Kyoto Travel Guide: Eastern Kyoto, one of the most beautiful cities in Japan with its luscious gardens, serene rock display, and fabulous food.
This past summer, we took a 3 day trip to Kyoto. Mr. JOC was particularly looking forward to the trip because it’s his favorite city in Japan. Armed with a couple iphones and comfortable shoes, our adventure begins.
From Tokyo to Kyoto, the fastest way is to take the Tokaido Shinkansen (bullet train) and it takes roughly 2 hrs and 20 min. A train leaves from Tokyo every 10 min from 6 AM to 9 PM every day of the week so you’re fairly flexible on when you want to leave and get there. At the Shin-Yokohama Shinkansen station, one of our favorite things to do is for each person to pick their favorite bento and food to eat on the train. Right above the station, Takashimaya mall has over 20 food stalls that offer everything from pork cutlet sandwich to sushi.
If you don’t have time to shop before your train departs, don’t worry, they sell bentos and drinks on the trains as well. If you are coming from Osaka instead of Tokyo, you can save quite a bit by taking the local Keihan Line, depending on where you are the fare is about ¥1,200 – 1,500 vs. ¥3,200.
When you arrive in Kyoto, you can get a 2-day unlimited pass in the Municipal Subway stations for ¥2,000 (¥1,000 for children). They also have the 1-day unlimited pass available. Keep in mind the pass only covers the city bus and the Kyoto Municipal Subway, and does not include the JR line or the Keihan line. However, between the metro and the bus routes, you should be able to get to almost every place you would want to visit.
The subway line is composed of 2 lines, one that runs east west (Tozai Line) and one that runs north south (Kasaruma Line).
The most important thing about transportation in Kyoto is to wear super comfortable shoes. You’ll be doing a lot of walking in Kyoto so make sure to bring great walking shoes when visiting. I also recommend carrying water bottles around to stay hydrated especially in the summer months.
Before talking about where to visit in Kyoto, I want to mention a travel website I found on this trip JapaniCan.com. It’s actually operated by JTB which is one of the largest travel agencies in Japan. The reason why I want to mention this is when we visited Kyoto 10 years ago, Mr. JOC and I got a tiny room but a super great location in the middle of the city. Now with our children, we need to find a room that fits all of us.
We ended up staying at the Westin Miyako Hotel because it can sleep 4 in the room (4 beds!) and the JapaniCan site was $200 cheaper per night compared to the Westin site. That’s right, $200 savings! The room was very spacious and had a view of the Westin’s ryokan (Japanese style rooms) in the back. There are both indoor and outdoor pools as well as a fitness center, but there is a cost to using the facilities.
Now on to Kyoto. Kyoto is quite special for a few reasons:
- It used to be the former capital of Japan until the capital moved to Tokyo in 1869
- There are over 2,000 religious buildings (1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto Shrines), if you visit 5 a day it’ll take you more than a year to see all of them.
- 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 38 Buildings designated as National Treasures, 160 properties designated as Important Cultural Properties
- 8 gardens designated as Special Places of Scenic Beauty, Movie studio theme park
- Amazing Japanese food (Kyo ryori), Tea, Gion Matsuri Festival, and on and on
This means unless you are going to spend over a month in Kyoto, it’s won’t be possible just to see the featured sites. What I recommend is plan ahead what you really want to see and do. Over 30 million visitors come to Kyoto each year so destinations do get crowded.
You also don’t want to spend too much time traveling across the city, so try to stay within a section of the city to maximize your time. Going from Ginkakuji on the east all the way west to Arashiyama area takes about 1 hr 15 min. To save traveling time and help you plan, I’ve listed the points of interest by where they are located in the city. They are by no means a comprehensive list but I do want to share with you my experiences.
As I mentioned in my previous post about visiting Asakusa, get a data plan for your smartphone in Japan. It’s very easy to get around Kyoto with guidance from Google Maps (even though it did send us down the wrong way once, more on that later). Since there is so much to do and see in Kyoto, I’m going to share 3 separate posts, covering the eastern parts, then the central & west side, and of course, the food.
Click the image below to enlarge
East Side of Kyoto
I am not from Kyoto so I’m not sure if my reference is correct, but when I said the east side of Kyoto, I meant if you use Kyoto station as the center, here are the locations I’ve visited the east of it going from North to South.
Click the image to enlarge
Ginkaku-ji 銀閣寺 (read more)
Did you know Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) is actually the nickname for Jisho-ji (慈照寺) even though it’s the more commonly used name? Ginkaku-ji was completed around 1489 by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as a villa for him to relax and reflect. When he passed away the villa was converted to a Buddhist temple. The temple’s main feature is the Kannon Hall, which was originally supposed to be covered in silver foil. He had built a style of the pavilion is similar to Kinkaku-ji, built by his grandfather Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.
