This is Part#3 (Kyoto Highlights) of my Jun-2015 Japan travel blog.
Refer to the list of contents below for the links to other parts of the blog. Happy reading! =)
- 11-Days Free & Easy Itinerary for Japan (Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hakone)
- Part1: Tokyo Highlights
- Part2: Osaka Highlights
- Part3: Kyoto Highlights
- Part4: Hakone Highlights
11-Days of Free & Easy in Japan: Kyoto Highlights
Below are the Kyoto highlights of my 11-Days of Free & Easy in Japan, June 2015. (chronologically listed)
Built on a flatland, Nijo Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage status castle with well-preserved imperial palaces from the feudal era.
“Nijo Castle (二条城, Nijōjō) was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867).” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)
The castle is separated into an outer perimeter (Ninomaru) and an inner area (Honmaru); both protected by its ring of moat and rock walls. In addition, both the outer perimeter and inner area has its palace complex; namely Ninomaru Palace and Honmaru Palace respectively.
Visitor entry into the castle is via the eastern gate where there are a carpark and a ticketing booth.
After purchasing the tickets, I was directed into the castle grounds thru the eastern gate. A few steps past the gate and I would be greeted by the sight of the well-crafted Karamon Gate, which is the entrance to the outer perimeter of the castle.
Immediately behind the Karamon Gate is the Ninomaru Palace; the residence and office of the shogun. The shogun would perform his administrative duties and hold courts here. Visitors are allowed to enter the palace and take self-guided tours of the premises. (Note: Shoes and photography are not allowed in the palace)
The palace consists of a hierarchy of connected halls for different administrative functions. Only certain high-ranking personnel and important guests are allowed to enter the inner halls where they could seek audience with the shogun. The innermost sections of the palace are designated as the shogun’s residence. Throughout the palace interior, visitors could observe exquisitely crafted and painted ceilings, doors and walls.
During the tour, I was mystified with chirping sounds that seems to follow wherever I walked. It turns out that to prevent assassination attempts, the corridors of the palace are paved with special nightingale floors. These floors produce a squeaking sound when walked on; alerting the presence of any intruder. Had I been an assassin, I must really been a pathetic one.
Upon exiting the Ninomaru Palace, I proceed to a beautifully sculptured garden/pond beside the palace.
From here, there’s a pathway and bridge that leads over the moat and into the inner area of the castle where the Honmaru Palace is located.
Honmaru Palace is not available for public visiting and only open on special occasions. As such, I toured around the Honmaru garden; which includes a former castle keep overlooking the Honmaru Palace.
Once done exploring the Honmaru garden, I exited the inner area via a rear bridge and looped back to the eastern entry gate. Along the way, there are several minuscule Japanese styled gardens/ponds which beautified the castle grounds.
Overall, Nijo Castle is more exquisite and tranquil compared to Osaka Castle. It doesn’t have the grandiose of Osaka Castle’s layout and structure, though it more that made up for it in its delicately preserved imperial palaces. The crowd was thin during my visit, which adds to the serenity of the castle. Surely a good place to spend 2-3 hours when you’re in Kyoto.
Access: Nijo Castle is situated beside Nijojomae Station (Tozai line); which is 15 minutes from Kyoto station. Else Kyoto city is well served by public buses and you could easily reach Nijo Castle via them.
Started around 1310, Nishiki Market is the go-to place in Kyoto for food related products; much like a huge food speciality market. However unlike other markets, Nishiki is in the form of a long and sheltered narrow street.
“Nishiki Market (錦市場, Nishiki Ichiba) is a narrow, five block long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants. Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, this lively retail market specializes in all things food related, like fresh seafood, produce, knives and cookware, and is a great place to find seasonal foods and Kyoto specialties, such as Japanese sweets, pickles, dried seafood and sushi.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)
The market is popular with both locals and tourists alike, giving it a very lively atmosphere. The food items sold here are typically locally produced/sourced. There are many shops that offer free samples of ready food to shoppers and you could get rather full just by tasting these samples!
Other than regular restaurants, there are smaller shops selling ready/raw food which allows shoppers to dine-in in their confined premises.
I came across a particular shop selling raw seafood and sashimi, and upon noticing the ridiculously low price of the sashimi decided to give it a try. The owner gestured to me if I’ll like to dine-in at the messy and cramped area at the back of the shop; to which I promptly agreed.
