A Beginners Guide to Kyoto

In Kyoto, it is all about slowing down and relaxing. The former imperial capital of Japan is located on the island of Honshu and home to many Shinto shrines, peaceful gardens and traditional wooden town houses known as machiya.

Amidst the temples and shrines you can explore centuries of history and stories waiting to be discovered. You will then venture through the cobbled streets of Gion and immerse yourself into a world of tea ceremonies, flower arrangements, calligraphy, Japanese puppet shows and, of course, the world famous (and elusive) Geisha.

Getting there and around

Kyoto is easy to get around to the main attractions using public transport or on foot. Kyoto City Sightseeing Bus routes 100, 101 and 102 are the most convenient and easiest way of getting between the main places of interest.

Accommodation

For a short stay the Kyoto Itoya Hotel is ideally located within walking distance of Kyoto train station and the main shopping district. When you walk through the sliding wooden doors it is as if you have just stepped inside a temple. A dimly lit passage leads to the reception desk at the end of the foyer where you are greeted warmly by the receptionist.

Eating Out

From food courts to casual restaurant dining; there are no shortage of places to eat in Kyoto. For something quick, and on a budget, stop off at the food court in the basement of Kyoto Tower. The food court runs the length of the entire city block beneath the tower. You can choose from traditional Japanese noodles through to western style takeaways. The vegetarian rice curry is worth a try.

Things to Do

Below are the main places of interest to introduce you to this beautiful, ancient city of Kyoto.

Gion district

Ancient Kyoto is filled with original wooden machiya, restaurants, bars, theatres and tea houses. This is where you will see the most authentic side of the city and maybe even an elusive geisha.

Book at ticket at the Gion Corner Theatre where you can watch seven traditional Japanese traditions in one show. However, tickets only go on sale an hour before the show so you must get there early to avoid disappointment.

Inside the small, intimate theatre there is no allocated seating. You can choose to sit where you like which is why it is best to get into the ticket line early. During the show you will witness the following performances:

    Chado (a Japanese tea ceremony
    Koto (a Japanese Harp player)
    Kado (Flower arranging specific to the tea ceremony)
    Gagaku (Court Music)
    Kyogen (ancient comic play)
    Kyomai (Kyoto style dance)
    Bunraku (a unique puppet play)

The Golden Pavillion (Rokuon-Ji temple)

Also known as Kinkaku, a Buddhist hall containing relics of Buddha. The garden and buildings represent pure land of Buddha and the world. A world heritage site since 1994. Gold foil originally covered the Golden Pavilion and the phoenix perched on top. The first level is built in Shinden style of 11th century imperial aristocracy, while the top level represents Chinese zenshu-butsuden style.

The garden and pond surrounding the pavillion was designed for strolling and is typical of the Muromachi period. It is a special place of natural beauty and perfect for a relaxing walk around the grounds.

Ryoanji Temple

Upon entry, the first open space you see is a simple Zen Rock Garden which measures 25 metres east to west and ten metres north to south. The garden created by Zen monk Tokubo Zenketsu, with no trees and only fifteen rocks and white gravel. Look closely at the texture of the surrounding clay walls which were boiled in oil before being built. Take a moment to sit in silence and enjoy the silent stillness.

Ryoanji was originally a country house of the Tokudaiji Clan acquired back in 1450 and used as a Zen training temple. However, it was destroyed by fire in the Onin War and rebuilt in 1499. It was then declared a World Heritage Site in 1994.

Ryoanji can be reached directly from Kyoto Station by JR bus. The bus ride takes about 30 minutes and costs 230 yen.

Kyoto Tower

Tallest lookout point where you can get your bearings of the former imperial capital of Japan. Built in 1964 on the site of the original post office, it is the centre of industry, culture and tourism. At night the tower acts as a lighthouse tower, guiding you across the city. It stands 131 metres on top of a nine story building containing a shopping centre and basement food court. If you lose your way while out exploring the city, look for the tower to guide you back to the main railway station to get your bearings again.

Cherry Blossoms

Visit Kyoto from April and you may be lucky to catch the revered cherry blossom season. The blossoms are only in bloom for a few weeks, so it makes you slow down and appreciate their beauty even more. While the city can get crowded with both tourists and locals out to see the blossoms in bloom; take a walk down the narrow streets in one of the local neighbourhoods. Locals grow cherry trees in their backyards which most tourists never see.

Nijo Castle

Built in 1603, Nijo Castle was a residence of the first Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Edo period. From 1867 was an imperial palace before it became a historic site opened for the public to enjoy. The castle was declared a World Heritage Site in 1994 and is one of the best remaining examples of architecture from the feudal era.

As you stroll around the grounds surrounded by stone walls and moats, you can see how Nijo Castle is made up of three areas. The main defence circle (Honmaru), the second defence circle (Ninomaru), and the gardens.

Nijo Castle is a 20 minute bus ride from Kyoto station by Kyoto City Bus 101 and will cost you 230 yen each way.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

One of the most important shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of Rice. Upon arrival, you will enter through the tall Romon Gate built in 1589. Once on the shrine grounds you can walk through a tunnel of one thousand red Torii gates. It can get crowded, so be sure to go early. Once you navigate your way through to the end, you will find a memorial to the oldest pine tree in Kyoto.

For the more energetic, there are trails which lead into the wooded forest of sacred high Mount Inari.

The Fushimi Imari shrine is a short five minute train ride on the JR Nara line from Kyoto Station to JR Inari Station. The train fare is 150 yen each way.

Heian-Jing Shrine

Heian is the original name name of Kyoto and the shrine dates back to 1895; a relatively young shrine compared to Japan’s long history. It was built to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto and dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Kammu (737-806) and Emperor Komei (1831-1867).

To get there, catch Kyoto City Bus 100 from Kyoto Station and the fare will cost you 230 yen each way.

Higashi Hangan-Ji Temple

A short walk from Kyoto Tower, this shrine has more of a local feel. After removing your shoes, step inside and take a moment of peace as you sit on the tatami floor with the locals. It is the perfect place for anyone who wants to escape the busy city and wind down with a meditation session in silence.

Kyoto was one of my favourite cities in Japan because of its ancient history and traditional way of life. It is a place in which you can take your time to explore at your own pace. A place where time slows down and discover a land of tradition away from the bustling, modern cities of Tokyo and Osaka.

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