If you are going to visit Kyoto, firstly I suggest that you don’t do what I did and try to see it all in one day. Kyoto is the cultural centre of Japan and the spot that the Japanese visit on their holidays to experience to learn the traditions and history of old Japan. Here’s my one day Kyoto itinerary for those that only have a short amount of time in possibly the best city in Japan!
Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years. My advice is to give yourself as long as you possibly can but read on to see how much you can fit into 24 hours, I do suggest a more detailed itinerary or a 3 day Kyoto itinerary, you could easily spend up to few weeks in Kyoto. Nara is very close to Kyoto and the Nara Deer Park is a great place to visit with kids. Nara will be at the top of my bucket list when we return.
Kyoto is the cultural centre of Japan, it’s the spot that the locals visit on their holidays to experience and learn the traditions and history of old Japan. Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years. Interestingly, Kyoto was top of the list to be bombed during WWII, after intervention by the Secretary of War it was replaced with Nagasaki. The Secretary of War had visited Kyoto on his honeymoon previously and wanted to preserve the cultural centre of Japan. While I wish the atomic bombs hadn’t been dropped at all, I am relieved that Kyoto received this last minute reprieve as it’s an extremely beautiful spot to take in the history and culture of Japan.
There are about 2000 shrines and temples in and around Kyoto and the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, that includes 17 locations, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994. It would take at least a week to visit just these sites without further exploring the rest.
Unfortunately due to flight changes by Air Asia, we only had one day to experience Kyoto. I had a list as long as my arm of what I wanted to see so I had to choose really carefully what was most important to me. We arrived from Osaka at midday and left the following day just after midday, below you can see what made the list. While we spent the evening at a Maiko dinner, I have recently learnt that you can visit Fushimi Inari Shrine at night. Keep that in mind if you are short on time.
I was told about the Good Samaritan Club through an Instagram follower of mine and it was one of the best things we experienced while we were in Japan. The Good Samaritan Club is a group of university students from the Kyoto University who take tourists around Kyoto for no charge. The students use the tours to practise their english skills and are thoroughly excited to show you around their beautiful city. We had Kazu, he took us to Yasaka Shrine and for a traditional lunch in the Gion area. I will write a post about the Good Samaritan Club soon and will add a link in here when done.
The Yasaka Shrine is located in the Higashiyama mountains, in the Gion District and is a shinto shrine that consists of many buildings. Also in this area is the Kodai -Ji Temple which was built in 1605 by Kita-no-Mandokoro in memory of her late husband. This temple is recognised as an important cultural property by the Japanese Government. The gardens surrounding this temple are exquisite and are considered one of the finest gardens of that period.
The Gion area is famous for sighting Geisha on their way to perform for the evening. The area is dotted with tea houses where Geisha entertain so you will often see then commuting between home and the tea houses. We were lucky enough to pass a Maiko (apprentice geisha) while we were in the Higashiyama mountain area, Kazu was kind enough to ask her if we could have a couple of photos with her and we were extremely lucky that she was obliging, this of course absolutely made my day. She didn’t speak any english and she was motioning not to get too close. I thought she was saying to be careful of her kimono but as it turned out she was sick and had a really bad cold. From the photo below you can see how beautiful she is.
I was desparate to see a geisha/maiko while we were in Kyoto. I had considered joining one of the Gion walking tours but they did not guarantee a sighting and you are likely to only see the back of them or be one of twenty people trying to take the same photo. I wanted something more than this, something where I could at least have a photo with her.
I researched many different options and found that there are options to suit every budget for a geisha/maiko experience. Although any experience with an actual geisha is much more experience, up to $3000 per person for a private dinner. Arriving in Kyoto at midday, I didn’t want to start the dinner tour before 5 so I could fit as much sightseeing as I could. This put a few constraints on my choices, not to mention it was a Sunday which is difficult to organise a tour on. When trying to book from Australia I found that all the tours were only being advertised up to 30 September and we were there on the 2nd of October. I contacted a number of tour operators and they all said that they wouldn’t release tour dates for October until mid September.
I had been looking at a company called Veltra, I had never used them before nor had I heard of anyone that had. Their tour ticked all the boxes on time frame, inclusions and cost. Only one issue, they had a Japanese speaking tour guide only! I decided I would go with it anyway and as it turned out they had recorded narration in English so we were able to follow along no problems. Klook also has a tour option for a Maiko experience, click here.
