Before I visited Kyoto, fellow backpackers rhapsodized about how beautiful it was. They were absolutely right. What I wasn’t expecting were the enormous crowds and #boyfriendsofinstagram (my favorite hashtag) everywhere. I should have known better. Like, duh, Kyoto isn’t exactly a little-known destination.
To make Kyoto work for me, I adopted the following strategies:
- I picked my “must-see” sights and visited them at the beginning of the day so I could enjoy them and take photos in peace. For sights that were less of a priority, I accepted that I would have to dodge tour groups and selfie sticks.
- To avoid temple burnout (believe me, this is a real thing in Kyoto), I had a short list of a couple of temples and shrines per day. This gave me the flexibility to duck into other temples that looked interesting and actually appreciate them rather than just check another sight off my list.
Let’s start with my biggest letdown in Kyoto: Kiyomizudera. The temple is supposed to have good views of the surrounding hillside. However, the exterior was covered with scaffolding since the temple was undergoing renovations. I knew about the renovations before visiting, but I was still hoping for decent views. However, as I walked around the complex, I kept asking myself, “Is this supposed to be the viewpoint?” This is going to sound so annoying, but I wasn’t blown away. I’m the worst.
The scaffolding was likely the main reason why I didn’t fully appreciate the temple, so I’m sure Kiyomizudera will be a lot more impressive once the renovations are completed in 2020.
In contrast, the other sights I visited in Kyoto were wonderful. I enjoyed walking through Higashiyama, a preserved neighborhood surrounding Kiyomizudera. In the morning, the streets were still quiet as shop employees began opening up for business.
At night, I ventured into Gion, a neighborhood where geishas entertain clients. I was indifferent about spotting a geisha, but I liked peeking into high-end restaurants and bars.
At Eikando Zenrinji, I caught my first glimpses of fall foliage. Fall is my favorite season, so I got snap-happy with my camera.
A #boyfriendofinstagram was similarly inspired and insisted on taking ten minutes to pose his girlfriend on a bridge, even though other visitors were waiting to take photos. To hide my annoyance, I retreated to the shrines. Photography wasn’t allowed, but the interior was stunning, with liberal use of gold leaf. I appreciated having a few minutes to meditate.
Fushimi Inari, a shrine with iconic orange gates, was one of the sights on my priority list, so I got there at around 8:30 AM. The gates are situated on a mountain, so visitors were clustered around the entrance at the bottom. It was still pretty easy to get a photo with the gates.
Several shrines with dozens of small torii lined the path to the summit.
As I climbed further uphill, the crowds thinned, and I made fewer stops for #boyfriendsofinstagram. I loved how the sunlight filtered through the trees and struck the gates.
The round trip to and from the summit took me about two hours, with lots of stops for photos. Once I returned to the entrance at around 10:30 AM, the crowds had increased considerably, with tour guides waving flags for their groups. Aim to get to Fushimi Inari before 9:00 AM if you’d like to beat the crowds.
I didn’t expect much from Kinkakuji, the “Golden Pavilion,” so I chose to go there in the afternoon. Once I saw the temple, I was surprised by how striking it was. It literally glowed in the daylight.
I would have loved to spend more time admiring the temple, but the dense crowds made that impossible. C’est la vie in Kyoto.
Arashiyama, a neighborhood in western Kyoto, was another priority for me. I was especially interested in the bamboo forest, so I arrived there at around 8:30 AM. The walk through the forest took only ten minutes, but the scenery was sublime.
#Boyfriendsofinstagram were hard at work.
As I waited for one #boyfriendofinstagram to finish taking photos of his girlfriend (not the couple in the photo above), the boyfriend asked if he could take a photo for me. Even though I declined, I was so touched by his offer that I seriously considered asking him to be my #boyfriendofinstagram, current girlfriend notwithstanding. Apparently it doesn’t take much to impress me.
