A lot of images come to mind when a person thinks of the city Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital of Japan. Women dressed in colourful kimonos walking the olden streets of Gion, long-standing Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines scattered throughout, a long river in the heart of the populated city full of children playing on a summer day, tall bamboo forests that block out the sun on the mountainside, or maybe the image of sitting for a traditional cup of bitter, green matcha tea with sweets on the side. What images enter your thoughts?
Last year on July 11th (yesterday!), I left Japan to return to Canada. I was in the Kansai area for almost two weeks when I stayed at my good friend’s house in Osaka. During that time, I am reminded of two distinct days where I had an adventure in Kyoto. The first was a sunny morning when I traveled to Kyoto on my own to explore the temples and shrines, hike up Fushimi Inari, visit some natural areas, and get lost in the city. My friend was busy that day, so it was a solo trip. Traveling alone is a lot of fun as well since you’re free to your own whims without worrying about another. It’s also a chance to discover yourself and what you might do in the face of adversity. The second day I went to Kyoto was a slightly overcast morning when I went to go visit another friend who lived in the area. This time around I was able to be shown around so I could visit her favourite locations in the city, encompassing the entire list in the paragraph above and more! Company is great as you can share the beauty and experiences with another. Both times I took the train to Kyoto from Osaka, and I’ll never stop being impressed by the convenience of Japanese metropolitan transit systems. Trains are awesome!
On my solo trip to Kyoto, my friend dropped me off at the station and off I went to a new city. I took the Keihan Main Line (京阪本線) all the way from Osaka to Kyoto. I had bought a day pass during my flight to Kansai Airport (using Peach Airlines) which allowed free travel on the Keihan Main Line within the city of Kyoto. I was able to use this to get from station to station both ways to get from one sightseeing spot to another (including all the way back home). It’s nice to have the freedom to travel around, though my Suica card (Japanese metro card) has always come in handy since I bought it back in 2015.
My first stop was the final stop on the railway; I went all the way to Demachiyanagi Station (出町柳駅). This is where the majestic Kamo River flows through the city and in the summer couples sit on the banks in their fruitful romance and children play in the water catching bugs. Many people come to watch birds while in sight of the mountains on the horizon. From here I was able to walk through the neighbourhoods in order to reach various Shinto shrines in the area to pay my respects and admire the beautiful architecture. It’s possible to take a walk through the old growth forests to Shimogamo Shrine (下鴨神社) and Kamo Shrine (賀茂神社), tucked away in lush greenery in the summer time. I’ll never give up a chance to walk through some forests; the trees are calling me just like the mountains do. Tanabata festival (when the milky way connects so two star-crossed lovers can meet once a year – so romantic!) was coming up soon too; it’s a festival in early July. As a result, many trees had colourful paper slips with wishes written on them, gently blowing in the summer breeze.
After I had a leisurely walk through the forests to visit the Shinto shrines, I then took a bus to Kinkaku-ji, the golden temple in a peaceful Zen garden. The temple was rebuilt in 1955 after a series of fires in its history. It’s famous to visit in any season. In spring, you’ll be welcomed by the sight of pink cherry blossoms and vivid flowers flourishing throughout the garden. In the summer, the lush greenery and late seasonal flowers will be blooming alongside views of the high mountains in the background. Autumn is the most colourful time to visit, when the forests change into a symphony of reds, oranges, yellows, and browns. And during the winter, if you’re lucky, everything will be covered in a calm blanket of white snow and ice. City buses in Kyoto go to Kinkaku-ji; you can take Kyoto city bus #205 or #101. Pay on the bus, and pay for admission to the temple and garden too. It’s worth the view of this magnificent architectural pavilion that is covered in gold-leaf and has a golden roof ornament standing atop of a mythical beast, and then for the walk through the gardens. Try to find your inner peace while avoiding the crowds — that’s what I tried to do!
It’s also possible to walk to the Kyoto Imperial Palace from Demachiyanagi Station; however it’s closed off to the public on Mondays. Hours vary from season to season (9:00 to 17:00 (April to August), 9:00 to 16:30 (September and March), and 9:00 to 16:00 (October to February). Admission is free, and it’s quite large. It’ll take a good amount to walk around the entire palace so plan accordingly! I was pretty tuckered out just making it to the front gates on that hot day. Another reminder to drink plenty of fluids in the humid summer heat (vending machines are so useful), I’m looking out for you.
Afterwards, I took the train to Gion district (祇園). Gion is famous for its traditional Japanese architecture and for its history pertaining to Geisha (or in Gion, called Geiko). It’s a historical area with many teahouses and with many women and men donning kimonos and yukatas to walk around on pleasant days. On my solo trip I didn’t wear a kimono to walk around since I was trying to explore as much as I could. Though it was enough fun to see everyone dressed so well and in such bright colours simply enjoying their time out. I also knew by this timethat my other friend who I would visit wanted to rent kimonos to wear while we spend the day together. So I decided to walk around places I knew she wouldn’t take me, like Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社). It’s an old shrine, dating back over 1,000 years with beautiful red awnings standing on the top of steps in plain view from Gion station. I honestly can’t get enough of the history in Kyoto!