The “dining area” is simply a tiny clearing at the back of the shop, complete with small stools and a few foldable tables to create a temporary dining space. For those who have not tried it, this is definitely a hugely interesting dining experience. Most importantly, the sashimi is insanely cheap. I ordered enough sashimi to fill up the stomach of 3 adults and it only cost 1900 yen. Without doubt the MOST worthwhile meal I had during my entire Japan trip.
The shops at Nishiki market appears to close rather early at ~5-6pm. By 6pm, I realised that more than half had closed; which might not be surprising given that such food markets typically start very early in the morning.
If you’re in the area after 6pm, fret not, there’s still plenty of shopping and food establishments around the area.
Running parallel to the entire length of Nishiki market is Shijo street (Shijo Dori; street view), which is essentially a major street flanked on both sides with endless shopping malls and restaurants. If you’re taking public buses to Nishiki market, chances are you’ll alight along Shijo street.
On the eastern end of Nishiki market, it is connected to a number of sheltered shopping streets (Teramachi Street; street view); similar to Dotonbori/Shinsaibashi in Osaka though on a much smaller scale and comparatively less crowded.
In brief, Nishiki market is a highly entertaining place to visit. Not only to explore the different types of Japanese food/snacks but also to get a feel of the traditional Japanese markets. In the evenings, the streets and malls around the area provide a great place for shopping and dinner; all in close proximity.
#3:Arashiyama day trip (info)
Arashiyama is a beautiful, peaceful and laid-back district on the outskirts of Kyoto. Great natural setting with an iconic bridge, mesmerizing river, beautiful bamboo walkways, enchanting temples and well-preserved historical streets.
“The area has been a popular destination since the Heian Period (794-1185), when nobles would enjoy its natural setting. Arashiyama is particularly popular during the cherry blossom and fall color seasons.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)
Since Arashiyama is not a huge district, it can be reasonably explored via foot or cycling within a day.
Most independent visitors arrive in Arashiyama via the Saga-Arashiyama Station (JR line) or the Arashiyama Station (Keifuku line). Having a valid JR Pass, I took the JR line to Saga-Arashiyama Station.
After exiting Saga-Arashiyama Station (map), I found a signboard showing the tourist map of the area. It proved to be useful in helping to establish my bearings as I tried to find the direction towards my first objective: Togetsukyo Bridge.
For those planning to explore Arashiyama via cycling, there is a bicycle rental shop beside Saga-Arashiyama Station.
The walk from Saga-Arashiyama Station to Togetsukyo Bridge would be an easy 12minutes (~1km).
Situated beside a series of low mountains and over a charming river (Katsura River), Togetsukyo Bridge (map) is one of the most recognisable icons of Arashiyama. Not one of monumental structures, Togetsukyo Bridge instead project a sense of serenity and simplicity.
“It was originally built during the Heian Period(794-1185) and most recently reconstructed in the 1930s.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)
Observing the bridge from the river banks and taking in the tranquility of the scene, it is easy to understand why Togetsukyo Bridge has grown to epitomise the essence of the area.
On the northern end of Togetsukyo Bridge are some retails shops and restaurants/cafes.
A short 2-3 minutes walk north (from the bridge) would be Arashiyama Station.
Since renovation was completed in 2013, Arashiyama Station itself was turned into a tourist attraction due to the “Kimono Forest” exhibit. A permanent exhibit, the Kimono Forest is free for visitors to explore and is located along the tracks and platform of the station. If you’re in the vicinity, I strongly recommend spending a little time exploring this since it is not a big exhibit.
Across the road from Arashiyama Station is my next destination: Tenryuji Temple.
A UNESCO World Heritage status Zen temple, it was build in 1339 and is the most important temple in Arashiyama. Entry fees are payable. Due to time constraint, I merely toured the temple grounds without exploring the interiors of the temple buildings.
“Unlike the temple buildings, Tenryuji’s garden survived the centuries in its original form. Created by the famous garden designer Muso Soseki, who also designed the gardens of Kokedera and other important temples, the beautiful landscape garden features a central pond surrounded by rocks, pine trees and the forested Arashiyama mountains.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)
The garden and forested pathways behind the temple’s main hall are lovely and definitely worth exploring.
After exploring the grounds, I exited the temple via the “North Entrance”; which immediately leads me to my next objective.
Bamboo Grove (map)
Barely a few metres away from the North Entrance of Tenryuji Temple is another poster boy of Arashiyama: the iconic Bamboo Grove.
