Awesome Things to Do for First-Timers in Kyoto
All photos by Josh Meister Photo.
When we planned to visit Japan, we knew we had to go to Tokyo, but we weren't sure where else to head. My sister is intimately familiar with the country as she has spent months at a time living in Japan as part of various exchanges and programs. She suggested several places, and Kyoto emerged as the winner for our second city.
GOLD AND SILVER PAVILIONS
The multitude of temples were our focus, and we visited a ton, our favorite being the Gold Pavilion, which embodies its name and positively shimmers in the late-afternoon sunlight. Awe-struck visitors crowd the edge of the lake in front of the building murmuring in excitement and taking crazy amounts of selfies in front of it.
We also loved Ginkakuju, known as the Silver Pavilion, yet actually not silver at all. Supposedly when it was built in the 1400s, the shogun intended to finish it in silver, but the funds ran out before that could happen. The name stuck though. The Silver Pavilion was originally built as the shogun's retirement home and was later converted to a Zen temple focusing on all sorts of arts including tea ceremonies and garden design. And the gardens are where the charm really lays. There's rolling and serene moss gardens, picturesque water features, and, my favorite, a super basic and weirdly captivating sand garden consisting almost solely of a giant cone of sand meant to represent Mt. Fuji. It's striking in its simplicity and perfection, and I couldn't keep my eyes off it during our visit to the garden. Literally so much so that I both walked into someone else while staring at it and ruined at least two separate tourist photo ops by again not being aware of anything else going on around me.
The Silver Pavilion is located at one end of the Philosopher's Walk, an approximately two-kilometer long path along a canal high up in the northern part of the city. The path is lined with cherry trees, which were not in bloom while we were there, but it was still beautiful and incredibly peaceful to meander along the route. There's a few cafes and artist vendors along the way, and the quietude makes you feel like you're worlds away from an urban center when in actuality, it's only about a 15-minute walk back to all the cars and people and life.
TEA CEREMONY IN KIMONOS
Our time in Kyoto overlapped with my birthday, and as the best gift ever, my sister booked a tea ceremony in full kimono regalia for us! We headed to the Higashiyama District, well known for the Yasaka Pagoda and several temples, plus many tea shops and kimono rental spots. Donning kimonos is actually an extremely popular activity in Kyoto, and the rental shops seem to be positively thriving. The morning of our kimono-dressing appointment, we arrived at Yume Kyoto not knowing what to expect and slightly flustered after lots of missteps attempting to figure out the Kyoto bus system (which is not easy!), but the staff ladies were incredibly efficient and quickly had us on task, browsing kimono options and picking out obis. In under an hour, we were swaddled in an under-layer wrap (or t-shirt for Josh), outfitted in our kimonos, bowtied into our obis, pursed up (Josh too), socked and slipped into our geta sandals, and, in my case, prom-haired for our day out.
Since we hadn't booked the kimonos ourselves, we hadn't done any research on them and thought we would just be in them for the tea ceremony, but as we left the shop, we were told to return at 5pm. We had a whole day in these things! (We later found out that the kimono rentals are available for an afternoon, a full day, or multiple days. And if you're staying in a central hotel, there's even an option to be disrobed at your hotel!)
We headed to the Camilla Teahouse where we part of a small group ceremony. Two beautifully kimono-clad women gave us a quick lesson on the role of the tea ceremony in Japanese culture and then performed the ceremony part of the tea ceremony, which lasted maybe ten minutes and involved a lot of ritual and focused on making essentially a taster cup of tea. After that, we were all served tea by receiving bowls with matcha powder and a special whisk that we used once hot water was poured into our bowls. Add in a fancy Japanese sweet, and voila, tea ceremony!
The rest of the day was spent tottering around the area, trying not to slip out of the sandals as we visited the various temples and took about a bajillion photos. Our favorite from this spot was the Kodai-ji temple, which features its own mini bamboo forest.
We spent over a week in Kyoto, and serendipitously, some friends we knew from Atlanta were in the city for a couple of days during our time there. We met up with them to head south for a day in Nara. There's a 45-minute direct express speed train from Kyoto Station, which makes it a super easy day trip. They had arranged for a guide for the day (free through Nara YMCA Goodwill Guides!), and Mariko was waiting for us when we disembarked from the train with a walking route of the park planned out for us. She steered us out of the station and immediately towards several shrines and pagodas, and tried to hold our attention while explaining the significance of these structures, but it was a lost cause. Even though Nara was the first capital of Japan, and has a lot of important attractions, it's not why we wanted to go there. In my mind the only reason to visit was the bowing wild deer. That's right – bowing deer! If you want to little-girl squeal, go right ahead. We were all trying to be respectful and pay attention, but our eyes were roaming, and the second we spotted our first deer, we turned into little kids at Christmas, maniacally moving from deer to deer, wide-eyed and giggling. She gave up on the temple she was trying to tell us about and followed us around as we bought “deer crackers” to feed them. Mariko told us that there's about 1,200 wild deer and that they're considered sacred and are protected as national treasures. She explained that the deer bow because the Japanese bow, and they've learned to associate bowing with the deer crackers, so they basically politely thank you before and after you give them a treat. It's amazing and wonderful and makes me smile every time I think about it.
Once we went through several packets of deer crackers and settled down, Mariko herded us over to Isuien, a stunning Japanese garden dating back to the Meiji era, then Todai-ji, which houses Japan's largest bronze Buddha, and finally Kasuga-Teisha Shrine in a forest full of stone lanterns and, of course, more meandering deer.
Back in Kyoto, we joined the group for a very fun (we think, because we don't remember much of it!) bar crawl one night and temple illuminations another night. Several of the temples in the city offer in-the-dark attractions in which they set up light displays throughout the grounds. It was certainly a different experience to walk through one of the shrines holding a paper lantern and exploring in the dark. We also spent a night bar-hopping in Gion on our own, hitting up various establishments for: a sake tasting, Japanese craft beers, and super fancy cocktails.
While in Kyoto, we also visited the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, one of the most photographed places in the city. Obviously, it's equally crowded, but if you visit early, you can avoid a lot of the crowds. We paired the visit with a ride on the Sagano Romantic Train, which, yes, has an incredibly terrible name, but is pretty endearing in its scenic route along the the Hozukyo Ravine.
Our last must-see stop was Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for its thousands of orange torii gates poised over a series of trails up Mount Inari. Again, tons of people, but the higher you climb, the more the crowds thin, and we decided to visit all of it. Hiking up through the gates and back took a couple of hours and was a bit of a workout, but it was also a little zen inducing as well. The gates are all donated by individuals and companies in hopes of good fortune. We're going to assume walking through all of them brings good fortune as well!