From Gion I decided to walk to the other temples and gardens in the area. Kyoto is a walkable city full of many side streets with unique views, twists and turns, and hidden gardens for quiet contemplation. Ryoan-ji has a rock garden, larger rocks sitting in a sea of gravel. What does it mean? Is it just art? Am I thinking about it too hard? Check it out and see for yourself. Daitoku-ji is another one with an amazing rock garden and floral beauties. In the autumn, the fall foliage is supposed to be breathtaking. Shoren-in also has lovely gardens with mountain views farther away from the tourists. Some gardens may even have nighttime illuminations to enjoy. There are numerous temples and gardens to visit; I certainly haven’t seen them all (unfortunately…/cry). The Gion district has a lot to explore, and maybe you’ll discover your own favourites on your trip.
My not so final stop was Fushimi Inari (伏見稲荷大社). I boarded the train from Gion (still on the Keihan Line) and on the train I had a brief conversation with a lady who moved from Kyushu to Kyoto for work. She missed her home, but loved the history of Kyoto. It’s easy to see why. Fushimi Inari also matched with the trend of shrines and temples around Kyoto because it is around 1300 years old. It was my dream to visit the abundant torii gates lining the mountain to the shrine of the Inari, with its messengers as foxes (kitsune: 狐). I saw pictures and had a voracious call in my heart to go (I absolutely love foxes).
My friend gave me some advice, which was not to visit at night. She warned me that the fox demon would take me to the spirit world as the torii gates are actually doors to the other world. I took her advice. I went right before sundown in the late afternoon. There are statues of foxes holding keys or jewels in its mouth, with many more depictions of foxes as one climbs the mountain and many more altars for Inari. At any shrine, wash your hands (and mouth) at the purification trough. At the offering box, you can throw in a coin, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, and bow deeply once more then pray. There’s even a heavy stone which you can lift to see if your wish will be granted (if it’s heavier than your guess, it will come true!). My wish came true, so I’ll leave that anecdote with you to do what you will. For Fushimi Inari, there is no entrance fee or closing time.
While climbing the up the sacred Mount Inari, which stands at 233 metres, there’s a lush wooded forest surrounding the torii gates and the pathways. It’s awe inspiring to think of the dedication to build all of those torii gates and to preserve the sanctity of the mountain. Also, from the main path, there’s another trail which leads to a bamboo forest as well. It’s a beautiful path and the bamboo is tall enough to block out the sun. If you don’t deviate from the main route up the mountain, it will take approximately an 60-90 minutes to reach the top, and then another 60 minutes to head back down. If you hike in the late summer and early autumn, you’ll like hear a symphony of cicadas in the mountains. Some people find them annoying, but I absolutely adore their songs. If you go in the summer, they haven’t come out yet so it’ll be a quieter walk.
It’s like traveling through time to visit the past.
Along the way I met a lady from Tokyo who was in Kyoto on business. She was hiking on her day off before her work in Kyoto began. We ended up hiking up half the mountain together, and all the way back down. She spoke excellent English and I can speak mediocre Japanese so there wasn’t any issue with communication. She told me it was her first time in Kyoto and she always wanted to see Fushimi Inari. We both managed to catch the sunset over Kyoto from the mountain as well. It was enjoyable to share the sights with another. I love being outdoors in nature, there’s always plenty to enjoy and surprised around every corner. On our way down we both enjoyed a bottle of Ramune (ラムネ) together. It was definitely refreshing after a long hike in the summer evenings. We parted ways as we were both taking different trains to our next locations.
My final stop on my trip to Kyoto was Eizan Cable (叡山ケーブル). It was a quick trip since the sun had already set. It was dark, and I took the last trip up the funicular. It was a little scary since I was all alone at night, and I would be stranded on the mountain if the funicular left without me. The driver told me he’d leave in 35min, so I ran up the trailhead to Enryaku-ji (延暦寺). I like to play risky games. There were beautiful stone lanterns igniting part of the pathway to the temple. I was only able to see Amida Hall, but it was quite lovely in the darkness of the night. The red temple was standing tall, only illuminated by lanterns in the distance. I briefly walked around, but paranoid I’d miss the cable car ride back down. I play it risky, but I am too anxious to make high bets. So I ran back down the pathway to the ropeway in order to catch the train back to my friend’s house at night.
It was a long and quiet ride back, but I was happy to sit down to rest my tired feet. My friend met me at the train station and I told her about my day as we walked back to her place so I could rest, and so then we could go to Nara the next day, and Hiroshima the day after. It was a busy schedule that we had planned!
I ate a lot in order to keep my energy up to walk around the entire day. Kyoto is famous for its cuisine since it is dripping in history and tradition. Of course I drank tea since the city is famous for its high quality matcha. For lunch I had Obanzai Ryouri, a meal of multiple small dishes cooked using seasonal ingredients. My meal was around 2500yen. It came with soup, rice, seasonal vegetables, friend tofu, fish, a seaweed salad, and served with green tea as well. It was definitely a healthy meal. It helped balance out the snacks I ate, consisting of dango (glutinous rice balls with savoury and sweet sauce) taiyaki (fish waffles with red bean filling), and hogyokudo. Hoygyokudo is a speciality of Fushimi Inari. It’s a fox face shaped cookie that is baked by hand every day. They’re fragrant and crunchy, mmmm!
That was my first day in Kyoto. I had ideas of what to expect, but it is always different to actually be in the location. I was wonderstruck since it was more amazing than I imagined. It had beautiful architecture, friendly people, delicious food, stunning natural beauty, and an overall vibe I definitely loved. I’ll write about my next adventure in Kyoto soon! Take care and thank you for reading!