Now there was another small problem, the dinner was lovely but the 15 course bento box consisted of all seafood. That’s ok for most people but I don’t eat seafood! The story got a bit lost in translation so I only ate the steamed rice that night! I can laugh about it now and if it was the difference between missing out and just eating rice again, I would choose the rice hands down!
The Maiko was amazing, she was elegant and graceful and looked beautiful in her traditional purple kimono. It must take them hours to get ready for each performance. She performed two traditional dances, one with a fan and the other just with hand movements, I took about 100 photos. After her performance she stayed and had photos with each person that attended the show. The tea house was surrounded by a traditional Japanese garden and it was lovely to have a wander around. There is also a small souvenir shop on the grounds for after the show.
The tour finishes after a visit to Mount Higashiyama lookout where you can view the bright lights of Kyoto, it’s a nice way to finish the evening. For a more detailed post of our experience you can click on here, Dinner with a Maiko experience.
Inari is the Shinto god of rice and was built in the 8th century. It’s believed to be the most popular in Japan. The Torii gate is the entrance to a Shinto shrine and each Torii gate at Fushimi Inari has been donated over the years by a company or organisation. The name of the business is engraved on the Torii gate in black Japanese characters. There are a number of miniature shrines along the way as there are stone foxes. Foxes are considered to be the messenger of Inari. During the New Year’s celebrations, Fushimi Inari Shrine is reported have 3 million visitors during the 3 day period.
We got an early start and made our way to the shrine for 8.30am. Fushimi Inari Shrine is made up of over 1000 red Torii gates that ascend up the mountain for 4 kms and can take up to 2 hours to complete. My sister and I went up for 1hr 50mins and we were about 500m from the top when we decided we’d had enough. We got to the last viewing spot which took in views over Kyoto and it started to rain. We also were there early enough that we got some great photos with no one in them.
If you haven’t started to make the climb by 10.30am you will be shoulder to shoulder most of the way up and you will find it difficult to get photos without other people in them. It’s a decent work out and you will appreciate doing it at your own pace if you make the effort to get there early. It’s not a walk for young kids but maybe relatively active kids over 10 might have a good crack. If you take younger kids than that I would just focus on going part of the way. Alannah and my mum stayed at the bottom and looked around the shrine and did some shopping in the market on the side walk that heads back to the train station. The Inari Station is located right at the entrance to the Fushimi Inari Shrine and will take you straight back to Kyoto Station.
Kinkaku-Ji Temple is a buddhist temple completely covered in gold, often referred to as the Golden Temple. It is one of the 17 sites included in the World Heritage listed Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto and is also one of the most popular attractions in Kyoto. The current structure was built in 1955 after it was damaged by fire in 1950 by a mentally challenged monk. The original temple was built in 1393 as a retirement villa for Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga and later converted to a temple by his son. The temple is surrounded by beautiful gardens with a pond in front called the Mirror Pond.
Kinkaku-Ji Temple is not the easiest to get to on public transport, from Kyoto Station you can get the #205 or the #101 bus. This bus takes approximately 40mins to get there and stops a short walk from the entrance of the temple. Unfortunately the day that we were there it was raining but I was still able to get t a couple of shots around the temple. I think this was the most awe-inspiring temple I went to in Japan. Even in the rain it was breath taking. I can only imagine what it would be like on a beautiful sunny day with the bright blue sky, possibly blinding!
My verdict is I could have stayed in Kyoto for a week and not seen everything. I got a taste of the city and learnt that I have to return and see the rest. There were so many things that I wanted to see but didn’t get the chance and with taxi’s being pretty expensive in Kyoto it meant that we had to rely on public transport. We purchased a JR Rail Pass while in Japan, my post will help you decide whether purchasing one is a good option for your itinerary. If the kids are templed out, Osaka is a short 30 min ride away on the train. Universal Studios Japan is located in Osaka and the kids will love it. The Japanese get right into the spirit of things and dress up in their favourite characters, they also have a Wizardry World of Harry Potter, which is well worth a visit if you have the time in your itinerary. The kids will thank you!
We were there in early October and the autumn leaves hadn’t started to change colour yet. I can imagine that the gardens here would be magnificent as with April and May for the cherry blossom season.
It’s an easy place to take kids as the terrain is mostly flat. They could experience being ‘templed out’ though, if you have been to Cambodia you will know what I mean!
Sal & Co.