A visit to Kyoto in 4 Days to Explore the Temples and Districts

Visiting the Kinkaku-ji Temple and Gion at night

Some cities deserve several days to be properly explored, and a visit to Kyoto requires at least 4 days and a lot of walking. Some proper planning is also advised, as there is so much to see that you will need to prioritize what you don’t want to miss. After so much walking and many many photos, my visit to Kyoto felt short in time.

A day for exploring Gion, Kiyomizu-dera and Yasaka-jinja

After so much walking, I decided that it was time to focus on one area and explore it properly. Gion is one of the most known and visited districts in Kyoto, so why not focusing on that area?

Kiyomizu-dera

I asked for tips to one of the girls helping at the hostel, she’s from Taiwan and also new in Japan, she recommended me to start with some temples, so I started with the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, but not before a relaxing coffee and a bit of reading before what would become the longest walk!

Yasaka-jinja Shrine and Chion-in

I have to admit my expectations about Kyoto were too high, and I got a bit disappointed with what I saw when I arrived, I honestly don’t know what I had in mind, but I just didn’t like the so urban thing I first saw. After all, Kyoto is one of the biggest cities in Japan, what should I expect rather than a big urban city?

Chion-in Temple in Kyoto
Chion-in Temple in Kyoto

When I started my tour, through Kiyomizu-dera Temple slowly I start changing my opinion again, so much green there just next to the city center, then I went to Yasaka-jinja Shrine and Chion-in Temple which was really cool to get lost inside and enjoy all that not-urban area. I also had my first sushi in Japan near the Yasaka-jinja Shrine!

Gion and Nishiki Food Market

One area that a lot of people recommended me to visit is Gion district, it is nice during the day but totally different during the night, such an amazing atmosphere there! I really enjoyed getting lost there, I just walked around without a place to go, and by chance I found myself in Nishiki Food Market, the thing is that only back to the hostel I read that’s a very famous street!

The food, the colors, the people, all of that looks so magical, I actually ended up eating there, some tuna sashimi on a stick. It is weird to eat big cubes of raw fish, the sashimi served in Europe is quite thin, there I saw it mostly in large pieces.

A day for exploring Gion, Kiyomizu-dera and Yasaka-jinja
A day for exploring Gion, Kiyomizu-dera and Yasaka-jinja

At some point I realized that my 32GB of storage wouldn’t suffice for my whole trip, and I found myself looking for a camera shop before it was too late, I had to buy an overpriced SD card for about 40€, but at least I wouldn’t end up without storage for more photos! Having that figured out, I just went to the hostel, with a few blisters on my feet! I have no idea how many kilometers I ended up walking that day! I was so tired that I almost fall asleep while chatting with Elma, and it was quite early when I fell asleep…

Exploring Fushimi Inari-taisha, the shrines hill in Kyoto

It isn’t surprising that I woke up really early, after a long night resting, this was kind of expected. So, why not use that in my favor? If you want to enjoy properly a touristic place, the best is to go really early so that you can be there with fewer people around you. Jet lag can also be a good friend if one knows how to use it properly, and so I did it. My first destination was Inari, to explore the shrines hill almost all by myself!

Path of shrines splitting in two ways
Path of shrines splitting in two ways

Fushimi Inari-taisha

I went to the train station, and I took a train to Inari, I read about that hill and all the shrines, all the photos I saw looked like a really cool place, that easily can be spoiled by crowds. I had almost all the hill for myself, and a few other tourists that decided to go early as well. The weather was also helping to be less crowded, it was a bit rainy but not enough to spoil the fun either. I managed to take several photos without a single soul around, I had my time to enjoy the place, the mystical area around, to take photos and to have my relaxing walk through the hill.

But guess that not only early tourists go there during the first hours of the day… I saw a few priests having their walks too, one of them, that looked like he was in a higher place, considering the way he was dressed, had such a wide umbrella that literally was almost touching both sides of the shrines. So big, that he couldn’t see what was ahead of him, and guess who was there? Yep, me! I had to say a few times “excuse me” in a very crappy Japanese, for him not to hit me, and he did it anyway!

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Going around the mountain was really pleasant, few people, contact with nature just next to the big city, the first bamboo forest I saw, a lake at half way to the top and a lot of photos! The area has a lots of stations through the whole path where there are vending machines, two or three restaurants and places to buy souvenirs, also a nice way to make stops along the way.

