Things to Do in Kyoto

During our time in Osaka we made two day trips up to Kyoto. We decided to stay in Osaka and train to Kyoto because the accommodation in Osaka was significantly cheaper than in Kyoto. We took the regular train from Shin-Osaka station instead of the bullet train as, at $4-5 per ticket, it was less than half the price and still took less than an hour to get there. There are a lot of different train options for getting to Osaka to Kyoto so make sure to plan ahead to get the most efficient/least expensive option.  Our commute up to Kyoto was quicker than many of our trips into the center of Tokyo. Kyoto is known for its temples and traditional Japanese architecture. We’re not normally too big on spending all day temple hopping, so we decided to pick out a few that we thought would be particularly interesting. Here are our favorite spots we visited on our two days in Kyoto.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

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As much as I complain about the crowds at some of these places, patience and good timing can usually get you a pretty good picture.

Fushimi Inari Taisha is to Kyoto as running Glico man is to Osaka. If you google the city it’s bound to appear in dozens of pictures in your search results. You may not recognize the name, but I’d be willing to bet you’ve seen a picture of it before. We thought that by showing up in the morning we might be able to beat some of the crowds, but when we arrived at the main entrance at 9:00 am it was already bustling. There were absolutely no good photo opportunities to be had near the densely packed gates at the bottom. It was pretty funny how many people were walking through the first section of gates, taking a couple of the classic photos, and then turning around to head back out. Seeing this trend we decided that we absolutely needed to walk to the top of the mountain. Sure enough, the higher up we went, the less people we encountered. On the upper half of the trail there were plenty of places to get great pictures without crowds of other people in the background. Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t here just for the sake of getting pictures. The overall atmosphere on the upper half of the trail was also generally more serene, temple-like, and relaxing. There wasn’t much in the way of good views of Kyoto even from the top (maybe just because it was very overcast that day), but we were both glad we made the full trek. When we passed the halfway point on our way back down the trail, it had grown even more overrun. Bus-fulls of tour groups moved up the mountain like small armies, completely filling up the path and not paying attention to which side they were walking on (personal pet peeve). So, in the end it turned out to be a good thing that we got there when we did, though if you’re crowd averse it would probably be best to get there even earlier.

Kiyomizu Dera

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Never mind that previous caption. Some situations are just lost causes.

Kiyomizu Dera is another famous temple in Kyoto. We took the train up to the temple and enjoyed a brief walk around the temple complex, but opted not to go inside. Temple admissions often cost around $6-8 per person. This might not sound like much, but can quickly add up during a day full of touring temples. Unless you’re particularly interested in Japanese religion, art, or architecture, you can still have a very enjoyable time wandering around the grounds without going into temple overload. Of course everyone has their own travel style. Personally I’d much rather see a few less temple interiors and spend a little more on a super delicious lunch or dinner (more on these in our next post).

Yasaka Shrine

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If you only have time to visit Yasaka Shrine once, I’d recommend saving it for night.

Yasaka Shrine is a Shinto shrine in the center of Kyoto that is free to enter. We spent a little time wandering around in the afternoon, but it started to rain so we decided to come back later. We had also heard that this was a good spot to visit at night. We came back later in the evening, even though it was still raining, and we heard right. There were hundreds of lanterns hanging around the shrine. Unfortunately it was difficult getting pictures in the dark/rain, but the scene and atmosphere was well worth the trip back.

Teramachi Street

Another long covered shopping arcade. Alana was in her element once again. To be fair there were a lot of great souvenir shops in this area with prices that were better than anything we had seen so far in Tokyo or Osaka. We did most of our souvenir shopping for the trip here and picked up some real gems like t-shirts with funny traditional paintings on them, bobble-head sumo magnets, and samurai sword umbrellas (warning: these must be put in checked bags to take home LOL).

Kodai-ji

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Kodai-ji also had a very interesting night time light display.

We waited until night time to go to Kodai-ji, as we had heard there was a cool light display in the temple. We decided to pay to go in to this one, with no regrets. There was an interesting contemporary art exhibit in the temple that struck me as not particularly Buddhist (lots of naked half robot women), but it was still fun to walk around and check out. There was also a light show that took place in one of the temple gardens. I’m not sure what the story was, but it was fun to watch anyway. The rest of the grounds were lit as well and it was fun to walk around at night, even in the rain. We were the only two people wandering around the grounds (maybe mostly because of the rain) but I found strolling through the bamboo covered hills to be even more enjoyable than the famous…

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

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Here we see Alana in deep contemplation.

This is another surefire hit if you google Kyoto. Arashiyama Bamboo grove is a particularly dense patch of bamboo that you can walk through. To be honest we were both kind of disappointed in the bamboo grove. It was one of those places that seems more impressive in pictures than when you are actually there, like seeing the Great Pyramids without the sprawl of Giza in the background. There was only one relatively short, paved path through the grove and it was packed with tourists. We had a much more enjoyable time wandering through the nearby Arashiyama Park.

Arashiyama Monkey Park

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What monkey business is this?

The Monkey Park was just a 15 minute walk up the hill from the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. There wasn’t anyone else on the trail (it was cloudy and starting to rain). The monkeys in the area were pretty chill and mostly just huddled together, probably for warmth, sleeping or cleaning each other. It was 500 yen to feed the monkeys. In order to prevent all chaos from breaking loose, the feeding is done from inside a building with wire fences around the windows. Monkeys are free to climb up and take food from tourists through the fences. It was surprisingly orderly and free of monkey business. Feeding monkeys is much more pleasurable when you don’t have to worry about any of them sneaking up behind you to snatch at your hands or bags.

Ryoan-ji

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If there are fifteen rocks in a garden, but no one there to see them, do they even make a sound?

Ryoan-ji is a small temple that has a very famous/impressive rock garden. It often makes an appearance on lists of must see temples in Kyoto. There are 15 rocks placed strategically (or not, who can tell with this Zen stuff?) around the garden. It’s a bit like playing Where’s Waldo but with rocks, as you can’t see all of the rocks from any one position. The garden itself was very pretty and pleasant to look at, but there were so many people constantly filing in and out of the room that it was hardly the peaceful experience that I imagine the garden was originally meant to inspire.

Kinkaku-ji

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Behold, the golden pagoda! (So maybe we did manage to get some better pictures as well. Be sure to check out our Instagram to see them all!)

Kinkaku-ji is another famous must see temple in Kyoto, and like Ryoan-ji it was completely overrun with tourists. There were buses full of Chinese tourists emptying out by the entrance and the trail was a wall to wall shuffling mass of people. It was raining at this point so everyone had umbrellas overhead which made it difficult to navigate the crowd without risking an umbrella spoke to the eye. The golden pagoda for which the temple is named was very pretty but the weather and crowds made for a less than pleasant experience.

The moral of the story of our time in Kyoto is: If you’re in to temples then go crazy, but otherwise you could probably skip them and not feel too bad about it. Just because something is in a dozen guide books and listicles doesn’t mean its actually worth visiting. Of course, it dealing with the peer pressure/societal expectations can be overwhelming at first. It might take some practice to get used to not doing the things everyone says you should, but ultimately you are the best judge of what you will enjoy when traveling in a foreign country. On a rainy day in Kyoto, you might get just as much of an appreciation of the traditional architecture while eating lunch in a restaurant with a view in the Gion area (more on this in our next post) as you would struggling to stay afloat in the masses at Kinkaku-ji.

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