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4 days in magnificent Kyoto

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

Tokyo and Kyoto are the two most visited of Japan's great cities, and for all that, they are surprisingly different.

Japanese women in traditional kimono dress, in Kyoto

Where Tokyo is a fascinating and heady blend of the ultra-modern and the more traditional, Kyoto is trad epitomised.

Every street will bring you face to face with another gorgeous example of the timeless wooden machiya houses. Shops and businesses proudly sport their noren fabric panels, lanterns side by side swaying in the wind. Tucked into surprising places, sometimes just the slightest of nooks, are all manner of shrines and temples commemorating their millennia-old deities.

In a nutshell, Kyoto is a moment by moment voyage of discovery that is nothing short of magical.

We had dedicated 4 days of our Japanese trip to Kyoto, and this is how we spent them…

A beautiful temple entrance in Kyoto, Japan

4-day Kyoto itinerary

Day 1 - Three hours after leaving Tokyo on the bullet train, and having checked into our Kyoto hotel, we were deciding how to spend our first afternoon in Kyoto. And here is where we made what was possibly the most propitious decision of our entire trip. Spur of the moment, we decided to take the train to visit the iconic Fushimi Inari Taisha.

This shrine is one of Japan's most visited sites, and it is usually awash with tourists. And it is true that there were still a decent number of people milling around as we arrived about an hour before sunset, and started to make our way up the pathways so famously (and photogenically) lined with red Senbon torii gates.

Red senbon torii gates line the path photogenically, at Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Taisha

Rather than heading straight for the top we decided to take a longer way around, and dusk had settled by the time we reached the peak. And at this point the number of tourists had noticeably decreased. We spent the next half hour or so taking in the sunset from on high, and then slowly making our way back down, taking bucket-list photos all the way.

The benefits of coming to visit Fushimi Inari at sunset were two-fold: The crowds had slowed to a trickle by then, and rather than having photos replete with touristing hordes, we have a surprising number of pics of the stunning torii-lined alleyways where we are the only people in them; secondly, the atmosphere at the Taisha at night is well worth experiencing - moody and somber and peaceful, the shrines softly lit and the glow from the lanterns throwing shadowy shapes ripe for capturing on camera.

Day 2 - Our first full day in Kyoto we dedicated to the Arashiyama district in western Kyoto. We took a gentle walk up the hill from Arashiyama train station, soon leaving the crowds on the main street behind, to visit the captivating Giou-ji temple. There weren't very many other visitors to this gem of a moss garden, and we hope it remains that way, but we can wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone who would like a wondrous example of a meticulously maintained temple moss garden dedicated to the nurturing of these enchanting plants.

On the way back down the hill we stopped by Jojakko-ji temple with its stunning example of a cherry blossom tree out front, its peaceful garden stream, and views back to central Kyoto for those willing to mount the stairs behind the temple. Of course no trip to Kyoto is complete without an instagram-ready photo of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, and so next we crossed the railway line to rediscover the crowds of tourists, all of us jostling for our turn to take that photo.

The famous bamboo forest in Kyoto's Arashiyama district, Japan

We had a delicious set menu lunch in traditional Japanese restaurant Kumahiko on the riverbank. Then across the river and up Mount Arashiyama we trekked, to the Iwatayama Monkey Park to view and feed the wild macaque monkeys, feeling as much like we were on display as the other way around.

That evening we donned our dress shirts and excitedly made our way to Kyoto's Gion district, for our 'Dining with Maiko' geisha evening at Gion Hatanaka. Maiko are apprentice geisha, and given how difficult it can be to access the secretive insider world of the geishas, we were thrilled to have the opportunity. The charming 15-year old maiko who danced for us (accompanied by an experienced geisha on the shamisen) and played traditional games with us, was an absolute delight, and it was a night that will remain with us forever.

