Let’s jump straight to the basics, shall we? Kyoto is one helluva fun city to explore, whether you’re wandering through the narrow older streets and soaking up on the local ambiance or if you’re joining the throngs of tourists crowding together to see the most famous local monuments, you’re sure to see things that will amaze and enjoy an experience quite unlike anywhere else I’ve been in the world.
Being a popularly touristy destination Kyoto has all the infrastructure you’ll need to kick back, relax, and enjoy your stay. It’s also one of the most bilingual cities in Japan, meaning finding your way about town and asking for help (If you need to, not that I ever did, never!) is a breeze. Hotels are plentiful, the food is delicious, the views are spectacular and the people are nice, what more could you ask?
Downtown Kyoto is your typical Japanese skyscraper haven with tall buildings and crowded busy streets. Not particularly beautiful in any way unless you’ve a thing for monolithic grey office buildings, although I confess the Kyoto Train station; a massive gleaming thing of strange angles and shimmering glass, is an interesting sight. But if you’re the type who loves to see Japan at its most modern and technologically savvy (Quite a few people I met were, which surprised me as I’ve always been a more historic and natural fan myself.) you’re not likely to enjoy Kyoto much. Not really. At least from what I saw. Although I’m sure there are all sorts of pleasant cafe to relax at and specialty shops which will offer your every whimsical desire.
No, I found that the farther from central civilization I got the more I found myself enthralled with this beautiful and strange city. And to do that there’s only one means of transportation: The bicycle. You can rent these things in near any city in Japan easily enough, but it’s in Kyoto where you really find the need for them. Too big to properly wander on foot, without the all-encompassing transit system of Tokyo, and both cheaper and easier than taking the bus (Especially those tour ones!). Bicycling is perfect for Kyoto, allowing you to sail through the smooth clean streets and enjoy the ambiance all while still getting to see all the much spread-out sights every self-respecting tourist absolutely must see. Rented one for the day from my surprisingly cheap yet fancy hotel for 1000 yen, the equivalent of around 12 Canadian dollar at the time. Wasn’t a particularly majestic bike, creaky and plain as it was, but worked! And for 12 dollars I ask no more.
There’s the Golden Pavilion for one, also known as Kinkakuji Temple. This is by far the most crowded of the temples in Kyoto, the most famous, and the one you’ve likely already seen pictures of before and will go “Ooooh, *that* place!” after looking at the picture in which I am about to link to. LINK.
Pretty isn’t it? It’s even more impressive in person. A gleaming golden shrine standing out sharply in contrast to the stunningly well designed and picturesque garden surrounding it. Were it not for the steady blurb of your fellow tourists and sight-seers it would be quite the dramatic experience to see. But as it is while making for fantastic photographs and a great ‘see where I’ve been’ story, I quickly found there are much much more interesting places (Mostly temples.) to see in Kyoto. Near to the site of the Golden Pavilion for example is the Ryoanji Temple, one of the first Zen Temples in Japan and which I’ve only now discovered (Thanks Wikipedia) is also known as The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon. Catchy!
Again a crowded tourist destination, Ryoanji is most famous for its rock garden. You know the ones; massive field of carefully raked white pebbles with the occasional noteworthy rock or plant sticking out. This particular one was designed some six hundred years ago, I kid you not, and has been maintained ever since. An interesting sight really, I must have spent a solid ten or twenty minutes staring at it trying to puzzle out the design. An act which itself proves the gardens ‘zen’ effectiveness (Or my own terrible curiosity, not sure which!) . One person told me I was supposed to see a tiger, but honestly I never managed to pick out any particular images from the jumble of rock and pebble. What I most enjoyed however were the antique buildings and the style in which they were built as well as the tranquil gardens. The gardens here much more heavily forested and with a talent for strangely shaped plants. There’s just such a sense of serenity and wonder walking down those well-tread path, and being forested as well as less crowded than the temple I mentioned above, it’s a much more personal experience.
Nearby is the misleadingly titled Myoshinji Temple, misleadingly because rather than a simple temple you’ll quickly find yourself wandering the small, vehicle free streets of a small community. Here is where finally we break free of the constraints of tourism and get to see people in their more natural environment rather than posing for the camera of a hundred anonymous visitors. I recall while wandering along one paved street, walls to either side sheltering the small houses and minor shrine within, I was greeted by an elder Japanese man asking if he could have a conversation with me in order to practice his dwindling English. Not unusual really, but this conversation was particularly interesting as I quickly learned the man had once been a wanderer himself having traveled to America among other many long years ago. He also had a particular love of crickets, and I recall him saying memorably “In America, the crickets chirp mathematically while in Japan, they chirp in sadness!”. He asked what the crickets in Canada chirped like, and I responded as best I could and he smiled and said thank you numerous times before wishing me well and ambling off.
Funny sort of encounter, the type I most love and cherish.
