In Kyoto, you will see the most beautiful city scenes ever. Kyoto cannot be recommended enough! Whenever I do these “5 Things” lists, I always feel a little apprehensive because I wonder, “Can I think of five things, whilst avoiding the clichés?”. However, the problem with Kyoto is the boundary between highlight and cliché is not clear, but it doesn’t matter. Everything you see in Kyoto will be a highlight of your life! My advice: Don’t care, be shameless, use a selfie stick, enjoy Kyoto to the fullest. This list is spectacularly short compared to what Kyoto has to offer. I plan to do another “5 Things to do in Kyoto” list another… five or six times? We’ll see.
I don’t normally like buses, as I don’t really trust them. They appear and arrive out of nowhere, and then disappear into the traffic to nowhere; I don’t know where they will take me. Trains, on the other hand, have tracks and a clear map that show definitely where they’ve come from, and where they are going. You cannot get (very) lost with trains. However, Kyoto city buses are AWESOME! As soon as you arrive at Kyoto station look for the tourist information centre, buy a City Metro day pass and get a map in your language. The map is very clearly laid out, very simple to read, and you can quickly and easily see how to get to the places you want to go. Also, the buses are very clearly marked. The buses in Kyoto are the only buses in the world I trust. However, they can be slowed down when stuck in afternoon traffic. To use them, get on via the back door, and then at your destination insert your day pass through the machine as you get off through the front door. There are multilingual TV screens on most buses that announce what the next stop is, so you can’t go wrong. The auditory announcements can also help you learn the correct pronunciation of the place names.
1. Kinkakuji Pavilion
This is Japan’s premier tourist attraction. This is the number one must see for all Japanese and non-Japanese in Japan. You haven’t visited Japan until you’ve seen this. However, remember that it is just a humble building, gold leaf coated, rebuilt in the 1950’s. This site alone receives visitors in the millions annually. Consequently, arrive at or moments after 9am, and rush to get ahead of the school and tour groups, but be prepared to get swarmed anyway. You will probably have just five minutes to enjoy this scene before you get elbowed or bumped one too many times. Walking around the place is calming, even if the main viewing area isn’t. Fortunately the grounds staff and security are very, very well practiced in shepherding people, and so the first real sight you see is the Pavilion itself, and then you can relax and unwind in the twenty or thirty minute stroll through the rest of the grounds.
2. Rickshaw rides & Gion
Yes, you can have a hot sweaty man pull you about in a comfortable rickshaw. It’s actually a great way to meet a local who can give you an introduction to the area, and give you ideas and travel advice. Besides, how many times in your life can you get this opportunity? Try it at least once. Also, I have seen women rickshaw pullers in Tokyo, so may be there are some in Kyoto now. Most rickshaws can be found in Gion close to the Ginkakuji Pavilion (the “Silver” one).
Gion boundaries are not clear, nor traditionally defined. I guess the definition of “Gion” is the nighttime geisha/maiko area, and the temple and shrines that are super popular with tourists. So this area includes Ginkakuji, Kiyomizu Temple, Yasaka Shrine, Kodaiji Shrine, and more.
3. Fushimi Inari
I’ve said before that “Tokyo is made of stairs” here. Fushimi Inari is also made of stairs. In fact, you will do a lot of walking in Kyoto. As if travelling and new experiences aren’t energy sapping enough, walking and stairs add to it. However, Fushimi Inari is grand. Take a picnic lunch, get there early, and slowly wander through the tree and orange-torii covered hill. This is a place where you can relax and recharge and forget about the stress of travel.
4. The food
To be honest, I find Japanese food salty and not to my liking; consequently, I don’t actually have any Kyoto-food photos to show. That said, there are a very many Westerners who absolutely love Japanese food. For them, Kyoto is a Mecca for Japanese culinary cuisine. How do I survive there? I look for the ramen shops, the “yakitori” (grilled meat on skewers) restaurants, and franchise places. The best places for anyone for dinner is definitely in Kyoto station on the upper floors, where you can browse and even find Korean and Chinese restaurants. For a truly unique experience, the “restaurant” below is near Kifune Temple, and the platforms are literally over the stream and surrounded by trees. It’s quiet and tranquil. The other place is near Gion by the river on the balconies that overlook the river.
The Gion restaurant district is desolate in the day time, except for the occasional delivery guy pushing a trolley about.
5. People watch in the HUGE Kyoto station
This is perhaps going to be the most grand train station you’ll ever experience. It has department stores, a few floors of restaurants (some with spectacular views), cafés, souvenir shops, and of course luggage lockers (claim yours before 9am before they’re all taken). The view in this photo below doesn’t even capture a quarter of this building, but you can get this wonderful view in the late afternoon early evening; and yes, that is Kyoto Tower reflected in the windows.
Bonus: Rent a kimono
Yes, both men and women can rent a kimono, or yukata (for the summer) for the morning or the day. Girls can even be dressed up like a maiko or geisha with the full makeup, hair styling, and garb. Prices start from about USD$50 and up to about USD$100. There are a bunch of places in Gion, and they offer English language support, which actually means, some minimal help. However, it’s actually very easy, so don’t worry about the language gap. This model below was nice enough to write up a story about her experience renting a kimono, thanks so much Mariko.
Update: Watch this space for “Another 5 Things to do in Kyoto”.