My bowl of udon tempura was so small, it fit into the palm of my hand. I couldn’t eat it either, because the chopsticks were the size of toothpicks. It was, however, extremely fun to make. In Mayuka’s Bonchi studio of miniature plastic food, we sliced tiny clay noodles, painted little shallots, and poured epoxy glue soup. From UNESCO temples to making models of noodle soup, Kyoto is a fun place that never seems to run out of things to do.
Kyoto is completely charismatic. This is a city that celebrates Japan’s past in gorgeous snapshots – from the stone streets and lovely wooden machiya houses of Gion, illuminated lanterns outside cozy riverside restaurants, golden temples, and even the stunning colours of Kyoto’s natural forests, this brilliant city is the heart of Japanese culture.
Higashiyama historic town
Most visitors visit Gion on their first trip to Kyoto. There’s a good reason for this – besides the obvious aesthetic charm – Gion is a glimpse into a Japan from another time. And it feels like it, too. Many streets are sleepy pedestrian-only alleyways and gentle steps, so cars feel like a distant memory. The flat stonework underfoot and traditional shops and houses in the machiya style all contribute to a feeling that you might be witnesses feudal Japan.
The little things, barely noticed at first, are fascinating. Straw charms hanging over doorways, and warrior figurines positioned above doorways protect the household. Lanterns swaying beside entrances have symbols on them, specific to the part of Kyoto that you’re in.
Formed in a small cone shape, small piles of salt on a doorstep are an old way of attracting customers to a shop – harkening back to when horse riders needed to give their horse a salt lick.
Home of geishas
The other main reason for all the visitors to Gion is because of its active community of geishas and geisha training houses. It’s a mysterious and elegant profession, which captures the imagination of all who visit.
Geiko (or ‘fully fledged’ geisha, in the kyoto way of speaking; and maiko, their apprentices) are often spotted in Gion. Dressed elegantly in their beautiful kimonos and obis, and with makeup and hair (depending on their level of study), the geishas are entertainers who take clients for nights of dining, drinking, performing tea ceremonies, and entertaining with song and dance.
In Gion, you’ll see plenty of kimonos everywhere, but don’t get too excited that you’re seeing geishas – the ones with selfie sticks are tourists in costume!
Overlooking Gion and Kyoto from its hilltop vantage is the wonderful temple complex and UNESCO site, Kiyomizu-Dera. A masterpiece built in 778, it’s said that this wooden construction was built without a single nail.
There are great views to be had from wooden verandah, over the Japanese maples, overlooking the sprawl of Kyoto below. A famous rumour from the Edo period speculated that jumping from the 13 metre high stage would grant a wish to the surviving jumper. Needless to say, many weren’t that lucky!
A more realistic superstition is up the steps. Jishu Shrine has a love stone planted in the ground, with a counterpart 18 metres away. If you can walk from one to the other with your eyes closed, it’s said you will find true love!
Arashiyama and surrounds
Arashiyama bamboo forest
The tall bamboo stalks of Arashiyama are a spectacular natural wonder. The grove of massive giants here soar far overhead and form a leafy canopy. Walking the paths through the bamboo grove is a relaxing and elemental experience, as the colours of the bamboo stalks merge into blur of green stripes, and the leaves quietly rustle in the wind. The walk is short, and it can crowded with tourists, so arrive early.
Iwatayama Monkey park
Iwatayama Monkey Park is nearby to Arashiyama, up a short, but tiring climb. The slippery, red-earthed track takes you to the top of the hill, with panoramic views of the entire city below – and this is where the monkeys live. A wild group of Japanese snow monkeys (macaques) with red faces and fluffy fur coats live in the forests around a visitor’s centre.
Don’t let your guard down, because there’s a lot going on – the monkeys jump, bathe, groom, sunbake and wrestle; you can also feed them slices of apple through the feeding cage.
The Arashiyama area is filled with great temples to see, all within a short walking distance. And for some reason, many of them are completely ignored by tourists. Good news for you – there won’t be any crowds!
