For the next 2 days, our travels in Kansai region will be spent visiting the sites in Kyoto. There are a lot of historic places to visit in Kyoto and it would not possible to see everything given the time we will be spending in Kyoto. Numerous guides online provide guides for visitors to Kyoto. I was initially planned on following one of these guides. After some planning, I was telling myself why settle for some guides with places that I am not interested in? A few iterations later, I finally settled on the places I wanted to visit in Kyoto, the beauty of a free and easy trip. We spent our 1st day visiting the sights northwest Kyoto and 2nd day in the southeast Kyoto.
We started our Kyoto travels with Arashiyama, which is famed for its scenic views of the river and the Bamboo Grove. There are 3 train stations that serve Arashiyama area namely Hankyu-Arashiyama Station (阪急嵐山駅), Randen-Arashiyama Station (嵐電嵐山駅), and JR Saga-Arashiyama (嵯峨嵐山駅) located at the south, central and north of Arashiyama, respective. We opted to take the train to the southeast of Arashiyama so that our journey will start from the south and end up in the north of Arashiyama where we will catch the Sangano Scenic Railway.
Togetsukyo Bridge (渡月橋)
Leaving Hankyu-Arashiyama Station, we headed towards the Katsura River (桂川), where the famed Togetsukyo Bridge is located. We reached Katsura River within minutes and there lies the 155m Togetsukyo Bridge in a distance. The view from the riverside was beautiful. With Togetsukyo Bridge in the foreground and the spring green trees on the hills behind the bridge, no wonder visitors flog here for a picture on the bridge. We walked towards the bridge and was treated to more scenic views of a small raised dam, which looked like a waterfall on the river bed. There are sightseeing boats that dock in the nearby pier. Crossing Togetsukyo Bridge, we came to the built-up area of Arashiyama. The view of the bridge from this side of the river presents a different view, however, I prefer the view from the side near the Hankyu-Arashiyama Station, mainly due to a lesser crowd there.
Arashiyama Rickshaw Ride (京都人力車)
The buildings in this part of Kyoto looks rustic and as though they are from a page out of a history book. As we were waiting to cross the road, we saw rickshaws with visitors on them. Though not in part of our plan, nonetheless we tried a 30mins ride on the rickshaw. Despite being touristy, riding the rickshaw through Arashiyama is a good way of orienting ourselves around Arashiyama. It is also a good way of seeing the sights around this town for those who have little time in this area. Our rickshaw driver introduced us to the various sights along the way. Everywhere in Arashiyama town is crowded with visitors, our rickshaw driver is very skilful in manoeuvring the rickshaw through the hordes of visitors, especially when he was turning into the Bamboo Grove. The main highlight of the ride is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. As the rickshaw driver pulled us through the Bamboo Grove, he suddenly turned into a small road that is free from visitors. The rickshaw driver explained this is a road that is reserved for rickshaws. On this road, we can feel the peacefulness in the Bamboo Grove. The Bamboo Grove is split into 2 parts, the area before the train track is crowded with visitors. as compared to the area after the train track. There is a small Shinto shrine near the train track. Somehow this is where all the visitors turned back and headed back to the town. We made mental notes of where to go to after we are done with the rickshaw ride. The driver pulled us pass the train tracks to the part where there are lesser people. It is here that the rickshaw driver made a brief stop and took pictures of us on the rickshaw. We made a u-turn and head back to Katsura River where we boarded the rickshaw. As we thought that our ride will be ending soon, the rickshaw driver made a turn into a side road. On this road, we felt the peacefulness of Arashiyama once again. There are some rustic buildings on this road. Soon we were on the side of the road that we boarded the rickshaw. This marks the end of our rickshaw ride. After a few pictures with the driver, we headed back to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
As we were walking towards the Bamboo Grove, we came to Tenryuji, one of the temples on the main road in Arashiyama that we have passed by on the rickshaw just now. My friend and I headed into the compound of this temple. There are quite a number of visitors to Tenryuji. The attraction of this temple is its zen gardens. After walking for another 5 mins, we came to the Kuri (庫裏). Entering the compounds of the temple is free, however, there are different charges on the admission to various buildings and gardens. Kuri is a relatively small white building triangular roof and is built in 1899. The Kuri is considered one of the 7 major buildings according to the principles of Zen. We felt this place is a little touristy and did not enter Kuri. As we were rushing for time, we exited Tenryuji and headed for the Bamboo Grove.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (竹林の小径)
Minutes later, we arrived at the entrance to the famed Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Having been here moments earlier, we know exactly which spot to go to where there are lesser people. In the area before the train tracks, we couldn’t really appreciate the bamboo grove. Most of the time we were squeezing with other visitors and this area is very bad for photos. As we were making our way past the train tracks, we made a brief stop at the Shinto Shrine in the midst of the Bamboo Grove. Nonomiya Shrine (野宮神社) is a small shrine that the locals come to pray for marriage. There are several small structures in Nonomiya Shrine, consisting of the main prayer shelter and several boards for visitors to hang this wishes. As the shrine is rather small, we exited the shrine after taking some pictures.
