Kyoto – Quick, Complete 3 Day Tour

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.

Day One:

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.

Day Two:

Nijo Castle – which includes Nimomaru Palace and Honmaru Palace, various support buildings and several Japanese gardens. Nijo Castle (Nijojo) was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Edo Shogunate, as the Kyoto residence for himself and his successors.

The palace building, now known as Ninomaru (“secondary castle”), was completed in 1603 and enlarged by Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu. It survives in its original form and is famous for its Momoyama architecture, decorated sliding doors and floors that squeak like nightingales when someone walks on them (a security measure against intruders).

Iemitsu also added the Honmaru (“main castle”) including a five storied castle tower to Nijo Castle. However, the original honmaru structures were destroyed by fires in the 18th century, and the present building was moved there from the Imperial Palace in 1893.

Ginkaku-ji – Silver Pavilion – a Zen temple at the foot of Kyoto’s Higashiyama (“eastern mountains”), built in the style of the Golden Pavilion with a famous rock and sand garden. The temple is formally known as Tozan Jishoji.

In 1482, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built his retirement villa on the grounds of today’s temple. A few years later, the Silver Pavilion, modeled after Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), was constructed. It is popularly known as Ginkaku, the “Silver Pavilion” because of the initial plans to cover its exterior in silver foil. Despite the intention to cover the structure with a distinctive silver-foil overlay, this work was delayed for so long that the plans were never realized before Yoshimasa’s death. The present appearance of the structure is understood to be the same as when Yoshimasa himself last saw it. The villa was converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimasa’s death in 1490. This “unfinished” appearance illustrates one of the aspects of “wabi-sabi” quality.

**Construction Notice: The main building of Ginkakuji is currently being renovated and covered by a scaffold. Works are scheduled to be completed by spring 2010.

The Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku no michi) – is a pleasant stone path through the northern part of Kyoto’s Higashiyama district. The path follows a canal which is lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Usually in early April these trees explode with color, making this one of the city’s most popular hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spots.

Approximately two kilometers long, the path begins around Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and ends in the neighborhood of Nanzenji. The path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University.

Heian Jingu Shine – Largest Torii in Japan plus beautiful shrine and gardens. Heian Jingu shrine is famous for having the largest torii in Japan. Heian Jingu also features a wonderful Japanese garden.

Heian Shrine was built relatively recently in 1895 on the occasion of the 1,100th anniversary of the Heian Capital foundation. It is dedicated to the first and last emperors that reigned from Kyoto, Emperor Kammu and Emperor Komei.

The shrine buildings are a partial replica of the Imperial Palace of the Heian Period, but only about two thirds of the original buildings in scale. Several events are held on the shrine’s spacious inner court occasionally.

A nice garden is located behind the shrine’s main buildings. A visit is most beautiful in April, when the garden’s many weeping cherry trees are in full bloom. An admission fee applies only to visiting the garden.

Yasaka Shrine – is also known as Gion Shrine, is famous for its Gion Matsuri, one of Japan’s largest festivals. It is located at the eastern end of Shijo-dori and is one of the city’s most popular shrines. The many lanterns that decorate the shrine’s stage are lit after dark and bear the names of their sponsors, mostly Kyoto businesses.

Day Three:

Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto Gosho) – The Imperial residence when Kyoto was the capital of Japan. It was the Imperial Palace for Japan’s Imperial Family until 1868, when the emperor and capital were moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. It is located in the spacious Kyoto Imperial Park.

The palace burnt down and was moved around the city several times over the centuries. The present reconstruction dates from 1855. The palace complex is enclosed by a long wall and consists of several gates, halls and gardens. The enthronement ceremonies of Emperors Taisho and Showa were still held in the palace’s main hall, but the present Emperor’s ceremony took place at the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

->The palace can be visited only on guided tours held by the Imperial Household Agency. In order to join a tour, you need to apply for permission in advance with your passport at the agency’s office in the Kyoto Imperial Park. Reservations over the internet are also possible.

To book a tour, you need to apply in advance with your passport at the Imperial Household Agency’s office in Kyoto Imperial Park. Reservations are often possible on the same day as the intended visit. The agency office is open Monday to Friday from 8:45 to 12:00 and from 13:00 to 17:00.

Additionally, a small number of tour spots are available for reservation over the agency’s website, however, these often get booked out. Online reservations must be completed several days before the intended visit.

Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku) – is a Zen temple formally known as Rokuonji and surround by beautiful Japanese gardens. The temple is literally covered in gold – gold leaf and probably the most famous Japanese temples. Kinkakuji was converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimitsu’s death in 1408.

Ryoan-ji Temple – Famous for its Zen garden, which is considered to be one of the most notable examples of the “dry-landscape” style. The garden consists of raked gravel and fifteen moss-covered boulders, which are placed so that, when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time. It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder. Some say it is the quintessence of Zen art, and perhaps the single greatest masterpiece of Japanese culture. The meaning of the garden’s arrangement is unknown and up to each visitor’s interpretation. It is considered to be one of the top three Japanese gardens in Japan. Ryoanji is a Zen temple in northwestern Kyoto.

**Also, if facing the garden from the far right and about 8 feet back a person of about 1.82m(6ft) in height can see all 15 boulders, though the small boulder farthest to the left appears to be part of the much larger boulder immediately next to it.

**Construction Notice: Ryoanji is currently being renovated until February 2010. The temple will remain open during the renovation period except between January 5 and February 25, 2010, when the temple will be closed.

Tenryuji Temple – is a Zen temple in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto, is famous for its gardens, history and religious significance. It has been ranked first among the city’s “Five Great Zen Temples”. The temple, like many other temples burnt down several times over its history. The current buildings date from the Meiji Period. Muso Soseki, the temple’s founding abbot and famous garden designer, created Tenryuji’s landscape garden which, unlike the temple buildings, survived the many fires and is considered one of the oldest of its kind.

Kyoto Station has Japan’s second-largest train station building and is one of the country’s largest buildings, incorporating a department store, hotel, theater, game center, shopping mall, government offices, various restaurants and an observation deck can be found on the facility’s 15+ floors. The new Kyoto Station building was built on the occasion of the 1,200th anniversary of the Heian Capital foundation. It was opened to the public in 1997 and stands in perfect contrast with many foreign tourists’ image of Kyoto as the capital of traditional Japan.