I’d heard so many amazing things about Kyoto before visiting, that it was probably the place I was anticipating most during our time in Japan. Full of historic neighborhoods, and countless temples, shrines, and beautiful gardens, Kyoto is considered to be Japan’s prettiest city, and is known for it’s preservation of Japanese culture. Unfortunately, our arrival in Kyoto also coincided with just about the time that Anthony and I had the blow out we were overdue for after being together 24/7 for the past three plus months.
When you’re around someone that much, sharing the tight confines of a hotel room, there is inevitably going to come a point where you reach your limit with one another. And my goodness do they have some some freaking tiny hotel rooms in Japan! Not to mention sharing a bed that is only slightly larger than a twin with someone you’re momentarily not on snuggling terms with, just adds insult to injury, so that annoyance plus tight quarters can quickly spiral into a fight of epic proportions.
So in order to take a little space so we might start to like each other again (which we do now in case you were wondering!), we wound up doing most of our sightseeing separately. Between feeling a bit down about the fight, and all the rain we had, I didn’t fit in quite as much as I would have liked to otherwise. I missed Arashiyama bamboo park because it was so far away from Higiyashima near the city center where we were staying (a historic, centrally located spot we recommend!), and traveling an hour each way by bus in the rain just didn’t happen.
Two Kyoto foodie must do’s we missed is having a kaiseki dinner (Japanese traditional haute cuisine) which we’d already done at our ryokan in Kurokawa Onsen, and sampling tofu. Neither of us can get excited about tofu, but apparently tofu in Kyoto is like croissants in Paris, so keep that in mind when you visit. Below are all my favorite sights and must do’s organized into a compressed 36 hours itinerary.
36 HOURS IN KYOTO
Arrive in the evening and perhaps sit down for a luxurious kaiseki dinner of either the super traditional or modernized variety. Make sure you make a relatively early night of it though since you will have a jam packed day ahead of you.
FUSHIMI INARI TORRI GATES
Wake up early to check out Kyoto’s iconic Fushimi Inari Shrine with it’s ten thousand torii gates (pictured above), the earlier the better to beat the crowds. Located just south east of the city center, it’s easily reachable by subway. If you’re interested in making the whole pilgrimage through the entire torii gate path, allow for at least 2-3 hours and come prepared for stairs. But it is possible to get a good sense of the whole experience in less time than that.
SANNEN-ZAKA + KIYOMIZU-DERA + NINEN-ZAKA
Next stop is a short subway ride north of Fushimi Inari is Higiyashima district with its historic shopping streets and one of the main temples of Kyoto. Stroll up Sannen-zaka to the Kiyomizu-dera temple. Expect plenty of crowds and tour groups, but a beautiful view of Kyoto from the temple. I didn’t get any good photos of the temple itself since it’s currently undergoing restoration and covered in scaffolding.
After, make your way down the quaint and quieter Ninen-zaka shopping street for more browsing and taking in historic Kyoto.
Continue the tour of historic Kyoto by turning your feet east to Gion, the heart of old Kyoto and former geisha district. Don’t be surprised to see tons of people dressed in kimono all over the historic parts of the city as it’s a popular tourist thing to do.
Just across the bridge about a twenty minute walk from Gion is the Nishiki Market. At three streets long, it’s widely considered to be the best food market in Japan. Try the takoyaki (fried octopus balls), and stock up on specialty foods and cooking ingredients. Closes at 6pm, but try and get there before 5pm and some stalls close early. (I would also like to suggest that this day can be done in reverse depending on your mood, and you can start your day with a traditional Japanese foods for breakfast).
After Nishiki Market back track a bit and consider checking out the lively restaurant and nightlife scene on Kyoto’s left bank.
Go for an early morning stroll down the Philospher’s Path, a beautiful tree lined walkway running along a stream and a popular spot for cherry blossoms in the spring. If you start at the southern end and walk the whole thing, allow for about 45 minutes to an hour.
The Philospher’s Path ends at Ginkaku-ji temple also known as the Silver Pavillion as it was supposed to be covered in a layer of silver, though it never was. The gardens are lovely, and there is another beautiful view over Kyoto.
Due east about an hour by bus Kinkaku-ji temple or the Golden Pavillion, which was the original inspiration for Ginkaku-ji. Up there with the Fushimi Inari shrine as one of the top sights to see in Kyoto, it’s more than worth the trek.
GREEN TEA EVERYTHING
Kyoto is overflowing with green tea everything: hot or iced, as mochi, cakes, and popcorn. I particularly fell in love with all the amazing green tea soft serve ice cream, and the best one was just outside the entrance to the park which contains Kinkaku-ji. Delicious and perfectly creamy and flecked with gold in honor of the pavilion.
Go collect your bags and head to the train station. If you have enough time, there are several great ramen shops Kyoto station for lunch before you leave!
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Carina Covella is a writer and currently working on her forthcoming memoir, Love Dogs, detailing her six month transformational journey from Hollywood through India. Carina graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University cum laude with a degree in Art History. She also attended the Sorbonne in Paris and studied opera at the Manhattan School of Music through the university exchange programs. Until recently she lived in Mill Valley, California with her wonderful Welsh boyfriend Anthony in a house nestled in the trees, but now they’re off on a two year adventure around the world. When she’s not writing or traveling, she loves to cook for her friends and family.