The train tracks that cut the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove into 2 parts is right next to Nonomiya Shrine. We continued our walk in the Bamboo Grove past the train tracks. This is where we felt peace in the Bamboo Grove. There are significantly lesser visitors to this part of the grove, making strolling in this part of the grove a relaxing one. It is here we can hear the rustling of the bamboo leaves as they dance to the rhythm of the wind. My friend and I turned into a small area where we stopped by on the rickshaw earlier to have our photo taken on the rickshaw. This is a perfect spot for pictures with the Bamboos and lesser people. It is recommended for those visiting Arashiyama Bamboo Grove to walk past the train tracks and come here to get away from the crowds.
Sagano Scenic Railway (嵯峨野トロッコ列車)
Leaving Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, our next stop is the Saga Torkko Station where we planned to board the Sagano Scenic Railway towards Kameoka. The station about 7 mins walk from the rear exit of the Bamboo Grove. The 25 mins Sagano Scenic Railway runs along Hozugawa River between Arashiyama and Kameoka, after which it will turn around and return to Arashiyama. There are 5 carriages on the Sagano Scenic Railway, 1 of which is open air. We originally wanted to take the open air carriage but was told all seats in this carriage are taken. Our plan of taking the train up to Kameoka was also changed on the spot as the next train available is some 2 hours later. We did not want to wait and opted for the return train ride from Kameoka instead. As our JR pass is still valid, we took the JR towards Umahori Station and waited for our train to come by. Arriving at Umahori Station, we took a 5 mins walk from the JR station to the Scenic Railway station. Along the way, we saw some farmlands in rural Kyoto.
Our train ride arrived on time and we boarded the train as soon as passengers alighted. The cabin of the train is made of wood, giving the train a rustic feel to it. As the train left the station and started on its 25 mins journey towards Arashiyama, we were treated to views of the wilderness in Kyoto. The dramatic scenery saw Hozugawa River turns from being peaceful to angry with rapids in certain areas. The river also widens and narrows as the train runs alongside the river. We saw the hills on the opposite side of the river donning on their spring green coats and at some point of the journey, the hills gave way to the river as Hozugawa River snakes through the mountain ranges. We even saw boats at some point of the river, where visitors chose to brave through the rapids of Hozugawa River as their return option towards Arashiyama. Initially, we were worried that the seats we were assigned will not give us much of the river view as one side of the train tracks will be facing the mountains. We were lucky to have assigned seats on the left side of the train as we realised on the return trip the left side has more time with the sceneries of the wilderness of Arashiyama.
We headed back to Kyoto after alighting from Sagano Scenic Railway. As we were riding on the JR towards Kyoto, I realised there is a JR station near Nijo Castle, which is our next stop in Kyoto. We alighted at the station and headed towards Nijo Castle. The walk from Nijo Station to the castle takes around 15 mins. Soon we found ourselves at the entrance of Nijo Castle. Nijo Castle is built in 1626 as a residence for the Shogun who was tasked to protect the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Unlike Himeji Castle, Nijo Castle is rather flat. We passed through the main gate – Higashiote-mon (東大手門). Higashiote-mon has a rather simple design, the bottom half of the gate and this walls surrounding Nijo Castle are built with stones and the top part is painted in white. The main gate looks rather modest in size with traces of gold plating and looks very well preserved.
Passing Higashiote-mon, we came to another gate. The Kara-mon (唐門) is more elaborate in its designs. Though not as tall and big as the Higashiote-mon, Kara-mon is work of art. There are more traces of gold plating on this gate, making it look more royalty. The beams are engraved with vibrantly coloured flowers, with a couple of Japanese Cranes in flight from the front of the gate. The second beam has carvings of dragon and tiger.
Passing Kara-mon, the first building that we saw is the Ninomaru Palace (二の丸御殿). Ninomaru Palace consists of 6 connecting buildings, which we were made to walk in a pre-determined fashion through these 6 buildings. Photography is strictly not allowed in the palace and there are staffs stationed around in the palace to enforce this rule. Walking through the buildings, we saw lots of empty rooms, most of which with elaborate paintings on the walls. Some of these rooms are larger than others. These larger rooms tend to be near the entrance to Ninomaru Palace, which served as audience rooms. There are some statues placed in the audience room give visitors a glimpse of what it looked like when Nijo Castle was functional. The rest of the rooms are empty with paintings on it. We walked around the 6 rooms in Ninomaru Palace like zombies as everyone visiting the palace felt like going through the motion of passing through these rooms, and the no photography rule baffles me. Finally, we exited Ninomaru Palace and headed to other parts of Nijo Castle. We followed the pre-determined path round Ninomaru Palace to the gardens behind the palace. As I am not a garden person, I find this a tad boring.