The way back was even better, realizing how great the jet lag was when crossing with a big crowd of tourists. Waking up really early is the best way to enjoy highly touristic spots with fewer people! Even before I got to the main junction I started noticing more people, when I got to the station at the junction between the two paths that go around the mountain, then I saw the crowds! There I had an ice cream, and I sat for a few minutes enjoying it and seeing even more people passing by, I didn’t have a clue how many I would find on my way back yet…

Exploring Fushimi Inari-taisha, the shrines hill in Kyoto
Exploring Fushimi Inari-taisha, the shrines hill in Kyoto

The path starts with just one way, and at some point it splits in two forming a loop. Until the junction I mentioned before it is just one way, then people can decide which way they want to reach the top. So, since I was already coming down, I had to pass again through the one-path way and it was ridiculous the amount of people, taking a clear photo was almost impossible, sometimes was even hard to walk peacefully.

That walking made me hungry, I guess I am always up for eating and I was loving Japanese food! I walked a bit around trying to find a place not so close to the temple, maybe I would get a cheaper deal, but I ended up going to the area just outside the main entrance in Inari. It wasn’t expensive, Japan is not that expensive as people think, might be for people living there, but not for tourists. Eating is fairly cheap, and fresh food can be found everywhere. After the lunch, I had to buy a few souvenirs to take back to Europe, and there isn’t lack of shops around that temple.

Visit to the Tōfuku-ji Temple in Kyoto

I kept walking in direction to the city, and I passed through another temple, the Tofuku-ji Temple and the Zen Garden, honestly for me the garden was the most enjoyable part. The Tofuku-ji Temple is a Buddhist Temple founded in 1236, one of the five great temples of Kyoto.

The garden is more recent, designed in the last century, with the very Japanese maple trees. I just regret coming to Japan in October, a few weeks later and I would get all the autumn colors, it was already changing a bit, but that place covered in golden colors must be even more magical! There is a fee to get in though, but for people who like that kind of landscapes it’s totally worth it, besides, the entrance fees usually aren’t expensive, with 500¥ you can get inside most of the temples.

Tōfuku-ji Temple
Tōfuku-ji Temple

It was also at the Garden that I saw a Japanese monkey, unfortunately he was faster than my reaction to take a photo, but I don’t mind, better enjoying the moment than wasting time trying to capture it. The garden is very beautiful, not too big and very relaxing. I walked through the garden for a while, I even spent a few minutes there enjoying a book before I moved again.

It was that time of the day that I needed to satiate my addiction, I went back to Kyoto Station and I spent a long time trying to find a Starbucks. I was at the wrong side of the station trying to find a street that was totally at the other end…, but well, I managed to find it after a while. While having my dose of caffeine, I used that relaxing time to write a few postcards that I would send later that same day. I guess they all arrived at their destinations, I have no complaints yet.

While at the Starbucks, I checked the map to see what was around and I considered going towards the city center passing through another temple, though on my way I changed my mind and I went back to the hostel to take a fast rest before dinner.

Visiting the Tōfuku-ji Temple in Kyoto
Visiting the Tōfuku-ji Temple in Kyoto

Even the dinner was a challenge, I spent a lot of time trying to find a restaurant not too full nor too empty, and I got even kicked out from one because it was too full. Well, that’s what they told me, I saw free places but for couples, so I guess a solo tourist wasn’t the best for them… I ended up eating something again at a small street restaurant in Gion, not fancy at all but a very nice experience, and with a lot of Japanese people unlike the other restaurants. So in the end, I think I had a more local experience and less touristic.

After the dinner, again, I went back to the hostel to write a bit on this blog, and to get ready for another long day ahead!

Visit the Nijo Castle in Kyoto

Nine days since my arrival at the land of the rising sun, I was still jet-lagged! Honestly, I am not sure anymore if it was jet-lag, or if it was just tiredness forcing me to sleep earlier and therefore waking up earlier as well. Again, 6:30 and I was wide awake! I did my morning routine, and then I went to the living room to take a look at my still unplanned days. The transportation was mostly the issue, I wanted something central that I could take a option B and that I still had chance to do what I wanted to do. Though, the Nijo Castle was one of my priorities to visit in Kyoto!

Planning the last days

By a friend’s recommendation, I really wanted to see the 48 waterfalls of Akame, so basically, another hiking day with a lot of photography. Getting there was a bit tricky, I had to take a train that was not covered by the JR Pass, a bus from the middle of nowhere to nowhere land and then the hike that normally would take about 4 hours.

Considering that I would spend a lot of time taking photos, I was already planning to spend around 8 hours there (yep, a bit too much I know). So, for all of this, I needed to stay overnight somewhere that I could have an alternative plan and not too far from the waterfalls.

Gardens @ Nijo Castle
Gardens @ Nijo Castle

Initially I considered Iga because of the Ninja Museum, but finding online accommodation there wasn’t easy and I was not up to take the chance to go to the middle of nowhere without a place to stay (maybe if I had more than two weeks around, I would do it). So, Osaka was the place! A lot to see there, and 1 hour away from the train stop near the waterfalls.