Around 200 metres in length, the Bamboo Grove is an enchanting pathway laid across a dense bamboo garden. Gentle winds intermittently breeze thru the garden to create rustling sounds from the bamboo leaves. With the sky reasonably sunny, creeping rays of sunlight break through the garden’s canopy to light up the pathway in a delicate manner.
The Bamboo Grove was one of the main reasons why I wanted to visit Arashiyama, and it certainly does not disappoint. Without doubt a picturesque place for photographic opportunities; this is a site in Arashiyama that no one should miss.
After passing thru the Bamboo Grove, Torokko Arashiyama Station (map) would be just a stone throw away.
Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street (map)
Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street is a charming old street in Arashiyama that managed to retain the traditional townhouses (machiya) from Meiji Period (1868-1912). These townhouses used to be private residences though most of them are transformed into shops and restaurants over time.
From Torokko Arashiyama Station, follow the streets in the general direction heading north. The walk to Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street would be an easy 15-20 minutes (~1.2km) along paved roads (route map). The route would take you thru laid-back small-town neighbourhoods.
En route, I passed by a couple of nicely done-up residences, restaurants and shops that are worth stopping briefly for a photo shoot.
Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street is a gently inclining street and appears to be rather short (approximately 200-300 metres in length). When I visited, the entire street seems deserted except for a handful of other tourist; the lack of crowd incidentally helps to enhance its “old-town” feel. Definitely a welcomed break from the other tourist-packed areas of Arashiyama.
The street ends approximately at the entrance of Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple (map). Due to time constraint, I was not able to explore the temple and had to turn back to Torokko Arashiyama Station.
Sagano Scenic Railway (info)
Sagano Scenic Railway is a restored railway service (between Arashiyama and Kameoka) which hugs the Hozugawa river and travels through dramatic ravines and tunnels.
“The Sagano Scenic Railway (嵯峨野観光鉄道, also known as the Sagano Romantic Train or Sagano Torokko) is a sightseeing train line that runs along the Hozugawa River between Arashiyama and Kameoka. Its charming, old fashioned trains wind their way through the mountains at a relatively slow pace, taking about 25 minutes to make the seven kilometer journey and giving passengers a pleasant view of the scenery as they travel from Arashiyama through the forested ravine and into rural Kameoka.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)
The service starts in Arashiyama where passengers can board at either Torokko Saga Station (map) (beside JR Saga-Arashiyama Station) or Torokko Arashiyama Station (map) (beside Bamboo Grove). The service ends at the Torokko Kameoka Station in Kameoka (map). This railway service is extremely popular and it is recommended to secure the tickets early during peak seasons. (Advice: Do check the operating time at the stations. It typically ends ~4-5pm on most days)
Once at Torokko Kameoka Station, passengers can choose to take the return journey back to Arashiyama, or take a 10 minutes walk to Umahori Station (JR line) and return to Kyoto/Arashiyama via JR trains. For the more adventurous, there are river cruise services that offer 2 hours return trip to Arashiyama via Hozugawa river.
For my railway adventure, I bought the tickets at Torokko Arashiyama Station and was just in time to take the last service of the day to Kameoka. Seating on the train is reserved via ticketing and the train’s seating arrangement is such that there are 4 pax to every “section”. Before the train’s arrival, passengers are gathered at the station platform in accordance to their cabin/section so that boarding would be quick and easy.
The train carriages are restored steel cabins with wooden benches and large sliding rudimental windows. Creaks and cracks can be heard at every turn, which adds to the nostalgia. Once the train starts moving, all the tourists jump into action like an well-oiled machine; ready to capture every scene and turn on their arsenal of cameras and phones.
The view throughout the 30 minutes journey is scenic and mesmerizing. Sharp ravines, flowing rivers, old metal bridges, aging tunnels and a deserted train station all helps to form the Sagano Scenic Railway story.
With all the actions and views, time passes quickly and the train arrives at Torokko Kameoka Station too soon for my liking. As it was getting late, I walked to the nearby Umahori Station and took the JR line back to Kyoto, ending a truly rewarding day.
Access: Most visitors arrive in Arashiyama via the Saga-Arashiyama Station (JR line) or the Arashiyama Station (Keifuku line). Travelling time between Kyoto and Saga-Arashiyama Station is ~12 minutes (JR line). Travelling time between Kyoto and Umahori Station is ~23 minutes (JR line).
