Our first impression of Kyoto was an ugly one. Ugly, modern buildings clustered together, over crowded streets with tourists…where was the epic, ancient city we read about in the guidebook? But it seems Kyoto is like a geisha herself…be patient, wander down alleys off the main road, stay for awhile because you are curious and soon enough you find what you desire under its many layers.

Some advice if you are looking for places of beauty and trying to get around Kyoto:

  • Kyoto is most beautiful as you go up into the hills that circle the city. 
  • In the middle of the city are also some gems, old buildings, artisan shops, but you usually have to go off the main avenues to find them. 
  • Famous Temples are quiet early morning or later toward closing. 
  • Go to some off beat temples or shrines and you might find yourself some peace from the crowds. 
  • Taking the train is faster and less crowded then the bus. Taxi is even more comfortable if you’re not on a tight budget. Kyoto is a big city. It takes at least 45 minute to get from one end to the other. So you may want to prioritize what’s most important for you on a shorter time frame.

You can really get “templed-out” in Kyoto. But if you do your research and find temples that either interest you in some way then it can be even more exciting to visit them. In my case, I’m interested in zen buddhism and tea ceremony. Kyoto is very exciting for me since so many temples here have a deep historical connection to zen and tea. 

There is such a wealth of sights in Kyoto it’s hard to believe that most tourists only spend a few days here. We spent almost 3 weeks and never ran out of things to do or see. Here are some of the highlights.

  
Kinkaku-ji temple: the golden temple – of course – the famous icon of Kyoto temples. It is truly other-worldly to see in person. Not disappointing at all, even on a cloudy day. The golden temple houses relics of Buddha. Nice tea house to view on the circuit out.

  
Ryoanji temple: the iconic and famous “dry garden” or rock garden. Also not disappointing at all. I have to say, when you see photos of the dry gardens you may wonder, what’s the deal? But there is something mesmerizing, perplexing, and calming about them in person. They definitely put you in a contemplative mood, as if they cast a spell on you. Daniel and I stayed musing at this one for a long time, considered one of the most perfect forms of a dry garden in the world. We have to agree. It is truly special. Can’t really put it into words, you just have to go, sit and experience it for yourself. You may say “it’s just a bunch of rocks” or you may look upon it and suddenly see a whole new way of seeing the world around you… it all depends on you.

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Fushimi Inari shrine: the guide books will say this is the number one shrine to see, we also have to agree. This is one of the most fun temples to visit. It’s lively, energetic, and mysterious. Once you go through the first set of tori gates, the crowds start to thin out and eventually disappear. Take the whole morning to slow down and enjoy it if you can. If you want you can keep on climbing to the top of a mountain where the thousands of vermillion tori gates keep on going up, up, up.

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Along the way you will see statues of magical foxes called “kitsune” – they are considered to be spiritual messengers and carry various objects in their mouths. What’s their message? Only you can find out.

  

Kenninji temple: in the Gion district, this is one of the oldest zen temples in Kyoto founded by Eisai, noted for making drinking green tea popular in Japan. Definitely go and get a cup of matcha here after viewing a tea house built by Sen no Rikyu, tea master.

  

Daitokuji temple complex: lots of Sen no Rikyu history here. His grave is here as well as tea houses and gardens he built. Not all buildings are open, check before you go.

  
Arashiyama area: this area of Kyoto deserves a whole day of your time. There are many sights to see. We toured it backwards to try to avoid the crowd. Check out Rakushisha poet’s house, shown above – (house of the fallen persimmons) a student of Basho. Very moving and worth a peek if you like haiku poetry. http://www.rakushisha.jp/index.html. There is the preserved town district and the famous bamboo forest walk. You can take a train ride through the hills, a boat ride down the river, or just wander. Lovely area. Top it off with a visit to the local, public onsen Fufu-no-Yu: http://www.hotespa.net/spa/fufu/#_=_

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Kodaiji temple: don’t miss the unique tea houses on the top of the hill, built by Sen no Rikyu (tea master, noted for refining the current state of the tea ceremony). 

   

 Tofukuji – famous spot for autumn leaves, but they also have some beautiful, graphic moss gardening and dry rock gardens that are interesting to see.

  
Gion district and Pontocho alley – go around 9-11pm and catch the real geishas doing their thing.

  
Philosophers walk – a lovely stroll following a stream. You can walk into the hills off the path to view various temples. 

  
We enjoyed visiting Honen-Ji temple along the Philosopher’s walk. A small, quiet and peaceful temple away from the crowds. Lots of little boutiques and cafes scattered along the path.

Urasenke Chado Research museum, library and Konnichian – if you’re really into tea ceremony, this is the headquarters of the Urasenke school of tea. There is not much to see or do, but you can view their latest exhibition and drink a bowl of matcha, without the ceremony though. They also have a few books in English in their library you can read or to purchase.

Joukeian tea ceremony: lovely and sincere tea ceremony at her home. An intimate and memorable experience if you’d like to experience a full, real tea ceremony and not a watered down tourist one. http://joukeian.gotohp.jp/english/index.html

  
Zazen mediation at Shourin-ji temple. This was a very interesting experience, especially if you want to actually practice meditation instead of just look at pretty buildings. This temple offers a one hour zazen, seated meditation experience (an intro, two 15 min sittings with a break in between, good for beginners). They do not speak much English, but you should make a reservation by phone and they offer printed instructions in English but the monk will be speaking only in Japanese. Unusual experience is that you can ask to be “tapped” on the shoulders with the keisaku “enlightenment stick” carried by the monk. He will walk around during the meditation and tap people who bow to him. Supposed to help alleviate pain in your back and wake up your mind. I tried it. It definitely wakes you up! Not for the faint of heart, stings a little. You may want to wait for a brave soul in the room to ask for it first before asking yourself. Tea is served after. http://shourin-ji.org

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