In case you missed it, I kicked off Part One of our Kyoto travel guide here. Kyoto’s a really fun place to visit, especially in the fall. Picking up where I left off, here are some of my other must-see destinations:
Arashiyama has several worthy attractions, but it’s located away from central Kyoto. It was actually easiest for us to hop on a bus, though the train might be a more convenient option for others. Since it was further out, we made sure to get an early start. We dropped by the Arashiyama train station to check out the Kimono Forest (which is accessible all the time so you’re not limited by opening hours) then we headed to the Iwatayama Monkey Park.
Now, I’m a big fan of animals in general so the Iwatayama Monkey Park was a no-brainer. I recall reading about the fantastic view but the only thing in my head was “Monkeys! Monkeys! Monkeys!”, which is why I didn’t entirely put it together that the park is situated at the top of a mountain. And you have to CLIMB said mountain to get there. (yama, which is Japanese for mountain, probably should have also given it away).
My parents made the wise decision to opt out. And note that if anyone in your party does the same, there is the option to take a nice boat ride on Oi River to pass the time. The rest of us trekked up there, cursing when we came across a sign that indicated we weren’t even at the halfway point. But we made it, and we were rewarded with a visit with macaque monkeys that took apple slices and peanuts out of our hands. They were manipulative little creatures, making whiny noises that kept us going back for more apples.
We probably spent way more time there than we should have, so by the time we made it to the Bamboo Forest, it was crowded. We slowly made our way through, and consistently struggled to capture pictures without heads or arms or selfie sticks in them. So if you’d really like to have the Bamboo Forest to yourself, you might want to create an itinerary that starts here. We suspect it can be very ethereal when it’s quiet.
Right by the Bamboo Forest you’ll find Tenriyu-ji, which is… *drumroll* another temple. Tenriyu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a lovely pond and garden, but once again, the crowds can detract from the experience here. The highlight at this site is the painting of the Cloud Dragon on the ceiling of the Hatto. It was painted by the renowned nihonga artist Kayama Matazo in 1997. The Cloud Dragon is rendered in the happo nirami style, so that the dragon appears to be looking directly at the viewer from wherever he or she is located in the Hatto. You have to pay a separate admission fee just to see this, so I’d personally choose that over the paying admission to see the buildings which offer nothing remarkable. Just be sure to check on the available viewing times. (No pictures allowed, but you can see it here.)
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I’m not going to lie, this one was a painful loss for us. We had read about an amazing unagi restaurant, Unagiya Hirokawa, which we anticipated would be busy. Psshhht, we wait for food all the time in New York City, amirite? Well, when we got there, the wait was THREE HOURS. And shortly after we got there, they shut the line down completely.
Well, even though we could smell the deliciousness, we gave up after noticing the line hadn’t budged hardly at all in a half hour. So we marched down the street to an Udon restaurant. (Udon is a safe bet when you’re not sure how good the restaurant is going to be: if you stick to the basics, it’s pretty hard to mess up.) My best friend actually managed to successfully visit Unagiya Hirokawa by standing in line an hour before open, while she and a friend took turns walking through the Bamboo Forest. So if you’re keen on visiting this restaurant, then that’s the winning game plan.
Gion is most famously known as the geisha district of Kyoto, though that’s largely due to the fact that you’ll find amazing machiyas (traditional wooden townhouses), chayas (teahouses) and exclusive restaurants here. While we hoped for (and were granted!) a geisha sighting, we didn’t seek out entertainment or dining options for direct access. We instead enjoyed the neighborhood and its charms, visiting right before dusk so that we could experience how a completely different vibe emerges once it gets dark.
We completed a self-guided walking tour based on this article from Inside Kyoto. The article provides historical details that truly bring the neighborhood to life. Hanami-koji-dori is Gion’s most famous street. This is where you’ll find Ichiriki Chaya, an exclusive teahouse with a storied background and invitation-only access. East of Hanami-koji-dori’s southern end, we visited the Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine which was one of the more intimate and captivating shrines from our trip. We also made sure to visit Shimbashi-dori, which is a scenic alley along the Shirakawa canal that also features a touching memorial to the late poet Isamu Yoshii.
