Destination: A Day Trip – Kyoto, Japan

If you haven’t read it already, I’m here to tell you I’m in love with Japan. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to make a trip to the land of the Rising Sun each year for around a decade now. Take a look at a previous trip below for more insight into this incredible country;

Destination: Sapporo (Hokkiado, Japan)

While most (read: all) of my trips to Japan are motivated by the search for waist deep powder, I’ve taken the time to play the tourist and explore.

Below is the result from a day trip to the historic capital of Kyoto. I had based myself in Osaka for a few days, which is a great jumping off point for exploring in the southern centre of the island of Honshu.


Location

Kyoto is the historical capital of Japan on the island of Honshu. The Emperor resided here from from 794 until 1868. It is now the country’s seventh largest city with a population of 1.4 million people and a modern face.

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Transport

Since I had made my base in Osaka and this was just a day trip, it was extremely easy to catch a train out to Kyoto. There are two options here:

  1. Get there at warp speed
  2. Travel like a mortal

Option 1 takes you a blistering 12 minutes on a Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to get from Osaka to Kyoto. This will lighten your wallet by 1,420 yen. It is an ideal way to maximise your time on the ground for a day of exploring while you hit your own personal land speed record. This is great option if you have a JR Rail Pass (which I did not) that gets you there quickly and cheaply.

Option 2 is Keihan Main Line from Yodoyabashi Station to Sanjo Station. At only 420 yen, this allows your travel dollar to go a little further while still getting you to where you need to go in around 55 minutes. This was my option because;

a) I didn’t have a JR Pass,

and

b) I’m cheap.

Get a window seat and comfortably watch the countryside roll by at a more reasonable 110 km/h.

You can use the website JR West Timetable and Fare Finder to look up other trains, as Osaka is a large city, and you will be able to search for the most convenient journey relative to your location.

If you are flying straight into Kyoto, forget I said anything.


The City

Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, is a city on the island of Honshu. It’s famous for its numerous classical Buddhist temples, as well as gardens, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines and traditional wooden houses. It’s also known for formal traditions such as kaiseki dining, consisting of multiple courses of precise dishes, and geisha, female entertainers often found in the Gion district.

Upon exiting the train station (if you caught any of the trains, of course), head straight to your nearest bicycle rental shop. I had read up a little on Kyoto before I made my trip, and the common theme about exploring Kyoto was it was best done by bicycle. Grab a town map as you head out the door and get peddling. I can’t remember the cost, but it was relatively inexpensive.

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Trusty sidekick for the day

As I’m writing this, I found on Google a day trip itinerary which is EXACTLY what I ended doing on the bicycle. It’s complete with map locations, descriptions, times and distances. Damn Google, you did good. Fortunately the map pictured above was just as trusty as a resource.


First Stop: Kiyomizu-dera

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Thanks to Wikipedia, we know “Kiyomizu-dera, officially Otowa-san Kiyomizu-dera, is an independent Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto. The temple is part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site.”

This was a short cycle East of Kyoto Station. The temple complex is sprawling, bordered by a cemetery with a view back towards downtown Kyoto. The foot traffic was high, but it was fairly easy to navigate, and would be incredible in Cherry Blossom season.

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View back west towards downtown Kyoto, temple complex to the right of the picture
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Escaping the seething crowds in the main temple area. Downtown Kyoto to the left of the photo.

 

Second Stop: Maruyama Park

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Maruyama Park entrance.

Only stopped for a look at the entrance here. It was only a short cycle North, and the main attraction here is the Cherry Blossom trees. I mainly came here because I wanted to pass through the Gion District, which is a famous geisha district, where you can catch a geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) or a maiko (geiko apprentices). I caught sight of them making their way down the streets between engagements, their traditional garb a sight in itself.

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Gion District. Geishas in hiding.

 

Third Stop: Higashiyama Jisho-ji (Silver Pavilion – Ginkaku-ji)

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The Silver Pavilion is centre-left. Facing towards downtown Kyoto.

This is not listed in the Google Day Trip, and I don’t really know why.

The complex is a peaceful zen garden, bordered by ponds and rock gardens. I am forever in awe of the trees in Japan because honestly, they don’t even look real.

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The Silver Pavilion playing Hide-and-Seek.

I highly recommend visiting here for its peacefulness and beauty. There was not too much foot traffic, and as I look back through my photos, I was wondering why I had taken some photos at such strange angles. Then I found out why ..

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Doing my best to keep the crowds out of the photo. Silver Pavilion.

Right, on to the next point of interest and

 

Fourth Stop: Kinkaku-ji (Gold Pavilion)

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Gold Pavilion.

From the Silver Pavilion, it was  a longer cycle to the North-East across town. As long as you follow the major roads, it’s relatively easy to find your way here. I mistakenly attempted a few short cuts, which left me scratching my head and backtracking almost every time.

This is one of the most popular buildings in Japan, and even at the time of year when I was visiting, the foot traffic was high. I shudder at the thought of visiting in peak season. Did I mention I don’t do well with crowds?

The building was burnt down in 1950, by a monk setting fire to the temple. The current iteration of the pavilion is magnificent in its shimmering golden veneer. It doesn’t take to long to walk around the complex and I’m soon back on the bicycle for the last stop.

Fifth Stop: Nijo Castle

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View inside the Nijo castle grounds.

I saved the biggest and best for last.

The sprawling castle grounds are bordered by a moat with only one access point. This meant I essentially circumnavigated the entire grounds. This would be much more tiresome if you were on foot and found yourself at the opposite end of the bridge.

There are a number of buildings within the grounds that contain artwork and information about the castle, it’s history and it’s place within Japanese culture in the mid 1600’s until 1939. In 1939 the palace was donated to the city of Kyoto, and opened to the public the following year.

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Pond and garden within the palace grounds.

And so concludes a day spent cycling around Kyoto

If you’ve been to the city of Kyoto and spent more than a day getting around seeing the sights, what would be your recommendations for travellers when they visit?

Hope you enjoyed the tour, stay tuned for more instalments as we explore more of Japan in the coming weeks.

Don’t forget to check out Destination: Sapporo (Hokkaido, Japan) for a look into the capital city of Hokkaido in the winter time.


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