On the other side of Kyoto, past the Imperial Palace which while sounding grand is actually not all that impressive from the outside and tricky to get into the inside, you’ll find Ginkaku-ji Temple, or the Silver Pavilion as it’s better known. Unlike its spectacular brother the Golden pavilion, the silver one is not in fact coated with silver, although it was originally supposed to be. For this reason among others the Silver Pavilion is much less crowded than it’s more touristy brethren, and as a result I actually enjoyed it much more. The garden is more scenic with better view and more dramatic vista, the ambiance much more relaxed, and the experience in general more pleasant. I highly recommend it! Ginkakuji also makes for a perfect starting point from which to bicycle beside or walk along the ‘Philosopher’s walk’ as it is called. Dramatic sounding, I know, but in truth it is little more than a simple stone pathway which follows along the twists and turns of a small canal and through the back-streets of urban Kyoto. Although much less dramatic than it sounds it is nevertheless something I think any visitor to Kyoto oughta do and something I myself found so relaxing I can understand why, so long ago, the Philosopher Kitaro Nishida was said to walk its length every day, thus the name.
Wandering across the sturdy wooden bridges covered in prayer scroll and down streets where it seems every few steps you are stumbling across another shrine or temple, you really begin to appreciate Kyoto in a way you can’t most other cities, whether Japanese or otherwise. Many other Japanese cities have been so modernized that for a wanderer in search of that historical culture and beliefs which I crave to understand, they are ultimately disappointing. Vast concrete shells built over the paved remains of the peoples local history. It’s sad really, I can imagine even moreso for those raised in such places.
Kyoto does not have that problem, it is rich with its heritage and history. One of the reasons, I think, that it has become such a popular tourist destination as people such as myself come from afar to try and understand just a tiny bit more the confusing jumble that is Japan.
Eventually, wandering south from The Silver Pavilion you’ll find Kiyomizudera Temple, another location which I highly recommend to fellow wanderers. Built in such a way that it is a series of temple built along the curve of the hillside you’ll go from standing atop a wooden platform high above the ground, staring outward towards a stunning vista view of Kyoto, to wandering along a tree-lined pathway and through dusty, spiritual building till standing before a large stone fountain from which anywhere from dozens to hundreds of pious (Or simply curious!) stand waiting for their turn to drink the springs water as it cascades down in three small waterfall and into a picture-perfect pond. It’s… well, it’s fantastic. By the by, I was told that to drink from the waters bestow good luck, but to drink from all three falling streams was greedy and thus bad luck. I love these little details!
However, all said and done, perhaps my favorite location in Kyoto was a shrine called Fushimi Inari-taisha, annoying as hell to try and type (It’s even spelt wrong on my tourist map I’m using to remember the names of all these things! Hah! And this is the one I got in Kyoto!) and I’m not even going to try and pronounce it, but for me, to finally see it, was such a sight I was left breathless. It was also a complete unknown to me and so visiting this site in Japan I really had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that *this* was the front cover of a National Geographic years ago, I’ve no clue whether it was recent or long ago, but the image of this path completely enclosed by seemingly unending row after row of these orange wooden arches, twisting and turning, it stuck with me. Probably you too if you’ve ever seen pictures of it. And to not only see this remarkable sight in person but to walk its length, well, it was incredible.
What I didn’t know was that this path actually twisted up and around a large hill, its length surprisingly long and the sheer number of steps you have to climb if you wish to see even half of the pathway. Even I, in pretty good shape and used to hiking and walking long distances with a backpack, found myself panting for breath before long. But the view… damn, the view! Climbing steadily upwards, always those arches, or Torii as they are properly called, ascending to either side of you till finally you find yourself atop a platform looking down upon the city from afar and you realize how far you’ve walked and that despite the aching limbs, every single step was completely worth the experience for the wonderful panoramic landscape you see before you. If you choose to continue further the experience only grows more surreal as the Torii slowly begin to dwindle in numbers till you’re stumbling along a wild forested path, likely alone as I myself was, not another tourist to be seen or heard, while stopping occasionally at the numerous shrines and small tea-houses that dot the paths twisting journey. Finally finding yourself entering a familiar clearing and realizing you’ve walked a full circle round this hill, and although exhausted, you smile to yourself and wonder where the time has gone…
And that’s Kyoto, or so it was for me. There are other things to see more numerous that I can’t even count them all, but it would take years if not a lifetime to enjoy all the sights and sounds there are to see in Kyoto. Those simply the sights and experience which stood out most strongly for me.
Kyoto is a wonderful city and I really wish I had more time to explore its wonders. Anyone with any remote interest in Japan should visit this city, I really can’t stress this enough. It’s easily one of the most stunning locations in Japan, if not the world.
(On a more functional note, many but not all of the locations listed above do have a small entrance fee. Never much, but it should be considered. Also most of central Kyoto is based on a grid layout and so it’s an easy city to navigate by bicycle, which I really do suggest you do. It’s only on the outer reaches of town where the streets become a bit more meandering as they shape to the contour of the surrounding hills. I’ll admit I got turned around more than a few times along stretches like that, but it’s all a part of the experience and never was I terribly lost in any sense. All in all Kyoto is one of the nicer cities to wander.)