One great temple nearby is Jojakku-ji. A small cluster of temples and shrines are found at the top of a shaded stone staircase surrounded by soft, mossy gardens and stone shrines collecting coins and jars of sake. The views of Kyoto from the bell pagoda at the top are worth the hike.
What might be Kyoto’s most striking attraction (perhaps in the whole of Japan!), Fushimi Inari is a network of stepped walkways that summit Mount Inari. Along the way, thousands of vermillion torii gates form gateways over the paths, creating wonderful, colourful tunnels.
There is a short train ride to reach Inari, signposts pointing the way, and usually a big crowd going in the same direction. A market at the base of the mountain leads to Fushimi Inari Taisha, the main temple of the complex.
The crowds quickly thin out once the hike gets higher, and you’ll often find yourself alone, with nothing but a stunning orange corridor of torii gates stretching out ahead. From the right angle, you can catch sunlight slicing through the torii gates, projecting bright yellow stripes on the steps.
If you need a rest, the trails are dotted with small teahouses to enjoy the great view, or pick up a fox figurine, the messenger of Inari.
Across the river
Ponto-chō alley and Kiyamachi Dori
The restaurant and nightlife scene comes alive along these two long parallel streets. Ponto-chō is a narrow alleyway illuminated by the glow of red and white lanterns, each one hanging in front of the many restaurants. You can find everything from cheap izakaya and ramen restaurants, to fine dining kaiseki dining that overlooks the riverfront.
A handy tip: red lanterns usually hang in front of the cheap establishments.
Kiyamachi dori follows a shallow, slow-moving canal with a bed of colourful pebbles, and trees sprinkling cherry blossom leaves. Like ponto-chō, this lovely street is lined with great restaurants.
Kyoto nishiki market
Nishiki market is a foodie’s dream, so come hungry! The market stretches out over five city blocks in a narrow, covered alleyway.
Food is the focus here; matcha ice cream, fresh sliced tuna with ponzu dipping sauce, hot takoyaki (octopus batter balls), curious white strawberries, baskets of pickled vegetables and chillied fish, sweet mochi and crunchy candies, dry spices, and bubble tea.
Nijō castle and the walled fortifications are a great place for history buffs to let loose their imaginations.
This castle was where the Tokugawa shoguns ruled, before shifting the capital to Tokyo. Unfortunately, the tenshu, (the main keep), was destroyed in a fire in 1750. Nevertheless, the double-concentric moats, massive puter walls, and other administrative buildings are still there to explore.
Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji
It might be touristy, but Kinkaku-ji is worth a visit even if only for the photograph opportunities.
Kyoto’s most well known temple is relatively small, but it has its top two floors clad in shining gold leaf. Perched beside a quiet, pretty lake, the dancing reflections in the water are a wonderful sight to see.
The visit is generally over quickly, so make your way over to Ginkaku-ji, the silver temple. Its name is deceiving; it isn’t actually silver at all. The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu had a dream of plating the temple in silver, but when he died unexpectedly, the temple was left as a wooden temple.
Near Kyoto station
Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji
Near Kyoto station are two large temple complexes, Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji. We took the time to visit Higashi Honganji, and were overwhelmed by the size of its two mammoth main temples, Goeido Hall and Amidado Hall.
Cavernous and constructed in a rich, dark wood, these temples are a wonder of ancient architecture. Reading stories of the dangerous methods that the builders used to bring down the mighty trees from the mountains surrounding Kyoto is incredible.
A modern building in a city of historic temples, Kyoto Tower isn’t much to look at. But for those looking for a great view of the city (and even a view of Osaka, on a clear day), there is a viewing platform for visitors.
There is much, much more, if you take time to explore
Kyoto is infinitely explorable. The city centre is packed with giant department stores, with everything from baby toys to delicious cakes. And of course, near the Kawaramachi area too, there are long indoor arcades with that can keep you occupied with food, shopping and claw games for days.
No matter how many times you visit, you’ll always find a new temple around the corner that eluded you last time. Kyoto is full of treasures, and absolutely a place that will have you coming back again and again.