Kyoto, – The Beautiful Heart of Japan

Our recent excursion to Hiroshima started with a few days in the beautiful heart of Japan, Kyoto.  Formerly the capital of the Japanese empire until the transfer of power to Edo (modern day Tokyo).  I had been to Kyoto once before so was aware of the history and beauty of this ancient city and was excited to be sharing this with family.

There are so many things to experience in Kyoto that even 3-4 days doesn’t seem enough to do it justice and will still feel like you are only scratching the surface.   Luckily Kyoto survived the Allied attacks of the Second World War unscathed, due to being earmarked for destruction by the Atomic Bomb, and also luckily missing the shortlist as targets were narrowed down later in the war.   This means that there are many structures still standing that have survived centuries and are still used today.  Kyoto just oozes history and culture.

Kinkakuji (The Golden Temple)
Girls dressed in traditional kimonos

As it was the end of Golden Week when we arrived we were expecting it to be busy and weren’t surprised.   After checking in at our hostel and getting directions from the helpful owner, our first stop was Kinkakuji (The Golden Temple).   There were streams of people descending upon this popular attraction, so was a case of going with the flow as it surged through the picturesque pathways leading to the temple viewing area and our first photo opportunity.   It took patience to wait for a gap to emerge near the front of the masses viewing the temple, but when a spot opened it provided breathtaking views of this amazing temple covered in golden gilt.   After spending time taking in the view and getting enough photos to include everyone in a photo with the temple in the background at least we rejoined the stream (or maybe it was more of a torrent) of people following the path through the gardens and out the other end.

Kiyomizu Dera

The following day the weather wasn’t quite as friendly so it was out and about in the rain.   Our first stop was Gion to try and catch a view of a real life Geisha, however we wandered into Yasaka Shrine first which was another pretty impressive complex.  Construction of this shrine began in 656, so has plenty of history tied up in its walls and gardens.   There is something about Japanese shrines and temples in that even though they may be crowded at times they always evoke that feeling of serenity while at the same time leaving you awed by the skill involved in constructing such a building.  As you wander through Yasaka Shrine you emerge in a beautiful tranquil garden.  Upon exiting the gardens the road takes you through an interesting old street with plenty of souvenir shops along the side.  This road leads to Kiyomizu Dera, one of my favourite temples in Japan, but first you must brave the hustle and bustle of the streets leading up to the entrance.   These streets were full of souvenir shops and even more people, so was an effort to get to the end.  Here you can catch a glimpse of many Japanese (and even western) women dressed in beautiful kimonos taking in the sights, so you need your camera at the ready.   One of the attractions of this area is the ability to rent a kimono and wander the streets in it for the day.   Kiyomizu Dera is high on the side of a hill and is a real feat of engineering and probably would be so today as well.  Again the place was packed with tourists, but we were still able to enjoy the views from its centuries old verandahs.   By the time we had been through Kiyomizu it was time to head back to our hostel and head out to Tonkatsu Ichiban across the road from our hostel and enjoy another delicious meal of tonkatsu (crumbed pork cutlets).

While in Kyoto we stayed at Guest House Kyoto which was a 15 minute walk from Kyoto Station, close to a bus stop and provided a good clean and comfortable room for the 3 nights we were there.
With one day left in Kyoto before heading south to Hiroshima, we decided to take in the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest on the recommendation of a fellow traveller we met on a train one day.   Arashiyama is located about a 30 min train ride from the city and is a quaint little town located on the banks of a river.   The bamboo forest is about a 10-15 minute walk from the station and while it is only a small forest, is big enough to provide some amazing views, with bamboo seemingly reaching for the sky all around you.   It is about a half hour walk through the forest where you will find some handcraft stalls and plenty of photo opportunities before emerging on the banks of the Oi River.   The river is busy with people in small boats and a few larger traditional sightseeing type boats carrying loads of people across the river to a restaurant nestled on the far banks.   Across the river you find Arashiyama Monkey park, home to about 170 monkeys who roam wild throughout the park.  To get to the monkey viewing area you trek through the forest and up the side of the mountain till you emerge at a plateau where there is a feeding hut.  Unlike the normal monkey park where the monkeys are in the cage and you are on the outside at this place the monkeys are all on the outside and you go into the hut to feed them through the wire mesh windows.   Outside you can roam freely among them however be warned that they are wild and not friendly monkeys so you do need to keep your distance a bit. The feeding area also offers a nice panorama over Kyoto.
While we had three very full days of sightseeing in Kyoto, we barely scratched the surface and have fortunately left many things left to be seen which will need further future visits to this wonderful city.   With only 1/10 of the population of Tokyo, Kyoto has a lot more laidback feel to it than the hustle and bustle of the capital, and I am sure if it wasn’t Golden Week the attractions wouldn’t have been anywhere near as crowded.

