Kyoto was the original capital of Japan for over 1,000 years. It was after the Emperor was re-seated in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1868 that Kyoto lost its title. For a short time, Kyoto was called the Western Capital, but with Tokyo’s growing economy and industry thanks to the U.S. forcing its borders open in the 1860s, Tokyo became the true capital city of Japan and it has remained that way through today.
Over time, Kyoto grew and changed to be the more “intellectual” city and was the initial target for the atomic bomb during WWII. But because the bomb, instead, targeted Nagasaki, Kyoto still has many buildings dating back centuries rather than decades. These old buildings and structures were the main reason we really wanted to see it.
Out first night in Japan was in Osaka where we had amazing sushi and saw our first Japanese temple, but after arriving in Kyoto, we thought of Osaka as a great introduction to the country. Kyoto was where we felt fully immersed in the history, culture, and daily life. The Old Capital is set up like a big city with its boroughs and neighborhoods, but it still has the historical feel and limited real estate to make it feel like a small town waiting to be discovered. We were absolutely thrilled to find ourselves equally surrounded by hundreds of people but also find moments of complete solitude.
We arrived in Kyoto after taking the train from Osaka. We did take the “rapid” train and not the “bullet” train to save $20, and we were still in the next town within 30 minutes. Tickets were 560 yen per person, and the ticket machines were set up exactly like the ones for the underground subway.
Unlike Osaka, there are only two subway lines in Kyoto, so if you’re looking for inner-city travel, I would highly recommend getting a bus pass. For a single, unlimited travel day, it’s 500 yen per person. However, if you’re trying to just get from one end of the city to the other, one of the two subway lines will help you reach your destination.
Our ryokan hotel was on the far east side, so we hopped on the Keihan Line to and then walked toward the Jingu-Marutamachi Station near the Kamo River. The Ryokan Sawaya Honten was a bit difficult to find as we walked up and down Maruta-matchi Dori (where the bus stops are) and Shogoin Kawaharacho Kyoto-shi until we saw it nestled quietly right across the way from the University Hospital.
We were ushered into our traditional Japanese room with tatami mats laid on the floor and matcha tea ready to be brewed with delicious yatsuhashi to share. While the main door to the room opened like any other door, we loved that all of the windows and other partition doors slid from side to side giving us an authentic Japanese home/hotel feel.
After we put our bags down, we headed out to find some lunch. Searching for gluten-free food in Japan is both difficult and incredibly easy. For one, most things are served with rice, so I never had any problems there. Even the yatsuhashi cinnamon cookies were made with rice flour instead of wheat. But most places that were on the cheaper scale in Japan were ramen houses. Nowhere could I find gluten-free ramen, so finding food for me turned into a bit of a challenge. However, I will note that at the ramen houses we did go to, there was one dish I could have: pork and rice. As delicious as it was, multiple servings of the high fat and carb dish with no semblance of a vegetable to be found was wearing on me.
However, we did find one place on the east side of town called Beer Komachi that boasted craft beers, German/Japanese food, and a fun atmosphere. Tucked deep in some alley ways, we eventually found it and sat down in the tiny closet of a cafe. The American owner came over to us and took our order making us feel at home yet guilty for not going for traditional Japanese cuisine.
But the food was perfect. Jeff had a local beer with pizza while I enjoyed some amazing sake served in a glass and box with sausage with rice balls. The dishes were small, so the steep lunch price was a bit of an eye-opener into how expensive it was to travel in Japan. But then again, we were enjoying a wonderful meal deep in the suburbs of Kyoto. It was a sublime moment.
From there, we made the short walk to the Chion-In Temple in the Gion District. By the time we arrived, the sun was just starting to set and the temple was closed, but the grounds are open to the public 24/7. The dusky sky was a perfect backdrop to the ancient architecture preserved by time.
The original Chion-in Temple was built in 1234 as a school for Jodo-shu, a form of Buddhism. Today, the buildings that stand were built in 1633 because the original structures were burned down, and it houses the largest temple bell weighing at 74 tons. The grounds for the temple were massive! As we walked up and down stairs, through alleyways and narrow streets, we had forgotten we were still wandering on the compound. But we found our way out as the sun completely disappeared and then suddenly surrounded by dozens of lit lanterns celebrating the Gion Festival.
The Gion Matsuri (Festival) happens every July and includes a parade. Originally, the festival was meant as a purification ritual, but in 1533 the Ashikaga shogunate ended all religious rituals and practices, but it allowed the people to keep the celebration. Most days out of the month, there is something going on whether its a parade with massive floats, performances, or simple cleansing practices at the Kamo River. We loved seeing so many people dressed in formal Japanese wear walking around the Gion neighborhood with all of the lanterns lit.
To join in the celebrations, we ducked into a chain coffee shop: Tully’s, and I had the most random but delicious concoction. It was a pink lemonade with chardonnay wine jelly at the bottom. It tasted like a boozy gummy bear and was the perfect refreshment for a hot night.
