Kyoto is lined with old rustic streets which give it a charming but almost a slightly melancholic feel to it too. It was the old imperial capital for more than a millennium before Tokyo took over in 1868. It is located in Honshu, the center island of Japan and although, Kyoto is the name of the entire prefecture, tourists usually only tend to visit the main area of Kyoto town.
Below is a compilation of famous attractions that fit a two-day itinerary, and covers the basics of Kyoto’s attractions if you are just stopping by on a rail pass or only have a weekend to spare. Now who’s up for visiting all 2000 of Kyoto’s shrines and temples?!
Coming from Fushimi-Inari station, the walk to the main shrine takes about 10 minutes and goes through a shopping street of local merchandise and street food and family-inn restaurants. The inari sushi, kitsune udon, and grilled quail are worth a try! Inari sushi is rice in a sweetened bean curd skin wrap, and as plain, as it sounds, it is one of the best simple variations of sushi around. From the main shrine, it takes about an hour to climb up the famed thousand vermillion torii gates to the top of Mt Inari and back. As this is a popular destination, the paths are crowded even on weekdays.
The quaint town of Arashiyama houses the UNESCO Heritage Site Tenryu-ji and the bamboo grove forest. Take the Keihan line to Gion-Shijo and walk over the charming bridge to Kawaramachi station. Spot Kyotoites sitting on the bank of the river or feeding the ducks, egrets, and eagles from the bridge. Then continue on the Hankyu Kyoto line towards Arashiyama.
Arashiyama’s Zen roots run deep. The first Zen temple Danrin-ji was founded by Empress Tachibana no Kachiko in the 9th century and sat on the current site of Tenryu-ji. After that, lose yourself in the bamboo forest which is only a short walk further down from Tenryu-ji. The bamboo forest often leaves one both overwhelmed and subdued by its muted beauty and tranquility. Nonomiya Shrine is a known spot for prayers and wishes and was also the holy spot of purification for imperial princesses before assuming a place at the mecca of Shintoism, the Ise Grand Shrine, in The Tale of Genji.
On a side note, the yondan (四段) four-layer soft serve of marron, hojicha (roasted barley) tea, matcha and vanilla at a store right before the entrance of the bamboo path is easily the best I’ve had in Kyoto. It even comes with a waffle not wafer cone. Dango (団子), or skewered mochi rice balls, are also available in various flavors. The main street is also lined with restaurants and a myriad of souvenir and craft shops.
Head back the same way to downtown Kyoto in the evening and spend the evening in Gion, Kyoto’s geisha and entertainment district. Enjoy a night of exquisite kaiseki, Kyoto’s specialty multi-course meal, or a geisha show if you have the cash to splash. Some of the girls in kimono on the streets are actually tourists who rented kimonos, but it’s still a sight to behold. A lucky friend once caught a glimpse of a geisha entertaining a corporate group in a private party at an ochaya teahouse restaurant. Otherwise, it’s pretty rare to see an actual geisha or maiko walking along the alleys. That said, still do give heed to the signs that warn against photographing or harassing geisha! The most popular street is Hanamikoji street, an old alleyway of traditional wooden machiya merchant houses.
Start the morning off with the sprawling grounds of Kiyomizu Temple. The temple gets its name, meaning Clear Water, from a spring that runs through it from the mountains. There is always a long line of people waiting to wash their hands with this holy water. You may also get your fortune for the year with omikuji, which is a numbered lot that you get by shaking a large container of numbered sticks.
Beside the main temple, there is also a shrine for love and fate. There are two stones spaced 18 meters apart, and lone visitors who managed to walk to the other stone with their eyes closed are supposedly blessed to find love. After that, continue on out to the shopping street which is filled with omiyage, or food souvenir stores. A soft mochi dumpling (八つ橋 yatsuhashi), is the specialty of Kyoto and comes in a dozen flavors, which you may freely sample.
Ginkaku-ji and the Philosopher’s Path
Get on the bus toward Ginkaku-ji, which translates to the Temple of the Silver Pavilion. Officially named Jishō-ji, or Temple of Shining Mercy, the temple is a meditation ground for Zen Buddhism which dates back to the 15th century. It is well known for the Zen garden patterns drawn in gravel in the Japanese garden, which lines the main two-storied pavilion. Various elements such as the symmetry of the entrance, the wabi-sabi quality of the main pavilion and the shape of its windows project Zen thought.
Take a stroll down Philosopher’s Path, which a philosophy professor at the Kyoto University walked on every day while practicing meditation. From the main street, you may also get a view of Mt. Daimonji which has a huge 大 character on it that is set on fire during the annual Obon festival.
Take the bus to Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It is a Zen Buddhist temple famous for its brilliant shiny gold leaf temple. The three-storey pavilion is built in three distinct architectural styles: shinden, shoin, and zen-syu. Shinden was the residential aristocratic style in the 11th century. Kinkaku-ji, like many of the temples or castles in Japan, was burnt in battle previously. However, the integrity and intent of the exterior are still well preserved.
Kyoto is easily accessible from Tokyo via a two and half hour shinkansen or six-hour bus ride, depending on your budget. To save on a night’s accommodation, night buses that leave at midnight and arrive in the morning are also an option if you’re not a light or fussy sleeper. Public transport within Kyoto is also a walk in the park with an extensive network of buses and trains, as well as options for single or multiple day passes.
Some of the other attractions that may be substituted or visited if time permits are Nijo Castle and Ryoan-ji, which is also the imperial tomb for seven emperors. Kyoto is a beautiful city that reflects much of its history in its architecture and beauty. Two days is definitely not enough for a deeper, spiritual understanding, but this itinerary will provide a basic guide to sum up Kyoto’s beauty in two days!