Kyoto is the former Imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years. The city has an old name called Heian-kyo: which means tranquility and peace. So, the city peacefully remained as the center of culture, history, religion and tourism in Japan. Exploring the streets and alleys is a sweet and fulfilling experience, and it’s a good way to understand the Japanese culture for the first time~
This former capital of Japan is much bigger than you think. It has over two thousand temples and shrine scattered in different parts of the city on the Yamashiro Basin, which is surrounded by low-rise hills and highlands. The tremendous amount of attractions made it almost impossible to visit them all in one go (or even list them in the same blog in one go) – Old to new, big to small, seasons to seasons, the city is constantly changing as an ultimate manifestation of Japanese culture in so many different ways. I have been to Kyoto a few times and every time I saw and felt something new and incredible.
For October it could be a little too soon to appreciate foliage in Kyoto, but the weather was cool and crispy enough for visitors to comfortably enjoy the sights. The ancient capital was established and designed based on the grid system, referencing the Chinese capital Chang’an at that time. Therefore, it’s pretty easy to navigate the city with a bike as I was tired of catching bus schedules from places to places, there was a time I explore some farther temples in the city with a bike!
For Kyoto, try Rent-a-bike, they have some amazing route maps designed for different parts of Kyoto as well!
Day 1: Heian Shrine/ Nanzen-ji > Cycling along the Kamo River > Shimogamo Shrine > Kyoto Imperial Palace tour > Kinkaku-ji > (Hirano Shrine)
Day 2: Shiomizu–ji/Kodai-ji/Yasaka Pagoda > Topfuku–ji > Fushimi Inari-taisha
Upon departure after picking up our bikes at the Nishiki Market, our mini-expedition began 🙂 . The Nishiki Market is a downtown market with an overwhelming choice of Wagashi (tradition Japanese confections), souvenirs and arts and crafts. We ride our bikes along the Kamo River and headed north to the Kamigyō-ku for the day!
Heian Shrine 平安神宮 and Nanzen-ji 南禅寺
The National Museum of Modern Art is also nearby. It’s a tranquil neighborhood with alleys and roads that covered with trees. The Heian Shrine is an important cultural property of Japan as the main palace was painted in beautiful red and green and it has a spacious frontcourt that leads to a couple of museums. Behind the main buildings, the Japanese garden is a nicely groomed garden with weeping cherry trees, ponds, and traditional pagodas. Next to the temple is Nanzen-ji that located amidst the forested Higashiyama Mountains. The greenery added a certain kind of mysterious and solemnity to the site.
Kyoto Imperial Palace 京都御所
The highlight of my day was visiting the Kyoto Imperial Palace. It is built in 1855 and well-preserved with a rich tradition. The Palace has the look and ambiance that remind us of Japan’s ancient imperial dynasties, and valuable art and tradition that left us in awe. The tour covers several structures on the site, including the Shisinden (den means “the hall”), the Seiryoden, the Kogosyo, the Ogakumojyo, and the Otsunegoten. All these reflect different architectural styles and beauty over time. The palace is not exactly opened to public and visitors are required to apply via the Imperial Household Agency website for a guided tour, and the time slot could be filled up pretty fast J. The most impressive and beautifully decorated hall to me was the Shodaibunoma. It was then used as waiting rooms for official visits to the Palace by dignitaries, the guests were ushered into three different anterooms according to their ranks, from the highest to the lowest, Tiger’s room, Crane’s room, and Cherry Blossom’s room. Each room has its theme according to their names and was decorated delicately with paintings on the walls.
I didn’t have the chance to visit Kinkaku-ji the last couple of times just because it’s a bit farther than anything else in the city. Having said that, Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) is one of the most visited attractions in Kyoto just because of its unique and memorable exterior and I believe most would recognize it immediately from the picture. It is not exactly a big site, but the reflection of the Golden structure in the mirror pond is enough to make it a breathtaking must-see. The original temple was burnt down a couple times during wars and the current pavilion is a rebuilt in 1955.
We passed the Kitano Tenman-gu, Hirano Shrine, and the Nijō Castle on the way back to return our bikes for the day; and then we had dinner nearby the Hanamo-koji in Gion, took pictures of the Geisha and got prepared for the next day of fun!
Kiyomizu Tera 清水寺 (& Around: Ninen-zaka, Sannen-zaka & Kiyomizu-zaka)
I have been to Kiyomizu Tera a couple of times because it’s simply too iconic. Besides, a stroll in the nearby zakas (zaka means “streets”) is such a cultural experience that is never boring. Apart from Rokkatei, one of my favorite lunch places is the Saryouseihantei, a teahouse and pottery shop near Kiyomizu Tera with an open view overlooking the city. Walk along the streets toward the Yasaka-jinja八坂神社 and you might run into (or even participate in) visitors traveling around the streets with a Kyoto Maiko or Geisha makeover experience!
Tofukuji Temple 東福寺
Tofukuji is on the Southside of Kyoto and to me, it’s the best foliage viewing spot in Kyoto just because of the traditional wooden Tsutenkyo bridge that straddles across the sea of trees on the way in. The dark wood and black tiles added much solemn quality to the entire view.
So, the final memorable and iconic picture of Kyoto – the long Torii path in the Fushimi Inari-taisha (Taisha means “shrine”) that basically goes on and on deep into the Fushimi Mountain. In Japanese culture, the fox is a common subject of Japanese folklore and it’s common for Japanese to worship foxes. Inari fox is a Japanese deity that brings fertility, prosperity, and fortune.