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Kyoto Essentials

 Our favourite restaurant was Tonkatsu Ichiban which was conveniently located right across the alley from our hostel but which was so good we went there on 2 out of the 3 nights for dinner.   This is a small old style Japanese restaurant with only  3 or 4 tables and seemingly run by a family.  They don’t speak much English but we had 2 delightful evenings with them.
Our find of Kyoto was a shop in Arashiyama called Rental Kimono Akahime which does the whole rental kimono thing, but also if you don’t have the time (or courage) to wander the streets in a kimono they will allow you to dress up in a kimono and have your photo taken.  We had enquired at one of the professional photographic places but found out that it was quite expensive and there was a long wait so had pretty much given up on the whole kimono photo opportunity until we stumbled upon this store.
Kyoto - Bookings

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Tony Fitzpatrick
Architect, Dad, Traveller & Head Rover at Around Rock 3
After a brief flirtation with Japan in the early '90's, and some occasional trips to Australia since, I have had an unrequited love affair with Japan and general desire to explore the world for the next 20 years while reality prevailed and I found myself pretty much stuck in my home country of New Zealand (not that is an entirely bad thing...).After a chance opportunity arose in mid 2012 to relocate our family to Moscow, Russian Federation I finally set off on my OE with my family in tow. It has been an amazing journey that has seen us experience life in Russia, Japan and now Finland, as well as visiting around a dozen countries so far in our adventure to date.While my family situation has changed along the way, I am continuing to explore the world with my tri-lingual son and enjoy sharing the adventures we have had with my followers.

11 comments

  1. Hi Tony
    Loved reading your story of Kyoto. I lived in Japan for 8 years and made many happy memories in Kyoto, notwithstanding those awful monkeys in Arashiyama. Great pics too btw. Love Kiyomizu Dera and those crowded little streets. Keep writing!

  2. Cheers Heather,
    Glad you enjoyed it, yes the monkeys can be awful, I got the look from a couple while taking their photos and beat a hasty retreat before they had a go at me.
    Kyoto is an absolutely amazing city which I don't think you could ever have enough time to truly experience while on holiday, so will hopefully get back ther again before our time in Japan comes to an end (if it does…..)

  3. Loved reading your article about Kyoto. I have never been to Japan but have heard amazing things about it! The pictures from Kyoto look so beautiful, my favourite is the Bamboo Forest – wow! Its nice to know that it has more of a laidback feel to it than the city life, so when I do eventually visit Japan at least I’ll know of a place to escape to if I want some peace and quiet. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Andrea,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes Kyoto really is a beautiful city, with so many amazing things to see. My advice to anyone who hasn’t been to japan yet is if you only ever get to visit one other country in your life, make it Japan, it is a truly uplifting country which is very easy to fall in love with. I am not so sure Kyoto is the best place for peace and quiet, but definitely for beauty and calm…. there are a lot of other amazing places for peace and quiet, check out some of my other posts on Japan and you will see these.

  4. Hi Tony,

    I need your expert advise for my Japan Trip

    Since im buying the 7 Day JR Pass, im going to maximize it by taking trip to Kyoto.
    if i take train from Shin-osaka station to kyoto (or is it possible to take shinkansen train from Umeda?), which station that i should get off to in Kyoto? im travelling with my 6YO Kid, so i’d prefer to go down from the station and walking distance to places that we should visit, btw i also have no idea which places that we should visit in Kyoto

    In Kyoto, it will be just a day trip for us, by 6pm or 7pm we will go back to osaka.

    Thanking you in Advance,
    Aztie

    1. Hi Aztie,
      Firstly, unless you are travelling from Tokyo – Osaka return (or equivalent distance) I wouldn’t bother with a JR Pass, it will cost you more than paying for the trains as you go.
      I just checked online for a Tokyo – Osaka fare (one way) which is 13,620 Yen plus a Osaka – Kyoto return ticket at 1,020 Y a total of about 15,000 Y compared to a 7 day pass coming in at around 28,600 at current exchange rate, therefore you would have to be including another significant journey to make it worthwhile.
      My recommendations for travel would be as follows;
      Grab an ICOCA IC Card you can get one here This will allow you to pay for your travel as you go around Japan and is easily topped up at any ticket machine in any station, will work on all forms of transport (bus, train, taxi) and will even allow you to use vending machines if you need a drink (or anything for that matter) and don’t have any change.
      If you are looking to save some money then while in Osaka grab a Hankyu 1 or 2 day pass which will give you travel throughout Osaka and Kyoto on the Hankyu line. We found this to be great value and one of few day passes I have struck which actually saved you money.
      Another option is the Kansai Thru Pass which gives you all inclusive travel throughout the region and discounts at various places.

      As for travelling to Kyoto, possibly easiest station to get off at is Kyoto Station as a lot of buses, etc will disembark from there to the various areas you might want to go.

      With your 6 YO kid I would recommend maybe keeping Kyoto simple and choose 1 of the shrines / temples say, like Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion) or Nijo Castle and go to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest where you will get to walk through the forest, then go across the river to the wild monkey park, which involves a walk up a hill to see the monkeys up close and personal while also getting a great view across Kyoto, then wander back down and enjoy the streets of Arashiyama, maybe dress up in a kimono and get your photos taken. I am sure they will remember the monkeys for a lot longer than the temples…. and there are going to be plenty of temples and shrines in your travels anyway. The train to Arashiyama departs from the main station too.

