Whether you like Japan for its sakura or its temples, no trip to the country is complete without a visit to Kyoto, the oasis of Zen. Mitrajit Bhattacharya compiles a first-timer’s guide to explore the city like a local.
There are countless things that put Japan on so many bucket lists—from a unique blend of immersive experience to the curious juxtaposition of the old and the new in every prefecture. But if it’s Zen you desire, head to Kyoto, a calming oasis that slows you down with its bewitching beauty.
I try to visit the city every time I visit Japan. Spending a day or two in this magical place comes with ample rewards: witnessing the cherry blossoms of spring and the many-hued foliage of autumn, experiencing the tranquillity of Zen gardens, and exploring the 1,600-odd Buddhist temples and 17 World Heritage Sites.
GETTING TO AND AROUND KYOTO
The cultural and historical centre of the country, Kyoto is on the bullet train route from Tokyo to Osaka, onward to Hiroshima. Board the super-fast Nozomi (the fastest of the bullet trains) from either Tokyo (a little over two hours) or Osaka (less than an hour). As the frequency of the trains is quite high, you can have an early breakfast in Tokyo and still arrive in Kyoto by 10 am. The best seasons to visit are March-April for the breathtaking sakura sightings, and October for the changing colours of autumn.
Buy a Japan Rail (JR) ticket or a seven-day pass online or through a travel agent in India. It’s cheaper than buying it at a station in Japan. You need a reservation for the bullet train journey, especially if you want the right seats—with great window views of Mt. Fuji—while travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto.
THINGS YOU MUST DO
Start with the Kyoto station, where you are spoilt for choice with countless shops and eateries at your disposal. It’s difficult to think of another station as expansive and beautiful as this. Take the elevator to the terrace to get a 360-degree aerial view of the city. If you’re a Ramen noodles fan, head straight to the Kyoto Ramen Street on the 10th floor. Each of the eight Ramen restaurants here specialises in a different local style of Ramen. Just buy a ticket for the type of Ramen you cherish from the vending machine in front of the restaurant of your choice (unless you can read Japanese, you will have to go by the accompanying visuals).
Kyoto boasts many fine attractions, and a day can never be enough. But if you’re on a deadline, board a JR train from Kyoto to Inari station, and head to the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine. Perched on a wooded hillside in southern Kyoto, this shrine is dedicated to Inari—the Shinto deity of rice and sake. Shinto shrines are known for their orange torii gates, and Fushimi Inari has 10,000 of them lined over a four-kilometre path up the Mount Inari. Most visitors don’t have the time or stamina to do the complete trek; you can opt for a short walk for the experience. The shrine complex dates back to the eighth century, but it’s the torii gates that attract tourists in large numbers. Right outside the exit gate of the shrine, you will find some of the best street food in the country, for a few hundred yens only.
Back in Kyoto, take a cab to Kinkaku-ji, a Zen temple also known as the Golden Pavillion, located in the northwestern part of Kyoto. The Golden Pavillion assumes its name from the fact that its top two floors are swathed in gold leaf. It’s a stunning structure, and on a bright day, its reflection in the surrounding lake is a spectacle to behold.
Next, head to the Higashiyama district on the slopes of the eastern mountains to visit Ginkaku-ji, a Zen temple also called the Silver Pavillion in the Sakyo ward. Built in 1482 by shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as a retirement villa, it was converted into a Zen temple following the shōgun’s death in 1490. The shōgun was obsessed with art, and Ginkaku-ji became a centre of contemporary culture, known as Higashiyama Culture, which eventually had a countrywide impact. Some beautiful cultural elements of Kyoto, such as tea ceremonies, theatre and poetry, flower arrangements, garden design and architecture, come from that time. Despite its name, the Silver Pavillion was never covered in silver. It is believed that it was just a nickname, chosen more than a century after the building’s construction, possibly to contrast it with the Golden Pavillion.
Passing by the Togudo Hall, you can walk through to Ginkaku-ji’s famed moss garden, which features ponds with islets and bridges, small streams, and a variety of plants. Amble down the Philosopher’s Walk (named after philosopher and professor Nishida Kitaro) and proceed south along the canal until the path culminates near the Nanzen-ji temple. Along the way, you’ll find numerous cafes and shops. In spring, the one-hour walk is quite picturesque with cherry blossoms blooming on both sides of the canal.
Yet another taxi ride to the southeastern part of the city takes you to the most prominent landmark of Kyoto, the Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu-dera. Spend about half an hour inside the temple for the view from the balcony of the main building. While spring drapes the whole of Japan in beautiful pink and white, and autumn births a riot of colours everywhere, the phenomena are best experienced from atop these mountains.
Nearby is the Otowa Waterfall, which gave the temple its name (pure water). The waterfall has three streams, said to bring longevity, academic success, and love. Do not be tempted by greed, for drinking from all three streams brings bad luck, I was told. Walking down slowly from the temple through meandering lanes to Gion, or the Geisha District, while the city slips into twilight, is a magical experience. My first encounter with a geisha happened over a decade ago, and I never forgot it. I am told there are just about 100 geikos (geishas) and 100 maikos (apprentice geishas) left in Kyoto, the oldest one in their 90s.
Visitors and photographers from all over the world descend on Gion just to have a glimpse of a geiko or a maiko in their colourful kimonos and wooden sandals flitting between tea houses on private appointments. The apprentices can easily be identified by their rather tender age (usually in their late teens) and their attire (more colourful full-sleeved kimonos as compared to the geikos). While you’re in Gion, do not let the geishas draw all your attention for the neighbourhood is lovely, with historic tea houses, wood-lined roads, kaiseki restaurants, and wooden ryokans. One way or another, Gion will leave you with a longing to return.
If you have the energy to walk for another 25 minutes (or just cab it), you’ll reach the Nishiki Market in downtown Kyoto. For those unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine, a trip to this market can be an overwhelming experience. This bustling, five-block-long, covered market comprises around 125 stalls, each one hawking local Japanese food and handcrafted speciality items. Try authentic green tea and the famous Kyoto rice balls.
For the more adventurous, there’s roe-stuffed squid, fresh sashimi sticks, and Kyoto-style takoyaki. The Japanese have a sweet tooth, so you’ll have plenty of options for dessert—from soy milk ice cream, to doughnuts, and chocolate croquettes.
While this may serve as a cool guide for the first-timer, it is certainly not an exhaustive list. Rest assured, you can visit Kyoto again and again, and still come back with a new discovery every single time.