Afterwards we decided to have an evening wander around the area. Kyoto's Gion district is beautiful by night, and several of the well-known Kyoto tourist sites are lit up. We visited the famous Yasaka shrine and its hundreds of lanterns, then on into Maruyama park and the huge lit-up cherry blossom tree. Next up Kodai-ji temple and their striking night illuminations. And finally a romantic wander down classic Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka streets, silent at this time, and views of the Hokan-ji temple pagoda.

Lit up cherry blossom tree at night, in Maryuama Park in Kyoto's Gion district

Day 3 - Time for more UNESCO World heritage highlights on the Kyoto tourist sites trail. 3 of them today, in fact!

We started our day at Kyoto's magnificent Kinkaku-ji temple - the Golden Pavilion - which has existed for over 600 years, though it has burned down numerous times over that period: the current structure dates from as recently as 1955 (having burned down yet again after being set on fire by a zealous monk!). This time we had the rain for company on our visit, but the patter of drops on the pond which almost entirely surrounds the temple was its own kind of enchanting atmosphere.

An easy walk down the road from the Golden Pavilion took us to our next Kyoto temple visit, the Ryoan-ji buddhist temple and its famed zen rock garden. As with many a piece of art, the meaning behind the zen garden is not made clear, but rather left a mystery for the viewer to define. Rock gardens are created with the intention of encouraging meditation, and this one is best viewed while seated in quiet contemplation.

Kinkaku-ji temple, Kyoto's Golden Pavilion, in Japan

Lunchtime having come around, another short walk took us to our first taste of okonomiyaki, at the thoroughly endearing Okonomiyaki Katsu. Kind of like a pancake-omelet combo with your choice of toppings, the okonomiyaki is fried up right in front of you and served piping hot! Run by a personable husband and wife team, the disarming couple entertained us with stories of their lives as well as asking about ours, while whipping up our delicious meal. Highly recommended!

After lunch, to walk off some of the calories we'd consumed, we headed back to central Kyoto for its two most magnificent residences. First, grandiose Nijo Castle with its double ring of moats and fortifications, and its superb gardens.

Followed by a visit to the regal Kyoto Imperial Palace and park. Seat of power in the age when Kyoto served as the capital city, today the palace and gardens are open to the public and well worth a stroll. Do make sure to check the closing times for both these though, as neither is open late.

For dinner that evening, we had asked our hotel to make us a reservation at the exemplary Kitenya restaurant. Situated in central Kyoto, we were served some of the best most authentic tempura we had ever had!

Day 4 - Time for something a little different... We both wanted to also experience some of the Japanese countryside on foot, and so we decided to spend our morning doing a short half-day hike and getting some fresh mountain air just outside Kyoto, following the Kibune-Kurama walking trail.

Back in central Kyoto for lunch, and after a satisfying bowl of udon at ever-popular Omen, we visited the lovely Ginkaku-ji temple. The Silver Pavilion, and its Sea of Silver Sand, are another of Kyoto's most visited historical sites, and we were surrounded by other travelers all shuffling their way around the pathways of the lovely temple grounds.

The Sea of Silver Sand at Ginkaku-ji temple in Kyoto

After, ice creams in hand, we wandered south down Tetsugaku-no-michi, the Philosopher's Path. The lovely walk down the canal overhung by blooming cherry blossoms is quintessentially Japan, made more so by the happy Japanese couples taking their pre-wedding photos. We made a tiny detour on the way to visit the atmospheric Honen-in temple - peacefully serene and entirely ours, in a complete contrast to the more well-known temple we had just left.

And so as the sun set, our short time in captivating Kyoto came to a close. As much as we had managed to fit into our 4 days in Kyoto itinerary, there was much that we would still wish do. What is true for Japan as a whole is doubly so for Kyoto: you could spend a lifetime discovering new places to visit and things to experience. We cannot wait to return to this wonder-filled city to uncover more of what she has to show us.

But for now this great country had more secrets to reveal, as we continued onward for what remained of our 3-weeks in Japan. First up, the impressive Great Garden Korakuen in Okayama, followed by a wonderful stay on Naoshima Art Island!

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