If Tokyo is the busy and trendy Japan destination, Kyoto is the beautiful more traditional one. Kyoto has countless shrines, Geishas walk in the street like you would walk to a grocery shop, ryokans are the recommended accommodation type to stay at – this is where you will have a taste of Japanese traditions.
We stayed in Kyoto for 4 days, but, to be honest, I wished we had a fifth day there as there were a few things we had no time to do. I guess that’s an excuse to go back, right?
Day 1 – Higashi Honganji, Kyoto Train Station & Fushimi
After dropping our bags at our hotel we headed to Higashi Honganji, a big shrine, a stone’s throw away from Kyoto station. It is a complex made of multiple temples and very impressive.
Having worked up an appetite, we headed to Kyoto’s train station on the lookout for a place to eat. You may think that eating in a train station is a little sad, but Kyoto’s station is an architectural wonder and absolutely worth getting lost in.
Among the floors of shops and eateries, you will find glimpses of the city and some magical architectural moments. And on the 11th floor, you will find an excellent tonkatsu at Katsukura.
After lunch, we hopped on the JR line to Fushimi. A few tips before we start the visit: when visiting Fushimi wear comfortable shoes that you can walk-in for a good few hours and have at least a bottle of water per person.
Fushimi is one of the most famous touristic sights in the world with its thousands of torii gates lined along the mountain trail.
Warning – the first kilometre is hell! You will be stuck in a crowd of tourists stopping every two meters to take a picture. After the first kilometre, people will start to head back, the trail will get less busy and you will finally have a quiet moment to embrace the beauty of the place.
Keep climbing (you have to walk that tonkatsu off, right?) to the quietest spot and unspoiled views of the valley.
Then turn around and head all the way back downhill to the station. There is no shortcut exit there. Take one last (sweaty) picture, and head back to your hotel for a shower.
Freshened-up and starving, we enjoyed a ‘burnt’ ramen at Gogyo Ramen that evening.
Day 2 – The Bamboo Forest, Kinkaku-ji & Hirano Shrine
We started the second day at the famous Bamboo Forest. You must have seen this place all over Instagram, Pinterest and other social media. It looks beautifully serene on most pictures right? Well let me tell you, in real life, it is MUCH busier. No silence and bird chirping noises, camera noises and ‘say cheeeeese’ is what you will hear the most.
The Bamboo Forest is breathtakingly beautiful though, and once you adjust to the flow of people you will see through the chaos its true beauty.
Get lost in the small alleyways around the forest and explore some of the shrines surrounding the place before your next stop!
A train and a walk later, we arrived at Kinkaku-ji. Again, crazy busy, again ridiculously beautiful.
There you will find the most beautiful gold-plated shrine, in the middle of a wonderfully Japanese-looking pond.
The park is gorgeous and I really cannot emphasise enough on how beautiful the golden pavilion is.
On our way back to the station we swung by Hirano Shrine, a peaceful ‘everyday life’ shrine where we had a few last glimpses of the cherry blossom season (we missed it by only 10 days!).
Day 3 – Daimaru Kyoto, Nishiki Market, Pontocho & the Imperial Palace
Our third day in Kyoto was a rainy one. We started the day sheltered into the shops of Shijo Dori. A bit of shopping never hurts anyone!
If you are only going to enter one shop, make it Daimaru, their food court to be more precise. Daimaru is comparable to Selfridges or Le Bon Marche and the food hall is amazing!
Talking about food, after salivating in the alleys of Daimaru, we headed to Nishiki Market for our real lunch. Dedicate a good 90 minutes to two hours to the place as there is so much to see and to taste.
In need of a walk after so much food, we headed to the small streets of Pontocho with the hope to run into a geisha.
Geishas there weren’t, but charming little houses to take pictures of there were!
The day was getting greyer and greyer but we still stuck to our plan and walked to the Imperial Palace park.
After so much walking and in need of something warm and comforting to eat, we ended our day at What’s for some delicious beef.
Day 4 – Kiyomizu-dera, Sannen-zaka, Yasaka Shrine & Gion
Luckily our last day in Kyoto was sunny and warm again, the perfect weather to end our trip at one of the most famous sights Kiyomizu-dera.
Kiyomizu-dera is easily recognisable from afar with its tall red pagoda.
We explored the shrine before getting lost in the traditional streets of Sannen-zaka.
Walking along the wooden houses was like a trip through time, and we FINALLY found some geishas!
Be aware that geishas are coy by nature and not easy to photograph. Respect it as you don’t want to come across as a rude tourist.
We wandered in Maruyama Park.
Our last stop before lunch was Yasaka Shrine, a beautiful temple just off Gion’s streets.
After a quick lunch on the go, we got lost in the streets of Gion, a lively neighbourhood where you will find designers’ shops, traditional ryokans, and, again, some beautiful shrines.
Where to stay?
We stayed in two different places during our time in Kyoto. We spent the first couple of nights in Sakura Terrace, a perfectly fine hotel a short walk away from the train station, great to hop on the JR line to Fushimi and the Bamboo Forest.
The following two nights we stayed in a traditional room at Matsubaya Ryokan, a great ryokan with an amazing traditional Japanese breakfast and where futons are lot comfier than what they look like.