We were really looking forward to visiting Kyoto, having heard what an interesting place it was, with all its treasures scattered around the town. Would Kyoto live up to that?
Being the former capital of Japan for many years (794-1868), Kyoto has its fair share of shrines and temples. Don’t do them all!!!! We chose a few and added them to the list of things we wanted to experience in Kyoto.
The sights we wanted to see were scattered all around the Kyoto area and for the first time, we used the bus to get around, as there are only two subway lines. It was actually a great experience and we got to talk to more locals than we have done traveling anywhere else in Japan. Kyoto being a fairly small city, you feel the big numbers of tourists in a different way than most other places we visited in Japan. Us, tourists, are everywhere in great numbers, and especially the many groups traveling together can make it a bit overwhelming, but it’s hard to blame people for wanting to experience the impressive sights in Kyoto. So, we joined the masses and dived in.
Having been riding the bus in the wrong direction for 20 minutes on our first day, we quickly changed our plans for what to see on our first day – flexibility has become one of our core skills. Some students in the bus chatted us up with their limited English “cute boys”, “very beautiful” and “how old?” and when we told them where we were going, they all looked strange at us and pointed to the other direction. We immediately got off the bus and looked around, we were close to the Higashi-Honganji Temple, with the largest wooden building in Japan, and decided to have a closer look. The temple halls covered with tatami mats are such a special place to visit. Walking around bare feet or in your socks, is just a nice feeling with the tatami mats and the huge open space invited to a sit down and clearing of the mind.
We were told that the Golden Pavilion would be so bright that you cannot look directly at it… and that might be true when the sun is shining, but it was overcast with light rain when we were there but still a breathtaking sight, no doubt. The Golden Pavilion also know as The Kinkakuji Zen Temple was originally the retirement villa for the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and after his death it became a Zen temple according to his wish. The two top floors are completely covered in golden leaf, and you simply can’t take your eyes off this beautiful building. You walk around it in one direction and along with the crowds you get to take pictures all along. On roof of the pavilion there is a golden Phoenix, which happens to have been used as a Pokémon figure, called Ho-Oh, which was a little twist and fun for kids being all into Pokémon while in Japan. You shouldn’t visit Kyoto without paying a visit to the Kinkakuji, that even in the rain was more impressive than we could have imagined.
What’s Tall and Green?
One of the places that had been on our list of places to visit from before we set off as fulltime travelers, was the bamboo forest. Finally, we were there. After a 30-minute bus ride to the western outskirts of Kyoto, we made it to the district of Arashiyama with its bamboo grove and Tenryuji temple, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the five great Zen temples in Kyoto.
First of all, let me just put it this way, we were not alone there. We followed the suggestion of “just keep on walking up the hill in the bamboo forest as most of the tourists stay at the bottom”. It’s true to some extend and it’s a pretty and special experience walking through the tall bamboo. The forest itself was a bit smaller than we expected, but nonetheless definitely worth the visit and nice to walk around on the path that takes you through the bamboo grove. Lots of pretty bamboo pictures to be taken, especially at the top of the hill.
Want to Dine at a Michelin Restaurant in the Tenryuji Temple Garden?
There is a pretty garden surrounding the Tenryuji temple, which lies at the food of the bamboo grove, but all the way in the back, we had one of our most memorable dining experiences in Japan. The Shigetsu restaurant with a “Zen Vegetarian Cuisine” serving a menu traditionally and still today served to the Zen Buddhist monks.
We were sat on a long row in a room covered with tatami mats and seated on the floor. There was no choice of menu – it was the one and only “today’s set of dishes”. We ordered 3 sets, now sure how the boys would appreciate it, thinking that sharing would probably be fine – and it was. The restaurant has even received a “Bib Gourmand” by Michelin, which represents “a restaurant serving exceptionally good food at moderate prices”, and we can only agree. Not only was the food amazing, the whole experience was a highlight for the family, even though the youngest members of the family found some of the dishes a bit… “too different”. We stayed and enjoyed the whole experience, sitting on and off our knees, for a while and in the end, we had the whole dining room to ourselves.
The Never-Ending Orange Gates
Another shrine that deserves highlighting is “the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its 10.000 gates”, but truth be told, there are over 32.000 gates there. We had read and heard about this place with the many gates we could walk through, but we had not imagined a 4-5 km. hike up and down the mountain, walking through the gates all the way. It felt like a never-ending path of the picturesque trail of orange gates on the sacred Inari Mountain. It took us a good 2 hours to complete the round/hike up and down. There are many smaller shrines along the way and even restaurants and “cafés” ready to chill you down with a cold drink or ice cream. There were many places for the boys to run and play all way, and it certainly made for an impressive and memorable experience – and lots of pictures with the orange gates. The town at the foot of the shrine is full of food stands and stores for the tourists. We actually had a lot of delicious snacks and treats there.
Geisha or Not?
Coming back to Kyoto we were now staying in a traditional Japanese house in the Gion district. The Gion district is full of life and a fun area to stay in. It’s now a mix of the traditional wooden merchants’ houses, that Kyoto is famous for and modern stores and lots of different restaurants. People also come here in the hope of getting a glimpse of a geisha, as this is the area, as they typically work here in. We didn’t see any, but loved walking around looking at all these special places. There are so many wonderful restaurants, and it was hard to pick where to eat. One night we ended up with the most amazing gyoza and dumplings, eating them standing up outside the restaurant at bar tables and our last night we had wonderful sushi right by the river in this fun and lively neighborhood.
Let the Imperial App Guide You
You really should also visit Kyoto Imperial Palace and the park surrounding it. It’s an enormous park with extremely wide paths. We didn’t have great weather, but it almost added to the experience as clouds and misty rain created this special atmosphere. The boys could run around freely and there was even a small museum with the great information about the park, buildings and the flora and fauna there. As with most other places, you take off your shoes at the entrance so leave the socks with holes at home. The palace itself was clearly the highlight. We downloaded an app that told us about the palace and its different sights in 30-60 second videos, which even the boys enjoyed. As always, it’s more fun to visit a place if you know a bit about what you are seeing. The app “pinged” us every time we were approaching a new place we needed to learn about as we walked around. It ended up being really enjoyable for us all and we learned a lot about Kyoto, the imperial family and history.
Let Your Inner Samurai or Ninja Out
Our last and final visit in Kyoto was the TOEI Studio Park which is a Japanese movie Samurai theme park. You don’t have to know any Japanese movies to enjoy it there. Our boys really loved it. After buying the entry tickets, you buy additional tickets for the rides and different experiences. You can dress up as a Samurai, learn how to fight like a ninja, watch Ninja and Samurai shows, get a samurai sword fighting lesson, watch street performances and of course try all the rides. The studio park is full of actors, and if you are lucky you will see real actors live recording a movie. It’s quite different from all the “plastic fantastic” amusement parks with a slower pace, and I mean it in a very positive way. The kids had tons of fun and we parents got to try some rides, see smiles on our kids’ faces, all while we learned loads about Japanese culture.
It was great to finish off our Kyoto experience with lots of fun and everyone having a good time. There’s a lot more to explore in Kyoto, but we only had so much time, and we have realized that we can’t be out exploring all day long every day. We need time to absorb and digest all the experiences and wonderful culture.