There are few places in the world that just have a ‘feeling’ about them, where as soon as you arrive you know you’re about to experience something special. This is what Kyoto is like for me. The city features breathtaking temples, calming zen gardens and century-old palaces that aren’t disturbed by modern amenities like huge shopping centres and vending machines that dole out full dinners.
The best way to arrive in Kyoto is by shinkansen, aka the whisper-quiet bullet train. The trip takes two to three hours from Tokyo and will set you back about 13,000 yen, depending on which train you jump on. Nozomi is the fastest, followed by Hikari.
When you arrive in Kyoto, you’ll speed right into a futuristic station with stories-high ceilings and exposed steel beams. There are two tourist information desks inside, which are great for booking a hotel for the night (guilty as charged) or picking up maps to help navigate the city.
As you emerge from the station, you’ll notice the Kyoto Tower which stands 131 metres tall. This is the place to be if you want a panoramic view of the city, as the tower has a 100 metre high viewing platform. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., admission is 800 yen.
You’ll quickly notice that very few people in Kyoto speak English, but the good news is everyone is so incredibly polite and helpful that even though they can’t understand you, they’ll do their very best to help you out.
One night we got lost trying to find our hotel after dinner, but happened to have the business card with a map on the back. We got the attention of an older couple out for an evening walk, and after some finger pointing and pleading eyes they understood where we were trying to go—but not how to tell us to get there. So, they walked us all the way back to our hotel, leading us the whole seven blocks and giving us a head nod when we’d arrived. There aren’t many other places where people are so willing to divert from their route!
The main highlights in Kyoto are all centered around Japanese history. Start your day off by catching a bus to take you to the north side of the city, which is made up of unassuming landmarks tucked into peaceful residential areas.
The Ryoanji Temple is a fantastic place to visit early in the morning, as there is no better time to visit the serene rock gardens than in the quiet of dawn.
Hundreds of visitors flock to the site every day, but if you get there right when it opens you’ll likely be some of the only people there. The main attraction of the site is obviously the rock garden itself, which is observed by sitting on a nearby platform. After finding your inner peace, you can wander around a number of tatami rooms or the surrounding gardens outside which include a pond. Ryoanji is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (4:30 p.m. December through February) and admission is 500 yen.
Once you’ve wrapped up your time at the temple, head over to Kinkakuji, commonly known as the Golden Pavilion due to its stunning, bright façade. The three-storey zen temple sits on a quiet pond which reflects the bright gold leaves which cover the building. A lush green forest surrounds the temple, making it a picturesque scene. After taking some token snapshots, visitors can wander past the head priest’s former living quarter, walk along the paths that pass behind Kinkakuji and pass through gardens and a statue that people throw coins at for good luck.
You’ll eventually end up at the Sekkatei teahouse which makes for a nice place to rest, or you can pick up some delicious green tea ice cream to cool off. Admission to Kinkakuji is 400 yen, and the site is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Once you’ve hit the main highlights in northern Kyoto, head back to the centre to take in the stunning palaces which date back to the Edo period. The Nijo Castle is a crowd-pleaser for anyone who’s ever been interested in the secret lives of shoguns, who put some interesting security measures in place. The palace was once used as the imperial palace and is made up of a number of buildings surrounded by stone walls and moats (classic castle move).
The most interesting feature is the famous nightingale floors, which were designed specifically to squeak so that intruders could never sneak in.
The rooms are all classic Japanese architecture, with sliding doors, mats on the floor, decorated ceilings and wide open plans. Visitors will eventually come to the main audience room where the shogun used to sit on an elevated floor.
Once you exit the palace you’ll come to a beautiful garden made up of a pond, rocks and manicured trees. Budget at least an hour to see the site, which is open from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last entry at 4 p.m.) Admission is 600 yen, and keep in mind it is closed on Tuesdays in January, July, August and December, as well as from December 26 to January 4. English audio guides are also available to rent.
If you haven’t had your fill of castles, walk over to Sento Palace, which is part of the Kyoto Imperial Palace complex. Similar in looks to Nijo, it’s currently where the prince and princess stay when they visit Kyoto. You can simply take photos from the outside, or book a free, hour-long tour through the Imperial Household Agency. Visitors will get to stroll through the garden and take a peek inside some buildings like a teahouse, though you won’t get to actually go inside any of the palace buildings. Tours are held at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., on most days except Sunday. Tourists are also welcome to go to the main Imperial Palace, again on a guided tour organized by the Imperial Household Agency.
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