A UNESCO World Heritage status Buddhist Temple with captivating views of Kyoto city, Kiyomizu-dera is a much acclaimed temple in Japan.
“Located halfway up Otowa Mountain in the eastern part of Kyoto City, Kiyomizu-dera is a historic temple that was established in 778, even before Kyoto became the capital of Japan.” (Source: www.kiyomizudera.or.jp)
Packed with legions of tourists and devotees on most days, it is one of the “must-see” sites when visiting Kyoto.
Access: The easiest way to reach Kiyomizu-dera is via public bus from Kyoto station (~15-20 minutes). Alight at the bus-stop with its namesake and make the 15 minutes trek up the slopes along the narrow streets of Gojo-zaka/Matsubara Dori (route map). (Don’t worry about missing the bus stop or getting lost, chances are there will be packs of other tourists on the bus heading to the same place. Just follow the crowd!)
I took a public bus from Kyoto station and followed other easily recognisable tourists to alight from the bus and trekked up the inclining streets towards the temple. Along the way, there are many small shops/cafe/restaurants lining the streets.
After 15 minutes chugging uphill, I finally reach the temple grounds. The first significant temple structures that would spring into view would be the Deva Gate and West Gate.
As I climbed up the stairs pass the two gates, the Three-Storied Pagoda would come into view.
Beside the pagoda would be Zuigudo Hall which is dedicated to Buddha’s mother. In the hall, there is a small and steep stairway leading down into a pitch-black basement which symbolises a mother’s womb. In the basement, visitors have to hold onto railings on the wall to move along a pitch dark corridor and come to an illuminated large stone where they can touch and make wishes. The entry into the basement requires a fee.
Having experienced how dark and small the basement is, I certainly do not recommend young kids and those having fear of darkness/confined area to try this. I also wasn’t too impressed with the attitude of the lady whom was collecting the entry fees.
A stone throw away from Zuigudo Hall will be the main attraction of Kiyomizu-dera: the Main Hall and Kiyomizu Stage.
“The two most famous places of the temple are the Main Hall, where the Eleven Headed and Thousand Armed Kannon Bodhisattva – which is famous for the power of answering prayers – is enshrined and Kiyomizu Stage, which is the veranda of the Main Hall extended over a precipice.”
“Kiyomizu Stage was built using a special method; huge 12-meter high keyaki (Japanese Zelkova) pillars were assembled without using a single nail and the floor was installed using more than 410 cypress boards. The View of the city center of Kyoto from the Stage is magnificent.” (Source: www.kiyomizudera.or.jp)
A short distance behind the Main Hall would be the interesting Jishu Shrine. During my visit, I witnessed it to be extremely popular with young Japanese students; for reasons explained below.
“Behind Kiyomizudera’s main hall stands Jishu Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking. In front of the shrine are two stones, placed 18 meters apart. Successfully finding your way from one to the other with your eyes closed is said to bring luck in finding love. You can also have someone guide you from one stone to the other, but that is interpreted to mean that an intermediary will be needed in your love life as well.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)
After exploring Jishu Shrine, I followed the direction of the crowds and came to the Okunoin Hall, which is one of the rearmost buildings in the temple grounds. Unfortunately, Okunoin Hall is closed for renovation.
Nonetheless, the pathway in front of Okunoin Hall offers the most stunning view in the temple: the postcard view of Main Hall/Kiyomizu Stage with Kyoto city in the background. This is probably the most iconic view of the temple.
From here, there’s a winding pathway that leads down the hill towards Otowa Waterfall.
“The Otowa Waterfall is located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall. Its waters are divided into three separate streams, and visitors use cups attached to long poles to drink from them. Each stream’s water is said to have a different benefit, namely to cause longevity, success at school and a fortunate love life. However, drinking from all three streams is considered greedy.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)
I didn’t tried drinking from the waterfall as the queue is too long.
By this time, I had covered most of my planned agenda in the temple and it was time to leave. The pathway from the waterfall led me back to my initial starting point at the front of the temple.
The area immediately in front of the temple is known as Higashiyama District (info). There are plenty of commercial establishments (i.e. cafes, restaurants, shops) here catering to the needs of the massive crowds of tourists and devotees. I find it a great place to get some rest and refreshment before continuing my journey.
