Kyoto is rich with stories, architecture, traditions, gardens and desserts worthy of their own museum. We’ve partnered with Keryn Means of Walking On Travels to help us plan our own adventure to this beautiful Japanese city.
Japan has long been a land of mystery and intrigue. Samurai, geisha, things they put in sushi—it all fascinates us as Americans. A few years ago, my husband and I took our first trip to Kyoto with our oldest son, who was just a baby at the time. Our friends thought we were insane, but we did it anyway. We were known as the crazy parents in our circle. Why stop at the Great Wall of China with a baby when you could have him popping fish roe before age two, am I right?
Most people make Tokyo their first stop when they go to Japan. I say, go to Kyoto, where a slower pace will greet you. Landing after a 10+ hour flight on a totally different day than you left can feel disorienting. Even more confusing is that you will land in Osaka and have to take the train into Kyoto from there. Once you arrive in Kyoto though, there are plenty of beautiful hotels, like the Westin Miyako Kyoto, Machiya Maya Gion and Hotel Nikko Princess Kyoto, to rest after your long journey.
Don’t rest too long. There is a lot to see in Kyoto and you may not have much time. Thankfully, most of Kyoto’s historical sites are grouped together, so you can hit a few in one day without rushing from one end of the city to the other.
If you could only go to one place in all of Kyoto, you need to go to Kinkaku-ji, best known to westerners as the Golden Pavilion. This Zen Buddist temple is officially named Rokuon-ji and one of the most popular spots in the country. It was originally built at the end of the 14th century as a villa for a shogun, but upon his death he bequeathed it to the Zen Buddhists. Although you cannot walk inside the building, you can walk around the lake and through the gardens of the property, which are equally as impressive and always give a view of the temple. Take note of the reflection of the Golden Pavilion (yes, that is real gold leaf on the top two floors). On a still day, the temple reflection can be equally as beautiful.
Not to be outdone, the Silver Pavilion was constructed a few decades later by the grandson of the same shogun who built the Golden Pavilion. It too was converted into a Zen temple after his death in 1490. Unlike the Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion has never been covered in silver. The building is closed to the public, but visitors may walk around the gardens to get a view of the property, which includes a moss garden, dry sand garden known as the “Sea of Silver Sand,” and a climb up the hill that gives a nice view of the Silver Pavilion as well as the city below.
Ryoan-ji Hojo Temple
The garden at Ryoan-ji is one of the best examples of dry landscaping (kare-sansui) in all of Japan. White sand with 15 stones expresses the ocean and mountains. The design was built so that no matter where you stand, there is always one rock that cannot be seen. The Zen temple grounds also have a water garden, a tea house and a tea garden. Cherry trees were added to the landscape, making it the perfect place to be in spring when the trees are in bloom.
Anyone who has ever seen photos of the cherry blossoms in Japan has seen images of the Philosopher’s Walk, also known as the Philosopher’s Path. This long trail follows a canal down through Kyoto’s Higashiyama district. While pleasant all year long, in the spring it is covered in cherry trees bursting with pink fragrant blooms. You can pick up the path near the Silver Pavilion and take it all the way to the Eikando Temple or walk about 10 minutes to check out the Nanzenji Temple. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and smaller shrines and temples to break up the two kilometer walk. Best of all, there are no cars that will interrupt most of your walk if you have children with you.
If you are looking for gorgeous views, 8th century history and enormous crowds, Kiyomizu-dera is the temple for you. This temple is most popular in the spring for cherry blossom viewing and in the fall for autumn colors, but school trips and tour buses pull up to this popular designated “National Treasure” all year long. Get there early in the morning to avoid the crush, or come later in the afternoon when the buses have moved onto their next destination. The view from the platform in the main hall overhanging a cliff are definitely worth the trip.
Nijo Castle is one of the best examples of early shogun and imperial Japanese life. English audio-guides are available to bring you through the intricacies of where the public were allowed during the Edo-era ruled by the shogun. Most of the gardens are open to the public. Not all of the Palaces within the complex are open to visitors, as some are still used for special events. Plan on spending a few hours exploring the buildings and palace grounds as this is one of the larger complexes in Kyoto.
Gion is not a building, it is an entire neighborhood of Kyoto, and one worth wondering if you have the time. Many temples and shrines are located in this part of the city, most well-known for being the most famous geisha district in the city. Many of the city’s best preserved machiya houses, restaurants and tea houses are located in this area. And yes, you can be entertained by maiko and geiko if you know where to go, who to talk to and have enough funds. Our favorite thing to do is just stroll the streets, pop into the shops, taste the local food and check out the artisan crafts.
Like to eat weird stuff? Of course you do! Nishiki Market is where you can find candied octopus, dried fish, herbs and spices you never heard of, and other great delicacies that the locals call their everyday meal, but will feel unique and adventurous to you. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. If the five-year-old boy holding his mother’s hand can chow down on that octopus lollipop, so can you!
Kyoto Imperial Palace
The Kyoto Imperial Palace was the official royal residence for the imperial family until 1868 when they moved to Tokyo. The palace grounds and gardens are open to the public without a guided tour. However, you can not enter the buildings. Other buildings in the park worth visiting include the Kaninnomiya Mansion and Itsukushima Shrine. If you are traveling with children, the Sento Palace grounds are inside of a massive park that is great for running, jumping and playing if you need to get the wiggles out for a bit. You can also find cherry trees in bloom near the Konoe Pond in the spring.
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
Located in southern Kyoto, Fushimi is one of the most popular day trips to take from the center of town. It is a great spot to hike and explore. Those Shinto shrine orange and black torii gates are sure fun to photograph too. Hike as far as you want, stopping for a bite along the way. There is a great view at the top of the mountain trail if you make it that far. Plan on spending a full day out at Fushimi if you can spare the time. It will be worth it.
Keryn Means of WalkingOnTravels.com is an official Travelocity Gnational Gnomad. Gnational Gnomads is an exclusive group of high-profile travel and lifestyle experts who offer tips and inspiration on behalf of Travelocity.
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