The path leads us to a small bridge crossing a moat inside Nijo Castle. Crossing the bridge, we came to Honmaru Yaguramon (本丸櫓門), which functions as a defensive gate for the main keep inside. The path took us to another garden inside the moat. Little that we realised we can only see the main keep from outside, there are no indications or openings that allow visitors to enter into the main keep. The flat structure of the main keep (本丸御殿), make this main keep feels more like some old Japanese houses rather than a palace. We wandered through this garden in the pre-determined path and headed out Nijo Castle. Personally, I find Nijo Castle not worth visiting with most parts of the palace being out of bounds and the restrictive photography rule inside the only building that is open to visitors. Unless one is an avid garden lover, visiting Nijo Castle is a waste of time.
Kinkaku Rokuonji (金閣鹿苑寺)
Leaving Nijo Castle, we headed to Kinkaku Rokuonji. The temple is famous for its Kinkaku (Golden Pavilion) hence people usually refer to this temple as Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion Temple). When planning for this trip, I read that Kinkakuji is very crowded most of the time. The best time for visiting this temple would be either early morning when it first open or 1 hour before it closes, where the crowd would usually thin out. We chose to visit Kinkakuji 1 hour before it closes hoping to see the golden pavilion at the time when crowds are lesser. After paying for our tickets, we entered the grounds of Kinkakuji, the golden pavilion sitting on the side of a lake is immediately in our sight. Kinkakuji is a 3 storey building, with the ground floor of Kinkakuji being semi-open. From the front of Kinkakuji, we can see into the rather empty ground floor with its walls painted with some flower mural. The entire 2nd and 3rd floor are enclosed. It is these levels where the walls are covered in gold foil, giving Kinkakuji its name. A phoenix statue stands right at top of the Kinkakuji with its wings spread out, as though it is ready to take flight. It is said that a Buddha relic is stored on the top floor of Kinkakuji. Kinkakuji looks especially charming with the rays of the setting sun shining onto it, making the top 2 floors of Kinkakuji glow like a gem. Indeed there are lesser people at the time we entered Kinkakuji. We can easily take pictures of Kinkakuji with no people in the background.
My friend and I followed the designated footpath making our way out of the temple grounds. Along the way, we came across Fudo-do (不動堂), a small shrine dedicated to the Buddist deity Fudo-myo-o (不動明王). We paid our respects to the deity enshrined here before making our way out of Kinkakuji.
Strolling in Downtown Kyoto
We left Kinkakuji on a local bus bound for Kyoto JR Station. As we were near our destination, we realised there is a shopping strip where the bus was plying through. We hit the buzzer and alighted on the next stop the bus calls on. There are numerous shops and departmental stores along this main road. As we were walking, we saw this small alley that seems to be crowded and turned in to check it out. Little that we realised that we are in the Kamo River (鴨川) dining district. One of the things to do in Kyoto is to dine at one of the restaurants that have an outdoor terrace that faces the Kamo River. This dining experience is only available from May to September each year and has existed for over 400 years in Kyoto. People would flock here to enjoy the cool river breeze while dining during the hotter months of the year. I have wanted to experience this before I came to Kyoto and by chance, we stumbled into this area. We walked along the alley from restaurant to restaurant searching for the food that we like. Dining here is a tad pricey. As we were walking along the alley, I spotted a Geisha walking discreetly to her next place of work. I read that Geishas are a rare sight in Kyoto these days, I must be lucky to have spotted one on my very first time (and first day) in Kyoto. We settled in a restaurant for dinner, dining here is indeed a unique experience.
Gion District (祇園)
After dinner, we headed across the Kamo River to check out if there are any other shops there. We stumbled in a quiet Gion District, where most of the old wooden buildings are located. Tourists flog here partly for the feel of olden days in Kyoto, partly hoping to catch a glimpse of Geishas as they usually ply through here for work in some of the restaurants here in Gion District. Walking in the streets of Gion District is as though we have been transported back in time. Most of the buildings here are restaurants and have ceased operations at the time we were there. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the peacefulness of the street, which makes strolling in Gion District pleasant. We headed back to Osaka to rest of the night after we believe that we have covered most of Gion District.