The next morning, Jeff and I indulged in a well-known tradition in Japan: the morning hot tub. In our ryokan hotel, there were respective men’s and women’s hot tub rooms. In our small hotel, every time we went, we were the only ones in our little pools adding much needed serenity to the busy trip. One of the other things I loved about our hotel was the matcha tea shampoo. After a week in Japan, I really became accustomed to matcha and found myself craving it, so I filled a small bottle of the matcha shampoo to bring home and remember some of the magic.
Before the day got too hot, Jeff and I boarded our bus and headed to the exact opposite side of the city for the Arashiyama district. We had seen photos of the famous bamboo forest, and now it was our turn to see it first hand. We hopped on the bus and asked our bus driver where to get off for the forest since it was not exactly where we had assumed, so make sure you ask. We got off at the Nonomiya stop (bus line 93, 11, 28) and walked down a side path that takes you directly into the Bamboo Forest, and since we had gotten there around 8:30, we had it nearly to ourselves. I highly encourage you to get there early because it was otherworldly to be walking in a path of the tallest bamboo I have ever seen.
As we continued to walk through the dense forest and hiking paths, we found ourselves in the middle of a subdivision of homes. All of the people who were working on their homes or just outside greeted us and were incredibly friendly. We were the only tourists in any direction, so we did feel a little out of place, but we were on a mission. Deeper in the Arashiyama area are shrines and old homes anyone can visit.
The first we came upon was Rakushisha, a poet’s house with a beautiful, old thatched roof. It had belonged to Mukai Kyorai who was heavily inspired by Basho, who did visit on the very rare occasion. We were completely floored by the serenity the space provided between the open space house and the trickling water fountain just outside the living room doors.
Then, we decided to go a little deeper into the narrow streets and quiet dead end roads of Kyoto to find the Gio-ji Temple. This temple, originally constructed in 1895, houses the Buddha Dainichi statue symbolizing oneness with the universe. Unfortunately, there are no photos allowed inside the temple, so I could only take pictures of the surrounding grounds, which were nothing short of gorgeous. Everything seemed to be covered with green moss and wild foliage.
We did pay 300 yen to enter the compound, and while it is a very small space, I would highly recommend going in. The small pathway is a perfect example of a dream Japanese garden with a babbling brook and more bamboo trees. In the back, there is a small cemetery that houses Gio, a well-known beauty and nun during the 12th century whom the temple is named after.
Exploring the Arashiyama area of Kyoto is much more than the bamboo forest, and I highly recommend taking more than just a few hours to explore all of the temples and sights. In the compound, there is also a monkey park, a zen temple, and vintage railroad station where you can take a ride between Arashiyama and the Hozugawa River, also known as the Sagano Scenic Railway.
While on the west side of Kyoto, we decided to go and see the famous Kinkakuji Temple famous for being gold. Originally built in 1397, this temple was not always gold. At first, it was a zen temple just used for religious purposes, but it was burned down during the Onin War. It was burned down again in 1950 when a monk attempted to burn himself alive, and the flames traveled too far from his spot.
The current temple, in all its glory, is the restored 1955 version. The origin of the gold leaf is up in the air, but many believe there was a form of it in the earlier constructions. Today, the gold leaf is the most undertaking and expensive part of the constant up-keep. As tourists and travelers, we were not allowed inside the structure, but the grounds were truly breathtaking. We saw it is in the summer months, and I can only imagine what it must look like in the spring and fall with the cherry blossoms and leaf change.
After seeing so many of the temples and shrines in Japan, you’ll realize just how quickly the cost adds up. Kinkakuji was 400 yen per person, so do keep this in mind when planning your trip.
I could not help but take photo after photo of the temple and the grounds, but we did have to leave eventually to continue our journey, but not before taking respite from the heat with matcha/vanilla soft serve and trying a black sesame soft serve sold at the entrance of the temple. Definitely some fun colors, but they were both absolutely delicious.
A transport tip: To get to the Kinkakuji Temple, you can use bus number 12 or 59. I would highly recommend using the Kinkakuji-mae bus stop to return to the city. One stop before the main attraction almost guarantees you a seat on the bus because most tourists will be getting on at Kikakuji-michi.
Some call the Ginkakuji Temple the sister temple to Kinkakuji, or the silver temple to the golden pavilion of the west, but I am here to tell you, there is very little silver on this temple. This area, on the complete opposite side of town, was stunning. Yes, the admission was another 500 yen, but seeing the meticulous zen gardens and extended views of the city made it worth it.
This temple was originally built in 1490, and it was intended to be covered in silver leaf, but many delays wound up eventually canceling the plan. But more than the temple itself, it really is the gardens that are more breathtaking. Heavy mosses are carefully tended by gardeners who were on their knees with a small pair of scissors to trim the foliage.
Off to the side, there is a path that climbs a small hill to oversee the temple and the city off in the distance. As we climbed, we saw a small sign mounted on the fence taking note of a particular tree that is a descendant of the trees that were exposed to the Hiroshima bomb radiation. There is no telling if we saw the actual tree since it was off in the distance, but it was a somber remembrance of that event.
Our time in Kyoto was going quickly, but we still had much more to see. Stay tuned on our Kyoto journey as we see 1,000 Buddhas, explore the famous orange Fushimi Inari Shrines, and walk through castle that absolutely floored me.