In concluding, the trip to Kiyomizu-dera is well worth the time and effort. Though the massive crowd can be irritating at times, the interesting and impressive views/structures around the temple more than made up for it. Without doubt a “must-visit” site in this city. (Expect to spend 3 hours exploring the temple)
Fushimi Inari is a Shinto shrine with dense paths of torii gates. It is situated at the foot of the mountain with its namesake: Mount Inari.
“Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha) is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings.”
“Fushimi Inari is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)
Inari was seen as the patron of business, as such, many businesses make donations to the temple in the form of torii gates.
“At the very back of the shrine’s main grounds is the entrance to the torii gate covered hiking trail, which starts with two dense, parallel rows of gates called Senbon Torii (“thousands of torii gates”). The torii gates along the entire trail are donations by individuals and companies, and you will find the donator’s name and the date of the donation inscribed on the back of each gate.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)
Access: Fushimi Inari can be easily reached via a 5 minutes train ride (JR Nara line; 2 stop) from Kyoto station. Alight at JR Inari station. The shrine is just across the street from the station.
I started off my exploration of Fushimi Inari with a JR ride from Kyoto station, and reach Inari station soon after. As soon as I exit the station, I could see the shrine’s giant torii gates right across the narrow street.
As I approach the shrine via the main concourse, I counted 2 giant torii gates before reaching the shrine’s official entrance: Romon Gate.
Before entering the shrine, it is customary to wash one’s hands/mouth at the purification fountain beside Romon Gate.
After passing through Romon Gate, I reached the Worship Hall.
A short distance after the Worship Hall would be the imposing Main Shrine of Fushimi Inari, and the understated Hall of Shinto Music and Dance.
Needless to say, offerings/prayers could be made at the Main Shrine. Coin donation boxes (saison box), which are a common sight at Japanese temples/shrines can be found here.
Interestingly, there are huge bells hung from the roof of the main shrine which could be rang via swinging an attached strip of red/white cloth. I observed that the bells are typically rung by pilgrims after saying their prayers, which I guess is part of the prayer ritual.
Pass the Main Shrine, one would come to Tamayama Inarisha.
On the right side of Tamayama Inarisha, there are a few flight of stairs to climb before reaching the first row of dense torii gates. Compared to the subsequent rows of torii gates, the gates found in this first row are significantly larger in size and thus not as densely spaced. That being said, I had thought that the view here was captivating enough; little did I expect more to come.
After a good few minutes of trying to capture some photos while dodging fellow tourist doing the same, I came to a small clearing at the end of pathway. From here, the path branches into 2. This part of the pathway is known as Senbon Torii (which literally means “thousand torii”).
It appears that both rows of torii gates run parallel to each other and end up at the same exit on the other end. However for orderly sake, there is a huge banner above the gates that instruct visitors to enter via the right row (while the left row is meant for visitors returning from the other end).
From this point, I spent the next half hour frantically looping between the 2 rows of torii gates trying to capture that “perfect shot” with my amateurish photography skills. With the area filled with camera toting tourists, it does take some patience and a fair bit of luck for these “distractions” to get out from my view before I could take a shot. Having said, my resulting photographic loot is well worth the time and effort.
Senbon Torii is easily the most photographed part of Fushimi Inari, and definitely one of its icon. From the pictures I’ve taken, it is not difficult to understand why. Compared to the first row of larger torii gates, Senbon Torii is way more exquisite and photogenic.
From Senbon Torii, there are hiking trails that lead up to the 233m peak of Mount Inari.
“The hike to the summit of the mountain and back takes about 2-3 hours, however, visitors are free to walk just as far as they wish before turning back. Along the way, there are multiple smaller shrines with stacks of miniature torii gates that were donated by visitors with smaller budgets.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)
Due to time constraint, I was not able to explore these hiking trails and had to call it a day.
To sum up, though the shrine’s buildings and grounds are not as grand and spectacular as other similar sites, nevertheless Fushimi Inari manages to impress in its own peculiar ways. The fact that the crowd here seems to be thinner than at other Kyoto sites ironically turn into its advantage of projecting a more relaxed atmosphere. I found Senbon Torii to be extremely intriguing and I would revisit the shrine even if solely to explore these torii gates. Its proximity to a train station and Kyoto central also gives it more leverage in attracting visitors. In all, surely a great place to visit while in Kyoto.
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- Free & Easy Japan: Tokyo Highlights
- Free & Easy Japan: Osaka Highlights
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- 4 Great Tips for your Japan Holiday
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