Written by Kat Mackintosh
Kyoto lets you back into the world of old Japan, of its religion and royalty and commerce and nightlife. Gion’s streets beckon welcomingly after a day of gazing in awe at the time and positive energy funneled into the construction and upkeep of Kyoto’s thousands of temples and shrines, proving there is still a lot of life in this beautiful old girl yet.
If you arrive in Kyoto on the Shinkansen, you’ll come off the calm smooth ride into what seems like a rabbit warren it’s impossible to get out of – just remember that this station is famous for its architecture and appreciate it thus.
An afternoon stroll along the Philosopher’s Path is the perfect introduction to Kyoto, the route is named for a university lecturer who used to pass this way every evening and it is certainly a path which encourages you to ponder as you plod. The route passes some of Kyoto’s most beautiful old houses - all behind gates - temples and shrines, and along the willow and cherry tree lined canal filled with fat, happy carp. Ideally you’ll reach the end of the route just as evening is beginning to set in but with time to see the moss garden of the Ginkaku-ji – I’m not normally someone who would recommend moss as worth looking at, but who knew it came in this many varieties and that it could be arranged in such a beautiful way – pop into the shrine as well and get your first shrine visit out of the way.
Okonomiyaki: both the food and the restaurant I can highly recommend for dinner your first night.
The enigmatic mystery of Japan’s floating world: the world of the geisha, has got to be the other thing that brings people to Kyoto – or the first if you weren’t aware that it has a robust number of shrines and temples in the thousands – so Gion, the heart of the dwindling geisha world, should be the first place you visit.
Depending on which way you’re coming from you should pass though perfectly austere Chion-in Temple, with Japan’s largest bell, perfectly arranged Maruyama Park and beautifully colourful Yasaka Shrine on the way. All of them are within walking distance. Here temples and shrines string up like wildflowers and you just can’t pick – or see – them all, but these few are exceptional and quite different from each other.
If you don't know a lot about Japanese feudal history before you get to Kyoto you'll learn a lot before leaving. One of the most basic things you'll pick up on is that the Shoguns lived fairly nice lives when they weren't involved in wars or life threatening court intrigues. Nijo Castle, your first stop on day three, would have been a lovely place to live. Its generous, regular shaped rooms lead on to wide corridors with big screen windows which would have let in plenty of light and breeze, it has high roofs with ornate designs carved into them and panels with very very lovely painted designs, some done in the 17th century, most of them featuring idyllic outdoor scenes which have then been replicated in perfect miniature in the gardens outside.
Now you’ve done shoguns and geishas it’s time to cross another temple off the list, and conveniently Toji Temple is close by.
Finish the day by heading back towards Gion for a tea house or noodle bar meal via the Nishiki Food Market and pick up some snacks for the Shinkansen ride to Hiroshima in the morning.
Hiroshima is easily reached by train from Osaka or Kyoto. The main reasons for visiting are the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Peace Memorial Park. If you’re there for more than a day you might get a sense of a city that is about more than just its place in history, but to most visitors Hiroshima means only one thing. But what an incredible and historic place to visit.
Rokuon-Ji Temple – possibly more familiar under the name Golden Pavilion, is much loved by photographers, the golden temple reflects off the lake of water which lays out in front of it seemingly for that purpose alone. You can’t go inside the temple but you can photograph it from several different angles, which seems to be the main activity of visitors – it is lovely though. Even more famous Ryoanji Temple and Garden is a short distance away. Again you’ll have seen photos of this temple and garden – it’s probably Japan’s most famous Zen garden, but the real garden, which your entry fee includes a wander though, impressed me much more.
Finish your day with a hike up Inarisan, the mountain behind Fushimi Inari Shrine – this is the mountain where those beautiful images of the many vermilion tori gates all lined up come from and one of the most magical places in this magical city. Probably my personal highlight.
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This nine day classic offers the contrasting best of Tokyo's neon and Kyoto's ancient grace.
This journey from Tokyo to Kyoto follows one of Japan's most famous ancient roads.
Tokyo brims with contradictions-ancient shrines and temples squashed between office blocks and shopping districts and any time spent there should embrace something of everything. Here's a nice blended three days of past, present and future Tokyo.