Nijo Castle

With all of that considered, it was time to enjoy my last day in Kyoto! First thing to see was the Nijo Castle, another World Heritage Site in Kyoto, the castle of the Tokugawa Shoguns. One of the main characteristics of the castle is the Nightingale floor, basically an alarm system against intruders.

Walking through those corridors while hearing the chirping everywhere is really amazing! Myth or not, some say that this was a defense mechanism against the ninjas, the corridor is quite wide and around the palace, so I bet it was quite hard to pass through it undetectable.

Visiting the Nijo Castle in Kyoto
Visiting the Nijo Castle in Kyoto

I have to say, when I got there I was a bit disappointed with what I saw, the entrance isn’t appealing, and until I got inside the palace I was a bit bored, but Nijo Castle is definitely one must-visit place in Kyoto! The palace is fantastic, the old paintings really beautiful, and you really can feel history while walking through the corridors.

For me, everything was so amazing! A pity that it was a rainy day, walking through the gardens wasn’t that pleasant, and it is an amazing place! But to be enjoyed on a sunny day… I got totally soaked while trying to take photos, the rain drops on tree leaves are fantastic! And I could really see that Autumn was really close, some golden colors already.

And since being soaked is not much fun either, I went to the lounge area to dry a bit, and on the way I saw another Japanese wedding! After drying out, more temples to see! And a very wet day ahead…

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple

Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Golden Temple, the temple was initially a villa until one of his owners passed away and by his wish it was then transformed into a Zen Temple. The temple that we can see nowadays is a reconstruction of the original temple, that in 1950 was burned down by a novice monk.

To get there, the best way is by bus. Kyoto bus system is really well-organized and quite easy to use, with a daily pass it might even be the best way of transportation inside the city. Kinkaku-ji it is by the edge of the city borders, but there are more sightseeing around for those that don’t want to go there just because of this temple. Though, I dare to say that it is a must see, a bit overpriced, but still, a place that should be visited. A pity it was raining, I couldn’t enjoy properly my time there, even though I had a very nice walk through its gardens which are also fantastic!

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple
Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple

There was a lot still to see, but I wasted a lot of time trying to get to the temples I visited, and to play safe I decided to go back to Kyoto Station and book my ticket back to Tokyo, which I was more than glad to find out that it was the wise thing to do, the train was close to get fully booked already. And again, another stop at Starbucks (I swear I am not promoting this company!!), where I wrote a few more postcards and a few more notes for my blog posts.

Wet, tired and hungry, and getting dark! I decided to go back to Gion, for a night walk and get to eat something. While waiting for the bus, I met three Indian girls that seemed even more lost than I was, we chat a bit and we realized we were towards the same direction, we hop off in different stops but by chance we ended up meeting each other again later that night while walking around. Oh, I felt like a tourist wandering among other tourists.

Street in Gion at Night
Street in Gion at Night

And still hungry, time for some food! I kept walking around Gion district trying to find a nice restaurant, but then I crossed the bridge and I went to the Food Market Street. When I was getting there I decided to keep walking around and try a restaurant instead for a change. I got lost, which was awesome, and was getting even more hungry, my pickiness to find a restaurant was slowly vanishing… I found a Portuguese wine bar, and honestly I felt very tempted to get inside, but my traveler-sense mandated otherwise. I was in Japan… A few meters ahead I found the restaurant for me, by the river with a nice view and I again I was just one! I sat at the counter next to a couple.

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My dinner was more Japanese, I think, I ordered a hot sake and some other stuff. As a side dish, I got my first green soy beans! Actually, it is really good, though, it was the first time I was eating that and I just didn’t know how to eat it so I ate the full string bean until I realized that the empty bowl could be for the string beans… Yeah, it tastes WAYYYY better just the soy bean. In the end, I paid less than 20€, really good food, drinks and not expensive at all.

When I travel alone I am also more relaxed with strangers, I didn’t reach yet the point of starting random conversations, but I don’t mind to pull one or two chats. The couple next to me were trying to take a selfie, I thought I could be nice and help them with their people/food/photo task. I am used to different accents and languages, but I honestly got confused with both, she sounded totally German and I managed to understand a few things, the guy sounded totally like Dutch or probably just a very strong german accent, but when they talked with me was in total American accent! It was interesting to hear.

Riverbanks of the Kamo River
Riverbanks of the Kamo River

After having my food and paying, I decided to head to the hostel, I would have to wake up early the next morning again, and who did I find again just right I left the restaurant? The Indian girls! Three times the same night, in such a huge city! Oh tourists, we are like ants, following the same paths…

Where is the Kinkaku-ji Temple?

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By Gil Sousa

Portuguese expat in Cork, traveler and food enthusiastic.

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