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Sushi at Izuju
Izuju has been around for a hundred years and is conveniently located near the entrance of Yasaka Shrine in Gion. It serves some of the best Kyoto-style sushi, which is borne of an inventive spirit. Kyoto is landlocked, so in the olden days they had to find creative ways of making sushi using cured fish, or fish that did not spoil too quickly. One of the best examples of this is sabazushi, or pickled mackerel on sushi rice. The sushi is wrapped in kelp then cut into individual pieces. And Izuju is one of best places to enjoy it.
We visited Kiyomizu-dera Temple towards the end of our trip, and my family’s initial response was, “Another temple??” Well, if you only visit one temple in Kyoto, this should be it. Located in Southern Higashiyama, the temple has history that spans over 1200 years. According to lore, the Otowa Waterfall at the center of the temple was revealed to a monk in a dream. A warrior came across the monk and was so moved by his teachings that he built a temple and named it Kiyomizu, meaning “pure water,” after the clarity of the waterfall. Visitors can catch each of the three streams of pure water with ladles and pray for purification and for their wishes to come true.
My sister-in-law loves extracting recommendations from locals, and one suggested an evening visit. We were lucky to have listened to that advice, because Kiyomizu-dera Temple is beautifully illuminated for night viewings. On our first visit we stood at the entrance right before 5:00 pm and when the lights went on, the crowd collectively exclaimed. Our twilight romp was short since the crowds were heavy. The mob was not unlike the kind you find at Rockefeller Center around Christmas, so it took us a while to get to the main viewing point. But with the building and the foliage lit up, the wait was well worth it.
But we came back during the day and enjoyed a more leisurely visit, which allowed us to visit the Love Stone and Tainai meguri. The Love Stone claims that if you can walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed, then your romantic wishes will be granted. Tainai meguri is the sanctified area beneath Zuigu-do Hall which represents “a return to the womb of the great merciful mother.” Visitors are required to keep their left hands free so that when they are plunged into complete darkness they can use it to follow a beaded wooden rail. At some point you’ll come across a large stone, and according to temple guide, “when you find a light in the dark you will realize you are newborn again”. Spin the stone and make a wish.
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Coffee and dessert at Yatsuhashi Cream Puff
There’s only one way in and out of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, so one is hardly surprised to find that the road is lined with shops looking to capitalize on the massive foot traffic. One of those shops is Yatsuhashi Cream Puff, where you’ll find matcha and vanilla cream puffs. The choux pastry is light and fluffy, and the delicate dessert pairs perfectly with a cup of warm coffee on a cool fall day.
As I mentioned in a previous post, my family is an oddity in that we have vastly different interests. While we knew that there were several treasures that we had to experience in Kyoto, we also left large swaths of time open so that each of us could spend some time pursuing personal interests.
I took my Mom shopping, which I don’t get to do as much as I’d like to anymore, while my Dad went exploring side streets for a local hardware store. My older brother found his way to the Manga Museum while my sister-in-law fed her addiction for vintage kimonos. And after an afternoon of shopping on the charming Sanjo-dori, a few of us landed at Paul, a French patisserie that my younger brother and sister-in-law frequented when they lived in London. I strongly feel that even if you’re traveling solo, while one’s instinct would be to pack as many sights in as possible, personalizing your trip will give you a more memorable experience.
We continue to learn how to travel as a family, but maintaining flexibility is just one of the insights I’ve gained over the years. Another thing I’ve learned: while our schedules were flexible, our bodies were not. There was a cacophony of groans heard as we struggled to get up after dining on tatami mats. Bad knees run in the family.
We visited several other attractions, but I’ve culled the list to highlight the ones I found most enjoyable. If you’re making a visit to Kyoto, I’d be happy to offer additional information on these sites and others. We can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Start a dialogue on Kyoto, on traveling abroad, or on family — we’re always happy to hear from you.