Lesson : Kyoto will Always be the Heart and Soul of Japan


When we were deciding where to take my sister Elaine, who was coming to Japan for the first time, one place was essentially a no-brainer. Most folks that are familiar with Japan recommend that any first time visitor should go to Kyoto above any other place.

Kyoto is practically a must place to visit if you come to Japan. It has all the history you would expect, with ancient temples, shrines, and castles.  But most of Kyoto is modern, or let’s say post-war, so very similar to other Japanese cities in that regard. I will recommend a few temples or shrines to see that I consider the best, but there are so many others that you will be overwhelmed quickly trying to decide which ones to visit. 

Here are some of the places we visited.

Kiyomizu-dera — My favorite temple in Kyoto, its setting is on a hillside with surrounding forest that is amazing especially in the fall. Come via the Kiyomizu-dera Zuigudo, and follow the crowds. There’s a typical walk you do towards the temple, bending around right and eventually below the temple to where the “waterfall” is (Otonowa-no-taki). 

Kinkaku-ji - In my opinion the prettiest temple of them all. The setting is beautiful with the golden temple on a pond with surrounding gardens. 

Fushimi Inari Taisha - I visited this Shinto shrine decades ago but could not visit it on our last trip unfortunately. So, no pictures. (I learned the hard way not to publish pictures taken by other people.) Sad. Anyway, it is a rather unique complex as it includes the famous red torii gates and the surrounding forest and Mount Inari. It is solidly on my top three list of temples and shrines to visit.

Nojo-jo — Nojo Castle was a place on my list to visit when we visited Kyoto earlier this year, and fortunately we had the time to go there. The grounds are rather large, with nice gardens surrounding the main building. They offer a very informative self-tour; you can buy tickets there. Lots of colorful rooms and history explanations in English are available.

Nishiki Market — Now for something completely different. This market is basically a long narrow covered mall filled with little shops. Many of the shops sell food, so you can snack along the way. Great to do on a rainy day. Not a bad place to grab some lunch as you walk. There are connecting areas with more shopping so fun to explore them. Extra points if you can find Mipig Cafe.

Pontocho — A good place to check out at night, Pontocho is basically an alley that runs parallel to the river. It is known for its restaurants featuring exclusively Japanese cuisine, though I think I did see one or two other restaurants that snuck in there. Some restaurants have an outdoor deck from which you can see the river. Look into which restaurant you want to visit, and then select a Plan B in case your first choice is full.

Gion Walk — This is the old area of town, with a mix of shops and restaurants. Start at Gion-Shijo station. On the other side of the river is a more modern shopping area. But you want to walk the other direction towards Yasaka Shrine. Look for Hanamikoji Street - turn right. Old style buildings line the street; go as far as Gion Corner.  There are two theaters there where you can catch a live Geisha show. They sell tickets out front, but better to check online before you go.  

There are plenty of temples in the backstreets of this area, and a new large hotel is being built there too. I like this better than Philosophers’ Walk, though you might want to check that out too.