A day in the city of samurai movies, street monsters and 1600 temples.
This time of year, Kyoto is cloaked in the pale pinks of sakura, the Japanese cherry blossom. The blooms fringe the historic canals and blush amongst the temple reds… it’s a season which frames Kyoto’s mix of nature and design perfectly. Out of flower season, the former capital is needless to say, still a cultural, culinary and architectural promised land. So, wake up, smell the sakura and let’s be on our way.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Begin your Kyoto quest at the iconic torii gates of Fushimi Inari.
You’ve seen the shrine’s rich vermilions in pictures, and the rest of the world has too. As such, Fushimi Inari receives a wave of tourists throughout the day. So to best savour the serenity and let’s be real, score that token photo, arrive before 8am. Or buy plenty of street food for your fellow tourists in the hopes that they massively bloat and can’t make it to the shrine’s upper levels. Up to you.
After you’ve completed the 4km walk through the ethereal torii gates – or part of it – feast at the lively street food market at the base of Fushimi. Here, you can enjoy icy matcha drinks and freshly grilled okonomiyaki. My tummy rumbles at the memory. Onto #2 before my drool glands set to work.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
While you’re up and at it, head to Arashyiama before the crowds settle in. Admittedly, these first two stops are hella touristy, but they’re worth it.
One option is to hire a bike in town and then explore Arashiyama’s railway, bamboo groves, ponds, and temples. If you like what you see, there are boats operating on the Hozu-gawa river which can zip you through tranquil springs and ripping rapids.
For me, the stand-out Arashiyama temple was Gio-ji.
Around the corner from the bamboo grove is this understated temple within a mossy forest. Had I not already been seeing Japanese ghosts and lost underworld souls like, everywhere, then for sure I would’ve seen fairies here. Also, in the compound, there is what can only be described as a moss buffet.
The little monsters of Yokai Street
The shopfronts of Kyoto’s Ichijo-dori Street is a wonderland for lovers of the quirky and supernatural. The street, which has unofficially been named after “Yokai”, Japanese folklore monsters, features homemade creatures like tribal ghouls and cats in traditional garb. There are around 30 of these bad boys to salute – or accost – you on your merry way. I can’t wait to become a homeowner who proudly litters their front yard with similar beings.
All templed out? Given that Kyoto has over 1600 of ’em, I echo your sentiments. So, release every atom of spirituality you’ve gained by visiting the retail gods.
The central part of town boasts Kyoto’s best food fare. Nishiki market is packed with fresh Japanese ingredients like matcha, herbs, chili, pickled vegetables, tofu and miso.
They also sell specialties like sesame ice cream, matcha warabimochi – jelly-like cubes – and juicy miso-roasted eggplant. Almost every food comes on a stick, so you know you’re in for a treat.
Nishiki is also the tits with its rainy-day friendly roof and cheeky food samples. So crunch on savoury rice snacks, feel bile rise to your throat when you sample sake (was that just me?) and hunt down the chap who sells rum-infused grapefruit.
Indulgences aside, Nishiki is also a learning experience. After a walk through the bustling markets you’ll know your mirin from your sake in no time. Your nose might even forget the potent tang of fresh fish.
International Manga Museum
Fancy yourself to be Death Note fiend? Recently saw a manga-inspired Hollywood flick? Wherever you lie in the fandom, the manga museum is tops.
Near Nishiki is this former school building devoted to showcasing manga’s influence on Japanese culture. The Manga Museum is swagged out with a collection of 300,000 manga which the public is welcome to read. Several translations are available.
The museum is truly a book-lovers paradise. Even just looking at its patrons is inspiring. Everyone is so engrossed in what they’re reading… it’s a lovely poo-pooing of all things Apple.
Traditional tea ceremony
For afternoon tea, have tea. Head to the atmospheric Ninenzaka teahouse of Camellia to make matcha green tea, learn the art of the tea ceremony and discover how it’s woven into the lustrous, silky fabric of Japanese culture and history. Don’t fret, tea masters run the ceremonies in English, too.
As the late afternoon sun sets in, take to the shady streets of Gion. This historical district is one where you can eat deliciously, explore extensively and if you return at night, catch a glimpse of the elusive geisha. Yes, my lack of accompanying image here means I wasn’t so lucky.
Memoirs of a Geisha bridge
Being a bit of a cinephile, I jump at every opportunity to visit a film site. If you’re the same, you’ll love Kyoto. Films such as Rashomon, Lost in Translation, The Last Samurai (eugh) and Memoirs of a Geisha were shot in Kyoto. And with good reason, the city is undeniably cinematic with its opulent temples, clouds of sakura and photo-perfect light. One film site I visited was the Tatsumi-bashi bridge. Featuring in Memoirs of a Geisha, the bridge stretches over the charming Shirakawa canal in the heart of Gion. It comes to life at twilight with the moody reds of the akachōchin lanterns just starting to shine.
The Philosopher’s Path
At sunset, head to the Ginkaku-ji Temple and stroll the 2km canal-hugging path to Nanzen-ji Temple. The Philosopher’s Path is one of the most scenic places to experience sakura season. During your walk, be sure to think deeply philosophical thoughts like the lyrics of that “Turning Japanese” banger.
Stay in a traditional Japanese home or Ryokan
In Kyoto, I stayed in a traditional Japanese home I found on Airbnb. When I arrived at night I believed it looked exactly like The Grudge house. I anticipated the kid spider crawling down the stairs, so I distracted myself with my market spoils (9 green tea Kit Kats were lost that evening) and by exploring the many rooms of the house.
Classic Japanese homes are other-worldly. With their low ceilings, tatami matted floors, minimalist furniture and sliding paper doors, it’s not a setup I’d normally opt for – I much prefer subterranean Phantom of the Opera style river dungeons – but embracing tradition in Kyoto is a must.
So, browse Airbnb to get the full Kyoto experience, or search the web for other classic types of accommodation like Ryokan, the traditional Japanese inns.
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