Kyoto: Japan’s Cultural Capital

Me, Exploring Kyoto Despite the Rain!

Me, Exploring Kyoto Despite the Rain!

The last week of our Spring 2010 Japan trip was spent in Kyoto. Originally, we meant to spend only 3 days here, with the remaining 4 split between Nagasaki in southern Japan, and Osaka (about 1 hour away from Kyoto), but decided to extend our stay as discovering Kyoto proved to be more interesting.

Kimono-Clad Girls in Kyoto

I must admit that at first sight, I didn’t like Kyoto half as much as I liked Tokyo. The city boasts about their many cultural spots, beautiful temples and shrines, and picturesque zen gardens; however, I found these spots difficult to spot or reach, as most are hidden from sight by surrounding walls. Another thing I noticed was that many of Kyoto’s attractions have entry charges, where as Tokyo’s places of interest tend to be free of charge.

Had I only been in Kyoto for 3 days, I probably would not have ended up loving the city as much as I did. Reason why: Kyoto is full of beauty that needs to be searched, and when found, it is definitely all it’s hyped up to be!

Getting around Kyoto is also a little more difficult than traveling within Tokyo (at least until you figure out what to do). There are two subway lines, one which travels East to West, and one which travels North to South, both crossing the downtown core and going towards the outskirts. In addition, there are multiple other privately owned train lines, many which travel partly underground through parts of the track, like a Subway, and above ground in other parts. A streetcar connecting central Kyoto with the northern part of the city, is also a great transportation tool. The multiple-transportation system is confusing and it takes a couple of days to get adjusted to.

During our week-long stay, we stayed at the Toyoko Inn Kyoto Shijo-Omiya, a comfortable hotel right on Shijo street. Shijo street is a major shopping and entertainment street that crosses right through the downtown area and across a bridge on the Kamo River, right into the Gion District.

Pontocho Alley

Central Kyoto is located North of the Kyoto train station, easily reached by subway. Most places of interest within the city are found in Central Kyoto and towards the north. Distances between the different districts of interest are very large, so it’s most convenient to travel by transit.

Downtown Core:
Full of generally uninspiring buildings reminiscent of any other Japanese city, the downtown core has fantastic shopping centres and enormous department stores to keep you entertained during the day.

At night, a few restaurants and bars remain open, but the crowds of the day dissappear. For nightlife, the most lively area is on the riverside of the Kamo River, in Pontocho Alley, on the eastern side of the downtown core.

Pontocho Alley contains tens of restaurants, cafes and bars overlooking the Kamo river. The outside of these wood locales are illuminated with festive Japanese paper lamps and tame-coloured (mainly white and off white) neon signs. The alley is also said to be Kyoto’s main gay quarter, but Justin and I did not visit any gay locales during this trip.

Paper Lantern in Gion District

Gion District:
Across the river, East of the downtown core, the famous Gion district begins. The Gion district is recognized for maintaining old Kyoto’s style, seen in it’s original wooden tea houses.

Gion district is also supposed to be the best place for spotting Geishas which we didn’t spot- we did get to see a few Maiko (Geisha apprentices) however, walking along the streets in beautiful kimonos. Elaborate Geisha shows can be visited in Gion district, but are quite pricey (starting at about CDN$90 per person).

The Yasaka Shrine, on the edge of the city’s central shopping district, has a very beautiful 2-storey gateway beaming in bright orange. The shrine contains a few buildings that, although pretty, don’t compare to the gateway, and lead towards a small relaxing park with a pond, home to friendly ducks.

Hidden among the old wooden houses (which are beautiful in themselves), are various small parks and temples.

Me, Overlooking Nijo Castle

Me, Overlooking Nijo Castle

-Nijō Castle:
Located a few blocks NorthWest from the downtown area, The Nijō Castle was built in 1603 at the beginning of the Edo period, as a sign of prestige, signaling the demise of the emperor’s power.

The castle is less pretentious than other Feudal castles (such as the Himeji Castle in Himeji, Japan) on the outside. The inside of the castle, however, is beautifully decorated with screen paintings depicting nature (trees through various seasons on gold backgrounds, animals and birds), and ornate sculpted ceilings.

The castle also has unique “nightingale floors” which squeak as visitors step on them; the squeaking was used as a security alarm against intruders.

The gardens surrounding the Nijō Castle, full of trees, landscaped gardens and lakes, are also quite spectacular. In late April, when we visited, hundreds of cherry blossoms were right in bloom.

The ruins of a burnt-down tower in the castle grounds, offer great views of the castle grounds from above.

Imperial Palace Park:
As a previous capital of Japan, Kyoto has an Imperial Palace similar to that of Tokyo. The palace is closed to the public and is not as picturesque as the one in Tokyo, but the park surrounding it are quite beautiful on a sunny day.
A coupld small shrine areas provide nice places to stroll arounf leisurely.

The Randen Streetcar, which has its first stop at Shijo-Omiya (right across the street from the Toyoko Inn Kyoto Shijo-Omiya, connects central Kyoto with Northwestern Kyoto.
The street car ride (which contains two lines) is not only inexpensive (about CDN$5 for an all-day pass!), but also a scenic ride along beautiful Kyoto neighbourhoods.

