were braving the chilly weather, but it was a nice way to unwind after a very busy day.
I'd seen so many photos of this gorgeous temple (the name translates to "Golden Pavilion"), and was desperate to see it in person. Apparently everyone else in Kyoto was, as well, since it was packed even on a cold and grey day! There was lots of jostling for the *perfect shot* and to make sure I got it I used two cameras, my phone, and my Fujifilm Instax Mini (my purse was pretty heavy the whole trip...) A city bus goes right past the entrance to the grounds, and once you've paid your fee and taken a gazillion photos of the pavilion from across the pond you can follow a small path past some smaller sites of prayer, like a tiny waterfall and a fountain, before ending up on a terrace that looks out at the pavilion and the gardens from the back. It didn't take very long to go through, but I loved loved loved seeing this temple.
This beautiful temple sits on a huge swath of land in Northwest Kyoto, so even though the city bus goes right by the main entrance there is still a bit of a walk to the buildings. Because we were there so early in spring nothing had really bloomed yet and the trees were only half green, but the walk up to the temple was quiet and serene - perfect because Ryōan-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple! You don't have to pay anything to access the gardens, but access to the temple building costs ¥500; it is famous for the rock garden, which has a viewing platform attached with step-down bench seating at the front. Visitors aren't allowed to step down onto the garden level, so it was nice to have a short sit-down to admire the rock formation and the carefully raked ground without anybody in the way.
This was our third UNESCO site in a row at the end of a long day, so by the time we got here we were pooped! We caught the same bus that took us to Kinkaku-ji and Ryōan-ji, which again dropped us off at the main gates (told you that ¥500 day pass was worth it!). We decided not to pay to access some parts of the grounds, and instead wandered around seeing what we could of the 17th-century buildings. There were few people there as it was just before closing time, which made me more inclined to slow down and really appreciate the buildings and gardens.
This was our last stop in Kyoto, the morning before we caught our Shinkansen back to Tokyo. We went first thing in the morning (I'm talking 8am), which was perfect since we were able to take photos without the hoards of tourists and schoolchildren that had arrived by the time we were leaving an hour and a half later. The shrine is the most important Shinto shrine in Japan, and a 4km walking path wanders up and down the Inari-yama mountain. The torii (orange gates) line the path most of the way; the higher you go, the fewer people you'll see, the more opportunities you'll have for photos. You can go straight up and down, as we did, or you can stop along the way for a cup of tea or a bottle of water at one of the small souvenir and food stands. Fushimi-Inari is also free to enter, so it's a great way to spend a few hours if you're on a budget. It's also easily accessible by subway: only one stop from Kyoto Station.
And that's it for Kyoto! We did day trips out to Nara and Osaka while we were there, so I'll write about those soon!