The garden is beautiful and peaceful and the Kannon Hall blends in perfectly, as though it belongs exactly where it sits. Besides enjoying the garden grounds, the sand garden and sculptures are also must-see.
Philosopher’s Path 哲学の道 (read more)
As you exit Ginkaku-ji and reflect on its beauty, just a few blocks away is the beginning of the scenic Philosopher’s Path. The path is roughly 1 ¼ miles long (2km) and lined with cherry trees. This path is especially popular during the cherry blossom viewing season when it’s in full bloom. Along the path, there are a number of temples to see as well as shops and restaurants. This path was named because Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro used to meditate on the path as part of his daily walk to Kyoto University. At the end of the path, you will end up near Nanzenji.
Nanzen-ji 南禅寺 (read more)
Nanzen-ji is an impressive temple ground built in 1264 (over 700 years ago). Emperor Kameyama loved the location so much that he built his detached palace here, and later on converted the palace to a zen temple in 1291.
The original buildings were destroyed in a fire in the 16th century and some of the current buildings were rebuilt then. Among the main features of the temple ground include Sanmon (main gate), the zen rock garden (created in the 1600s), the paintings of tigers which decorate the sliding doors of the room, and the view of the aqueduct that connects Lakes Biwa to Kyoto.
Gion 祇園 (read more)
From Nanzen-ji, you can hop on the Tozai line at Keage station to Sanjokeihan station to spend some time at Gion, the best-known geisha district in Japan. In Gion, you feel as though you’re transported to another time (actually most of Kyoto feels that way to me) with the beautiful traditional Japanese structures lining the streets. There is plenty of entertainment and dining options in Gion, from exotic specialty restaurants to traditional Japanese food.
When you’re there, don’t miss walking on Hanami-koji & Shirakawa-minami Dori and enjoy what’s it’s like to walk around in historic Japan. Try visiting Gion both during the daytime and nighttime as the feeling is completely different.
Nearby Gion is Yasaka Shrine, known to host the one of Japan’s biggest festival – Gion Matsuri. It is also one of the few shrines that are open at night and beautifully lit. Oh, by the way, it’s only 1,300 years old.
Kiyomizu-dera 清水寺 (read more)
From Gion, you can take bus 206, 100, 207, or 80 to Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple that’s part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. What’s so cool about this temple? When it was built in 1633, not a single nail was used in the process. Once you see it you’ll think, how’s that even possible as it perches high on the hilltop. As you get off the bus, it’s a ½ mile hike up the hill to get to the temple. Along the way up on Matsubara Dori and other small roads, there are many shops and restaurants for you to browse if you want to take a break. We had a great tofu meal there at Okutan which I’ll share in my 3rd post about Kyoto food.
The view looking at downtown Kyoto from the terrace at the temple’s main hall is breathtaking.
As you make your way around the main hall and down the steps, the structure looks even more grand and impressive.
At the bottom of the hill, you can refresh yourself with the streams from Otowa Waterfall. As we were leaving there was small food stall selling shaved ice and we ordered my daughter’s favorite Strawberry and my Ujikintoki (Green Tea Shaved Ice) to share. Stretch out your legs and relax a bit as there is a bit more walking ahead.
Fushimi Inari Taisha 伏見稲荷大社 (read more)
From Kiyomizu-Dera to Fushimi Inari, you have a few options. You can either take the 206 bus to Shichijo and then jump on the Keihan line or walk directly to Kiyomizu Gojo station to take the Keihan line. Keep in mind Keihan line is not covered by your pass so you’ll need to pay for the train fare.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is known for its thousands of Torii gates donated by businesses across Japan. Fushimi Inari is the head shrine of Inari, originally God of crops and agriculture but now worshiped by all industries.
The main shrine was built in 1499 is at the bottom of the hill, but there are many smaller shrines up the hill. It’ll take 1 hour to reach the top and another 30 minutes to descent. Ever wonder what’s carved on the other side of the gates, it’s the name of business or individuals and where they are from on one side, and the date on another column. You’ll see many fox statues all over the shrine as they are considered the messenger for Inari god.
Having fun so far? Get your legs rested, as we have quite a bit more of Kyoto to cover in the next post (Read the Part 2 Kyoto Japan Guide – West Side & Kyoto Station now). Thank you so much for reading, and till next time!
Update: Each month 20% of proceeds from selling my eBook will go to charity. As I promised, I donated to Global Giving“Ebola Epidemic Relief Fund” for July. Thank you for those who purchased the eCookbook!