If Tokyo is the head of Japan, Kyoto is the heart. A number of people have told me that, and now I’m here and starting to see it. With historic streets and temples galore, this city shows Japanese culture and tradition at its best. With 3 days in Kyoto, I plan to see the highlights and dig a bit deeper into the secrets of this place.
3 Days in Kyoto
I arrive with my boyfriend after 2 days on Naoshima, Japan’s art island. I’m excited for my first visit to Kyoto, and have a long list of things I want to do and see here.
Day 1 in Kyoto
We start our first day in Gion, the city’s famous geisha district. We visit the Yasaka Shrine, where colors whirl and coins fly, then explore the narrow streets and footbridges that surround the traditional houses.
We watch a man feeding herons in shallow water beside the street, then continue past heritage buildings to the river.
Across it are more skinny alleys, including Ponto-cho, which is known for its restaurants and evening entertainment.
Surprisingly, we see a geisha walking down the street in broad daylight with a gaggle of suits around her. It’s rare to see a geisha during the day, so we feel lucky to have caught a glimpse.
Not far from Ponto-cho is the Nishiki Market. It’s a riot of colors and scents, and we try everything from tofu ice cream to fresh seafood.
We could stay for hours, but there’s more on our itinerary. We spend the afternoon exploring temples like Chion-in and Shoren-in in Southern Higashiyama, then walk up to Nanzen-ji, another temple with beautiful gardens and grounds.
From there we find ourselves on the Path of Philosophy, or Philosopher’s Walk. This pretty trail in Higashiyama follows a tree-lined canal and is one of the most peaceful places we’ve found in Kyoto.
At the end of the path we hop in a taxi and head back to Ponto-cho, settling in for dinner at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Mamaya. It’s the perfect place to wrap up an amazing first day, and everything from the tofu skin to the sake goes down a treat.
Day 2 in Kyoto
We start the second of our 3 days in Kyoto in Arashiyama, a leafy area in the west of the city.
First on our itinerary is the Tenryu-ji Temple, which has stunning gardens. We explore for a while, then walk through the tranquil Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
We also seek out the kimono forest, a hidden walkway in Arashiyama lined with tubes filled with colorful fabric. It’s a beautiful place, and we’re surprised to have it all to ourselves.
Lunch is soba noodles at a restaurant on the river, and afterwards we take time to explore the area across the historic Togetsu-kyo Bridge.
In the afternoon, we hop on what can only be described as a toy train and ride to Kitano Hakubai-Cho Station. From there it’s a long walk to Kinkaku-ji, the legendary golden temple.
It’s worth the distance to see the gilded structure across the water and take in the scenery around it.
We walk along the paths and savor the incense in the air before heading to another of Kyoto’s famous sites: the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
With its miles of orange gates, this shrine might just be the most photographed place in Kyoto. We join the crowds walking through, marveling at how many gates there are and how high they climb. We snatch photos when the coast clears (it does more the higher up we go), and enjoy the views when we reach the peaks.
It’s getting dark by the time we leave, so we hop on the metro and head north. We sip drinks at an atmospheric whiskey place called Bar Yanagi before meeting friends for drinks at Sake Bar Yoramu. They’re visiting from the UK, too, and after a catch up and tasting with the bar’s renowned sake expert, we head back to Nanzen-ji for dinner.
Day 3 in Kyoto
We start the last of our 3 days in Kyoto at the main train station. It’s a feat of contemporary architecture with great views from the top levels, and an attraction in its own right.
After soaking up the skyline, we head north to explore Nijo Castle. This 17th-century fortress is surrounded by a moat and contains all kinds of treasures. From gardens to traditional buildings, it keeps us exploring for longer than we anticipated.
From there we make our way to the gardens at the Imperial Palace. They’re expansive, but a bit lacking in awe-inspiring details this time of year. We make a mental note to return to Kyoto in the spring or autumn, when pink blossoms and fall foliage could liven up the landscape.
In the evening we meet up with our friends again. Dinner is in Gion, and verges on the experimental (ever tasted cod sperm?). Most of it is tasty, but the real highlight of the night is seeing a geisha emerge from a small alley as we’re walking back to the metro. It’s magical the way she materializes out of nowhere, and this second serendipitous sighting ends our trip on the same high note the first started it on.
As we depart the next morning, I feel like I’ve truly experienced the heart of Japan. From the temples and shrines to neighborhoods and cuisine, this city has given me a cultural experience and good dose of tradition. It’s been completely different from both Tokyo and Naoshima, which makes me even more excited to see what comes next in Kanazawa…
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