First visit and certainly not the last... to Kyoto!
There is so much to be seen in Kyoto that one could always come back and discover something new. My main advice would be not to rush trying to see it all but to take your time to stroll around, meditate in temples and seize the city’s poetic atmosphere. We were lucky we received precious guidelines from friends who are Kyoto-lovers. We combined them with our own discoveries and this is how we spent our five days in Kyoto:
Day 1: our first afternoon was rainy therefore we started our visit by one of the most bustling area in the city, the Teramachi shopping arcade (crafts, bookstores, clothes, etc.) and the Nishiki food market which had the most fascinating food stalls with plenty of irresistible take-away (sashimi, yakitori…) and other unidentified delicacies from Kyoto’s traditional cuisine.
We then walked through the narrow streets of Pontocho and crossed the canal to stroll around the old neighborhood of Gion, charmed by the ancient two-storey houses with their wooden sliding doors and colorful lanterns, each hiding the secrets of the geishas’ traditions. A walk in Gion is always punctuated by magical encounters with Geishas in their stunning kimonos. We went back every single day, especially at night when the neighborhood is all lightened up and we could peek into some of the teahouses where geishas were entertaining.
Day 2: We explored East Kyoto by foot starting with the very busy Kiyamizu-dera temple, which offers gorgeous views to the city from its large veranda perched on high pillars. The narrow pedestrian streets around the temple are quite crowded but remain very picturesque (Ninen-zaka, Sannen-zaka and Chawan-zaka). We made a stop in the lovely Rakusko teahouse closed to Kodai-ji temple.
We pursued our walk North, through Maruyama Park, admiring the splendid entrance gate to the Gion-in temple. The Shoren-in temple was the most peaceful halt with its harmonious Japanese garden and tranquil verandas creating a perfect meditative atmosphere.
From there we took a taxi up to the Silver Pavilion, which drags crowds. It was our first time contemplating a zen garden. We then had a long stroll on the philosopher’s walk, a charming pedestrian path that follows a cherry-tree-lined canal. Small shops selling potteries, kimonos and other crafts border it. There are several temples on the way such as the Eikan-do. We then walked though the Nanzen-ji temple and its lush garden, here again admiring the massive entrance gate. We continued walking to the big red tori (Heian Jingu Shrine) on Niomon dori and turned left to follow a quiet canal all the way to Gion.
Day 3: It was only a one-hour train-ride to the old capital city of Nara. We were not thrilled with the over-touristic atmosphere, however we managed to escape some of the crowd starting our tour from the lanterns’ temple, which had more deers visiting than tourists. It was a peaceful walk through the forest as we headed North, ending our tour at the massive Todai-ji temple. We had a resting lunch at the teahouse in the lovely Isuien gardens. If you only have a few days to spend in Kyoto, I would not recommend traveling to Nara, it seems to me more interesting to stroll around the very scenic streets and temples of Kyoto.
Day 4: It was a long taxi ride to the very west side of Kyoto. We started our day with an early visit of the Ninna-ji temple. We were seduced by the graceful buildings and their elegantly painted sliding doors. We also enjoyed walking through the beautiful rock and pond garden. If we had come later in the season, we would have been able to admire the cherry trees blossoming in the large grove. The nearby Ryoan-Ji temple is famous for its zen garden so as for its pond garden, which hosts an inviting teahouse. The golden Pavilion sitting by the lake is a true wonder; unfortunately the crowd spoils the site and we did not feel like staying long. We then explored the quiet temples’ complex around the Daisen-in, which is very famous for its zen garden where meditation sessions are regularly organized. We found a really nice teahouse within the complex which had an appealing set menu, however we decided to go for western food at the lovely Café du Mon. It was another long taxi ride towards the east to reach the Sishen-do temple. This small Buddhist temple is nestled in a quiet neighborhood. It has a large tatami room facing a beautiful garden, which is the most appealing invitation to meditate. I was enchanted with this stop.
That night we asked a taxi to drop us at the Fushimi Inari Taisha temple, which sits at the base of a mountain. It was completely dark and quiet in these woods and our walk up the endless path lined with thousands of red torii was an unforgettable and mysterious experience, which I really recommend.
Day 5: On our last day we visited the Sanjusangen-do temple and its 1001 wooden statues followed by the Tofuku-ji temple. I liked the peaceful atmosphere at the little Funda-in temple where we had some precious time just on our own.
It was then time for some shopping on Teramachi street where I stocked on IPPODO teas. We bought our last sushi at the indoor market and had a lovely picnic by the canal.
Kosendo: lovely restaurant close to Termachi arcades with a delicious set menu.
Yagengori Sueyoshi: charming and delicious address for dinner in Gion.
Itoh Restaurant (Gion): a good address for Kobe beef though quite expensive. Ask to have a table by the canal, it is beautifully lightened and gorgeous with the cherry trees blossoming.
Shiuzan Honten (Gion): dinner at the counter, delicious tasting menu (fish and seafood).
Tenki: excellent tempura at the counter.
We stayed at the Hyatt regency, which was a comfortable and very convenient location. I appreciated the western breakfast there: I love Japanese food but not in the morning. However next time I would like to stay in a traditional Ryokan and Kyoto certainly has a large range of choices.