I went to the bamboo forest at the right time because it was overtaken by tour groups when I returned at around 11:30 AM. If you don’t need photos of the bamboo forest in Arashiyama and just want a photo of bamboo, Adashino Nenbutsuji, a temple about a 20-minute walk from the main forest, has its own small grove. The grove was empty when I visited at around 10:30 AM.
While I was in Arashiyama, I also visited Otagi Nenbutsuji, a temple with hundreds of stone figurines. Each figurine is unique, so it was entertaining to walk through the small grounds. Many of the figurines engage in nobler activities like praying and meditating, but some box, play tennis, and dance.
A couple of my favorite figurines were getting their drink on.
One major attraction I skipped in Arashiyama was the monkey park. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I tend to stay away from wild monkeys. I just don’t trust them. If you have no hangups with monkeys, other travelers reported that the monkey park was worthwhile.
I’m not a souvenir person, but Kyoto marked the first time where I debated buying something. The temptation was a Snorlax baseball cap.
However, at 6,000 JPY (~$53) per hat, I couldn’t justify the purchase. It was heart-wrenching to step away from the store.
As for food, Kyoto is renowned for kaiseki, or a sequence of delicately prepared dishes. A couple of travelers recommended that I get a kaiseki lunch since this would be less of a hit to my wallet than dinner. Sorry to disappoint you, foodie friends: I never made it to a kaiseki restaurant. But, hey, at least I saved some money.
For a decidedly less refined meal, I went to Katsukura for tonkatsu, or fried pork. After I placed my order, I got an adorable pestle to grind a bowl of sesame seeds. I could add the seeds to a sweet, soy-based sauce or a slightly spicy sauce. My tonkatsu came with unlimited cabbage and brown rice, which was a welcome change from white rice. The tonkatsu was crispy, the cabbage was crunchy, and the rice was filling. To finish my lunch, I ended with a miso soup that was deeply flavored with carrots and other root vegetables.
For conveyor belt sushi, I waited in line for over an hour at Chojiro. After about ten minutes, I was second-guessing my decision to wait. After 30 minutes, I had only moved about 15 feet, but I was too invested to leave at that point.
When I finally entered the restaurant, I promptly ordered a bunch of nigiri from the touchpad system. Chojiro was the first – and only – sushi restaurant I visited with female chefs. That was very cool, and the sushi was good. I probably wouldn’t return to Chojiro if I had to wait in line again, but I got my cheap sushi fix.
My biggest issue with conveyor belt sushi places? I’ll go when I’m not that hungry, thinking I’ll have “just a few pieces.” Once I arrive at the restaurant, I’m so enthralled by the prices (“It’s just 150 JPY/$1.50 for two pieces of salmon!”) that I get carried away with ordering. Ten plates of sushi later, I’m stuck with a $20 bill. You win, conveyor belt sushi.
You didn’t think I’d discuss food in Kyoto without mentioning dessert, right? Green tea soft serve was my dessert of choice in Kyoto. Sold at virtually every street corner, you can get a cone for 250 to 350 JPY (about $2.20 to $3.50).
Finally, I have to give a shoutout to Guesthouse Ga-Jyun, my hostel in Kyoto. Ga-Jyun felt like home. The owner provided free transport to his sento (public bath) on certain nights. The guesthouse had a powerful massage chair, where I planted myself every night. The chair was divine, especially since I was missing cheap massages from Southeast Asia.
I was lucky to be at the guesthouse on a night where the owner was hosting a party for a former staff member. I was given a beer, and all guests were welcomed to the party. The dinner was delicious and included fried chicken, rice cakes, and vegetables. The guesthouse hosts a party on Friday nights, which I sadly missed since I left Kyoto on a Thursday.
My favorite part of Ga-Jyun was Jiro, the resident Shiba Inu. He was just a year old, so he was hyper and loved chewing on guests’ arms and knees.
When Jiro was naughty, he was placed on a table for a timeout.
Kyoto is incredibly photogenic, so I totally understand why travelers jostle for photos at sights. With a bit of planning, patience, and luck, you can still enjoy some peaceful moments in Kyoto.