      Thanks for asking the question, I will try and get a post up soon covering this in more detail for you.

      Tony

      1. Hi tony,

        Thank you so much for taking the time and reply, really appreciate it

        I take the 7D JR Pass because from Osaka we will go to Tokyo to take my daughter to Disneyland, spend two days in disney (land and sea) and a trip to gala yuzawa and my husband would like to visit Mt Fuji too, and in Tokyo we will base in Shinjuku area, based on this journey, you think 7D JR Pass is worth buying? or you have any other suggestion?

        Below is my Itinerary so far, feel free to comment 🙂

        Our two days in Osaka will be full with USJ and Kyoto trip.

        Day 1 – Arrived in Kansai Airport, Osaka at 7am
        Which area you guys think better for hotel, near Universal or Shin-Osaka?

        Drop our luggages to Hotel and head out to Shin-Osaka to take a train to KYOTO for a daytrip

        7pm – Back to Hotel in Osaka

        Day 2 – Universal Studio – Expected we will be here whole day till the early evening

        Day 3 – Check Out Osaka and heading to Tokyo Disneyland/Sea

        Expected to arrived in Disneyland area at 12pm dropped ur luggages in Hotel and straight to enter

        Disneyland 1pm to 10pm, enough time? what time does disneyland closed? or you think we should

        best to enter Disneyland the next day

        Day 4 – Disney SEA

        Day 5 – Check out Disney area and heading to Tokyo Shinjuku area – Sight seeing the surrounding area (any suggestion on where to go and how?

        Day 6 – From Shinjuku to Gala Yuzawa resort for some snow experience, is there any other snow resort that you guys can suggest that more kids friendly and easy access from tokyo shinjuku area? im open for suggestion, and if possible i’d like to squeeze in an onsen experience too (near by walking distance preferably. by 5 or 6pm back to Tokyo Shinjuku

        Day 7 – Trip to Mt Fuji, Five alkes or Hakone? which one worth going?

        Day 8 – Morning to 6pm Free and easy,3pm we should be on our way to Narita Airport to catch our 9.40pm flight.

        Thank you,
        Aztie

  5. Hi Aztie,
    Right, I have had a look at your travel plans and based on the itinerary you have planned a 7 Day JR Pass will work out as good value for you and save you around 65 Euro on ticket prices.

    To save going back and forwards I would make the following slight adjustment to your plan;

    After leaving Osaka stop at Hakone on the way to Tokyo, spend a day there and then either go to Tokyo (somewhere near Disney resort) that night or overnight in Hakone and head to Disney in the morning. If you are only going to spend a part day at one of the 2 Disney resorts I would do that at Disney Sea and spend the full day at Disneyland. This would push your Gala Yuzawa ski day to day 7, you will have already had a spa experience in Hakone which is one of the most renowned onsen resorts, so you can spend the day getting the most out of your skiing. We found Gala Yuzawa reasonably kid friendly and it is probably the easiest resort to access from Tokyo. Check out my post on skiing at Gala Yuzawa here.

    I haven’t been to Fuji Five Lakes but you get some amazing views of the mountain from the whole area from Hakone up to very near Tokyo anyway, so I am sure you won’t miss out on too much with regards to seeing Mt Fuji.

    You can actually prebook your attraction tickets here

    As for accommodation in Osaka, Shin Osaka is only about 30 minutes to USJ and Umeda is about 20 minutes approximately.

    Enjoy your trip.

    Tony

    1. Thank you so much Tony, will definitely take up your suggestion on Hakone and adjusted my itinerary

      I will in touch with you if i have more question about the trip

      Regards,
      A

    2. Hi Tony,

      Thank you for your suggestion, its brilliant!
      But quick question though, if we are going to stop in Hakone for a day trip on our way to Maihama Station, Is there any luggage drop that we could rent in Hakone Station? because i dont think we’re going to stroll around Hakone with our luggage in-tow, and could you suggest us places to go/visit in Hakone for a day trip, walking distance from the station preferably.

      Thank You

      Regards,
      A

      1. Hi Aztie,
        I haven’t been to Hakone myself for many years, but according to the Japanese guests I have staying with me there are about 6 large size coin operated storage lockers at Hakoneyumato Station. Alternatively you could forward your luggage direct to your hotel in Tokyo from Osaka or Kyoto so you don’t have to worry about it. You can arrange this with the hotel and is the common thing to do in Japan.
        Sorry I cannot give any recommendations of what to do in Hakone as it is over 20 years since I was there. My daughter did visit there about 2 years ago with her class and said that it was beautiful. There are of course the onsen that it is famous for and if you are game you could try the “kuratamago” (Black Eggs) at nearby Owakudani (up a ropeway), these apparently add 7 years to your life. Other than that check out Tripadvisor for more advice.

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