The Arashiyama district is located about 25 minutes from Central Kyoto, on the last stop of the red “Arashiyama Main Line” of the Randen Streetcar.
The district contains multiple very beautiful Japanese zen gardens as well as various temples and shrines (all of which charge about CDN$5 for the entrance).

A large natural park Kameyama-Kōen, has various beautiful hiking trails  along the Katsura River and up into the Arahima mountains. From the top (a moderate hike of about 25 minutes), beautiful views of the river come to view. On the day we visited, the top of the mountains were covered with a light mist, and the landscape with multi-coloured trees and the turquoise river below was breathtaking.. Wild monkeys are supposed to roam in this area, but we didn’t see any.

Kinkaku-ji - The Golden Temple

Kinkaku-ji – The Golden Temple

-Kinkaku-ji : The Golden Temple
The Golden Temple can be reached a 15-minute walk from the last stop of the blue “Kitano Line” on the Randen Streetcar.

The golden temple is one of Japan’s most recognized sights. The original golden pavilion, built in 1397, was burnt-down by a mentally-unstable monk, and the temple was re-constructed by 1955, following the original design.

As an added bonus, the gold-leaf covering of the building (which originally only covered the walls of the third and smaller story) was extended into the walls of the second story, making it shine a little brighter.

The Golden Pavilion, surrounded by a beautiful pond, is topped by a glimmering bronze phoenix.

The gardens surrounding are pretty, but the highlight is definitely stolen by the glimmering golden building. The building is really impressive and really stands out, even in a rainy day.

The southern parts of Northern Kyoto can be reached by Subway, but from there, large amounts of walking are required, so bring comfortable shoes! – buses are also available; we opted for more scenic walking routes on the way there, and a very quick bus into the downtown core on the way back.

Heian Jingū Shrine Building

Heian Jingū Shrine Building

-Heian-Jingū Shrine
This is Kyoto’s newest shrine, built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the establishment of Kyoto.

The main building of the Shrine is impressive in size (built to scale of two-thirds of the Kyoto Imperial palace main building). Most striking are the bright colours of the buildings, shimmering in bright orange-red and white, and topped with Jade-coloured tile roofs. A gigantic metal orange torii (apparently one of the biggest torii in all of Japan) about 500 metres away from the shrine complex is the official entry way to the shrine.

The main area of the shrine complex is free of charge, but a separate garden has an entry fee (I opted not to go in, so I cannot comment much on it).

Philosopher’s Walk

The Philosopher’s Walk
One of Kyoto’s most peaceful retreats within the city, is the famed Philosopher’s walk. The name was awarded to this beautiful walk after Kyoto university philosophy professor Nishida Kitaro, as this was his daily walk routine.

The 1.5km walk follows a cherry blossom-lined canal. Shops, cafes and restaurants are scattered all throughout the walk, as well as other beautiful sights, starting with the stunning Nanzen-ji, a Meiji-period aqueduct, and ending with the Ginkaku-ji, the famed “Silver Pavilion.

The philosopher’s walk is truly peaceful and contains very picturesque spots, and should be included in any visit to Kyoto.

Ginkaku-ji: The Silver Pavilion

Ginkaku-ji: The Silver Pavilion

Ginkaku-ji: The Silver Pavilion
The Silver Pavilion was meant to be covered in silver but was never completed after the offset of the Onin war. That’s the reason why the building, which in actuality is wooden in colour, received such name.

The building, topped with a silver phoenix (just like the bronze phoenix atop the Golden Pavilion) is beautiful in itself, but more stunning are the surrounding gardens. A wide gravel garden at the entrance is raked to perfection (including the biggest raked-gravel perfectly shaped!- mound I’ve ever seen).

Easy hiking paths along the temple’s grounds lead up moss-covered hills and provide beautiful views of the Silver Pavilion below, surrounded by ponds and greenery, and parts of the city in the distance.

Kamo River

Kamo River

The path along both sides of the Kamo River is very scenic. On a sunny day, Justin and I rented bicycles from our hotel for CDN$15 for the entire day.

While biking through the city itself can be a little tricky, with cars and hundreds of other bicycle riders getting in the way, the path along the Kamo river is a very peaceful ride. We spent about 7 hours biking along the paths and trailing off into the city for a couple of times, and it was one of my favourite days in the entire three weeks we spent in Japan.

At times along the riverside, we stopped to enjoy the view, listen to a saxophone player, admire wild falcons flying around, and later in the day sat at sunset with a couple of Asahi strong drinks, while listening to a DJ playing loud dance music in a small island in the middle of the river.


Kyoto is easily accessible from Osaka airport by transfer (about 1-hour away) and by train from Tokyo in about 3 hours. Kobe and Osaka are both in the region, about 1 hour away, and Hiroshima is about 2.5hours away all by train.

From Kyoto, we took a day trip to Nara, about 1.5hours away by train.

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