Kyoto was once the imperial capital of Japan and is known as the ‘city of 1,000 temples’ (although it actually has 1,600). It’s around three hours on the Shinkansen train line from Tokyo and although you could do it easily as a day trip, I highly recommend you stay a few nights as there is so much to see and do. We stayed in Kyoto for four nights and still didn’t get to see it all but we loved the city and would definitely return.
If you have limited time, here are five places not to miss in Kyoto.
Gion is a rather large area and is Kyoto’s best known Geisha quarter. If, like me, you were fascinated by Geisha after reading Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden then exploring Gion is a must. Don’t expect to see any Geisha during the day though and if you do, they’re likely to be girls just dressing up for the experience. We were so lucky to spot five geisha whilst we were in Kyoto! Although some may have been Maiko (a Geisha in training).
Nijo Castle was built by the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who ruled from 1603 – 1616 although he died before it was fully complete. It was only opened to the public in 1940 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also been used as a film location in Japanese films as well as The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise.
It’s a large complex and you get to walk around all of it – although you have to remove your shoes. There’s no furniture in any of the rooms, which I thought was a shame as I’d like to have seen how it would have been decorated at that time. The wall paintings by the Kano painters are rather spectacular though. My favourites being the life-size tigers on gold walls. You weren’t allowed to take photos inside so I can’t show you any, I’m afraid. The gardens of Nijo castle are really lovely so it’s worth spending some time walking around and enjoying the landscape.
If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know how much I love a good market and Nishiki market is one of the best I’ve been to. It’s nicknamed ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’ and it’s no surprise given the variety of fresh ingredients on offer. Apparently many of the kaiseki chefs buy their ingredients at the market too. Apart from just food stalls there are also a few restaurants as well as stalls selling sake and Japanese souvenirs. It’s a rather large market so you could easily spend the good part of a day exploring it. If you’re feeling brave, buy some of the street food items!
Kiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist temple in southern Higashiyama and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Whilst the temple itself is beautiful and really worth visiting, it’s the area around the temple that makes it even more special.
The temple is set on a hill and it’s the cobbled streets around it, full of restaurants, shops and rickshaws that make it so interesting. I’ve also never seen so many women in kimonos in my life! When you get up to the temple, there is a wonderful view of Kyoto.
Walking along Ponto-chō (or Pontocho) Alley is like stepping back in time. It’s also one of the best places to spot Geisha, although only at dusk or later at night. This is because it’s one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric streets and is full of restaurants, bars and traditional shops selling expensive kimonos. It’s where we spotted three geisha on our first night. I just love this guy’s expression as he walked past the geisha!
Ponto-chō is a great place to eat but be warned if you want to go for a drink before or after… most bars charge up to ¥1,000 as an entry fee (around £8), which doesn’t include anything. Some bars make the price clear but others don’t, however it seems to be pretty standard in Kyoto.
Just across the river from Ponto-chō is a beautiful area called Motoyoshi-cho which is a must see, especially at night. It’s very romantic, with the lights from lanterns and restaurants to light the way and the little stream that runs alongside it. We loved it.
If you want to see ancient Japan then Kyoto is your best bet. We absolutely loved it and will definitely go back next time we’re in Japan.