Since coming to Japan, I have not done so much traveling. So this year I have decided to try and get out more and see some sights of Japan. I have heard so many people talk about Kyoto and the many shrines & temples that are there. So, I took some time off during Obon to go take a look and see what this was all about. I found an itinerary for suggested places to go and see over a three day period in Kyoto. These suggested itineraries for Kyoto cover the main attractions in Kyoto.
I left Nagoya by car at 9am, and heard many people talking about how bad the traffic would be during the holidays… it was not all that bad, felt more like typical rush hour. My overall consensus is that too many people don’t know how to drive, thus causing congestion on the highways. I was still able to make it to Kyoto by 11am!
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine – Well known and made famous in countless photographs for the thousands of vermilion torii gates, offerings by worshippers, lining the hiking trails of Inarisan, the wooded mountain behind the shrine’s main shrine building. It takes about two hours to walk along the whole trail. Fushimi Inari Shrine is the most famous of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari across Japan. Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and foxes are thought to be his messengers. Therefore, many fox statues can be found at Inari shrines.
Kitsune Udon (“Fox Udon”), a noodle soup topped with pieces of aburaage (fried tofu), a favorite food of foxes, is served at small restaurants along the hiking trail.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple (“Pure Water Temple”) one of several Buddhist Japanese temples, but one of the best known sights of Kyoto and most visited temples in Japan.
Kiyomizu-dera stands in the wooded hills of eastern Kyoto and offers a nice view over the city from its famous wooden terrace. Below the terrace, you can taste the spring water, which gives the temple its name and which is said to have healing power.
Behind Kyomizu-dera’s main hall stands Jishu Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the deity of love. In front of the shrine are two rocks, placed several meters apart from each other. Successfully walking from one to the other rock with your eyes closed is said to bring luck in your love life.
Part of the fun of visiting Kiyomizu-dera is the approach to the temple along the steep and busy lanes of the atmospheric Higashiyama district. Except early in the morning, do not expect a tranquil, spiritual atmosphere.
The many shops, restaurants and ryokan in the area have been catering to tourists and pilgrims for centuries. Products on sale range from local specialties such as Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, sweets and pickles to the standard set of souvenirs.
Gion – Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, and one of the city’s most popular attractions. The district lies in the city center around Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine and the Kamo River, and is filled with ochaya (teahouses where geisha entertain), theaters, shops and restaurants.
Many people visit Gion hoping to catch a glimpse of a geisha or geisha apprentice (referred to as geiko and maiko respectively in Kyoto), and if you are lucky you may be able to see one in the evenings on their way to or from an engagement at an ochaya teahouse.
You may also encounter maiko walking around other parts of Kyoto such as the Higashiyama district around Kiyomizu-dera. However, these are typically tourists who have visited one of the local studios to dress up as a maiko and take pictures.
The ultimate experience is being entertained by a geisha while dining at an ochaya. As expert hostesses, geisha ensure everyone’s enjoyment by engaging in light conversation with guests, serving drinks, leading drinking games and performing traditional music and dance. Unfortunately, the services of geisha are expensive and require an introduction, making it difficult for most travelers to experience.
Kyoto’s other geisha districts are Pontocho, a narrow street across the Kamo River from Gion, and tightly packed with restaurants and bars; and the Kamishichiken district near Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, consisting of seven teahouses built using the extra materials from the shrine’s last reconstruction.
Gion’s main attractions are its traditional wooden machiya style merchant houses, built in a design characteristic of Kyoto. Due to the fact that property taxes were based upon street frontage, the houses were built with narrow facades only five to six meters wide, but extend up to twenty meters in from the street.
The most popular area of Gion is along Hanami-koji street from Shijo Avenue to Kenninji Temple. A nice place to dine, the street is lined with preserved merchant houses which now serve as high-end restaurants that mainly specialize in kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine and a specialty of Kyoto), although there are restaurants specializing in other types of food as well.
The restaurants around Hanami-koji are typically expensive. Interspersed among them are a number of ochaya teahouses, the most exclusive and expensive of Kyoto’s dining establishments. Hanami-koji is usually crowded, and unfortunately there are no restrictions on automobile traffic on the street.
Another scenic part of Gion is the Shirakawa Area which runs along the Shirakawa Canal parallel to Shijo Avenue. The canal is lined by willow trees, high class restaurants and ochaya teahouses, many of which have rooms overlooking the canal. As it is a little off the beaten path, the Shirakawa Area is typically quieter and with a more seasonal atmosphere than Hanami-koji.
A more accessible experience is the cultural show held everyday at Gion Corner, an art center at the end of Hanami-koji. Aimed at foreign tourists, the show is a highly concentrated introduction to several traditional Japanese arts and include short performances of a tea ceremony, ikebana, bunraku, Kyogen comic plays and dances performed by real maiko. Alternatively, check out the Miyako Odori, held in April, featuring daily dance performances by maiko.
A visit to Gion is best combined with a stroll through the nearby Higashiyama district between Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizu-dera. This area has more preserved streets and traditional shops selling all kinds of souvenirs and foods including many Kyoto specialties, such as folding fans and Yatsuhashi sweets.