City Guide: Kyoto (and Nara)

It’s the long awaited, final installment in the Japan travel trilogy! And I’ve saved the best for last…

In this blog post we explore some incredible places to visit in the historically rich and beautiful cities of Kyoto and Nara.

Kyoto

Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan and it has a plethora of incredible historical sites and shrines. My Lonely Planet guide told me that Kyoto “is the place to go to see what Japan is all about” so I was very excited to see it for myself. The city is an amazing mixture of old and new Japan and it’s a really lovely place to walk from site to site with great public transport links.

While Kyoto is well worth a visit it’s good to know that the city is an incredibly popular tourist hot spot, so prepare yourself for big crowds at all the main sight seeing hot spots.

As we were staying in Osaka we had scheduled a full day to explore Kyoto. If we had had more time we easily could have come back for another full day of exploring, as there is so much to see in Kyoto and there was no way we could fit it all in to one day. In fact, on my next trip to Japan I think I would base myself in Kyoto over Osaka, mainly because its such a beautiful city to explore. We grabbed a local train to Kyoto at Osaka station early in the morning and as soon as we arrived Livie and I made a bee line for the awe inspiring Fushimi-Inari Tasha. But so had hundreds of other people…

Prepare yourself for big crowds at Fushimi-Inari Taisha

Despite the crowds it’s still an incredible shrine to visit, so be prepared, but don’t let them put you off. If you catch a local train from Kyoto station like we did you will arrive conviently right outside the entrance. It’s free to visit this shrine so head on in, past the bigger buildings and you will soon spot the iconic orange shrine gates heading up the wooded hill. If it wasn’t for the throngs of people you can imagine this place being one of the most serene places on earth.

The pathway up the hill/mountain is about 4km and the crowds definitely thin out the higher you go. So I would recommend sticking with it even if the crowds on the initial paths are a bit off putting. And if you want to get a sweet gram of just you and gates you need to climb higher for sure. Hopefully you won’t get stuck behind a strange dude mansplaining to his female companion about Harry Potter isn’t real like we did… We didn’t make it right to the top as we knew we had a lot to pack into the day, but we enjoyed every moment of the path we managed to see.

 

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Next on our tourist hit list was Kinkaku-ji aka the Golden Pavilion. After a short train ride from Kyoto station to Emmachi Station followed by an even quicker bus trip on bus 205 (the bus stop is 150m from the train station and there is a sign which points you in the right direction) we arrived outside the world heritage site. (#hottip make sure you have the exact change for the buses in Kyoto). And I was surprised because it was actually even busier than Fushimi-Inari Taisha! Before we headed in to look at the pavilion  we decided to grab a green tea ice cream each, and I thoroughly recommend it, they were delicious!

 

Turns out Livie and I basically have the same hand…

 

The entry fee to Kinkaku-ji is a very reasonable 400 yen. The golden pavilion itself was incredible and we saw it in what can only be described as perfect lighting (please see the photo below 🙂 ). The original pavilion was built in 1397 but it was burnt down in 1950 by an obsessed monk. So the pavilion you see was recobstructed in 1955 following the original designs and adding even more gold leaf to the outside. Because it’s so busy it can be a bit of a battle to get a great view of it. Don’t panic though, Japanese tourists are very polite and you will get your turn to have a great look.

The gardens surrounding the pavilion are perfectly and beautifully landscaped and despite the crowds a walk amongst them still feels pretty relaxing…

The last site we managed to squeeze in before the sun went down was a visit to the Arashiyama Bamboo Groove.

The bamboo grove is set in a really nice part of Kyoto with lots of cute traditional houses and historic shrines. It’s a really lovely short stroll through the bamboo grove but it’s really hard to get photos that accurately capture how cool it is. I would have loved to have visited the Arashiyama Monkey Park as well, but the sun was already setting by the time we got to the bamboo grove. So it will be high on my to do list for my next trip to Kyoto. Apparently it’s not only great for monkey spotting, there also supposed to be great views over Kyoto from the park.

With the sun thoroughly set after we left the bamboo grove we headed back to the impressive Kyoto Station to head back to Osaka. Before we left we grabbed a great dinner at the station. On the tenth floor of the station is Kyoto Ramen Koji, a mini indoor street of seven ramen restaurants all selling different types and styles of ramen. We ended up getting plum wine and chicken ramen to see how that would shaped up against the more common pork ramen. The verdict was that it was just as delicious and it was the perfect way to end a busy day in Kyoto.

Nara

There seems to be one main reason why people visit Nara – deer. And lots of them. There are about 1200 of then that roam around the Nara-koen, the city’s central park. But this historic city is also home to eight world heritage sites. So while we came in search of cute deer photos we left with a bigger appreciation for Nora’s rich history. And that might sound a bit naff and boring but I promise it wasn’t.

It’s again a super easy local train ride from Osaka to Nara and a short stroll from Nara station to the park. We had hoped for a glorious autumn day, but when we arrived in Nara it was pissing down. We grabbed a variety of stange pastries (turns out I’m not a fan of red bean paste) from a cafe in the station to sustain us for a day on intense touristing and headed off into the miserable weather, umbrellas held high. As soon as we entered the park we spotted some small groups of deer and we’re throughly impressed by this alone. And spent ages sneaking up on them to get photos in their vicinity.

However as soon as you venture deeper into the park you are greeted with hoards of deer all clamoring for food. It’s a very strange site, particularly as there are roads running through the park and the traffic has to give way to crossing deer (who look as if they could give two fucks about crossing at pedestrian crossings). Livie was a bit nervous about the very un-nervous deer who get up very close to see if you have any food to offer them. We decided it was safer not to purchase any deer food but you can buy deer biscuits in the park for about 150 yen to feed them if you are feeling brave. They will probably try nibbling your clothes even if you don’t have food. Be warned.

Brave Livie
“We must guard this vending machine with our lives son”

We followed deer and school children filled paths through the park to Todai-ji to see the Daibutsu-den Hall (the largest wooden building in the world) and the Great Buddha it contains (one of the largest bronze Buddhas in the world). Entry to the hall is 500 yen but you can stroll around Todai-ji for free, though I do recommend paying to go into the hall. Apparently the structure (which is ginormous) was rebuilt in the 1700s and is only two thirds the size of the original. The mind boggles as to the size of that original bad boy.

Daibutsu-den Hall with a Livie for scale

Visiting shrines really weren’t that high on our list of things to do in Japan but they turned out to be one of the things both Livie and I enjoyed the most. So even if you think it’s not for you, you should give it a go. They are beautiful and give you a living glimpse into Japan’s complex history. We both loved our time at Todai-ji and the Great Buddha was truly breathtaking. He couldn’t be anything less really as his height comes in at over 15m and he weighs around 500 tonnes.

Apologies because this photo doesn’t do the statue justice

By the way if you are looking to get some incense while you are in Japan shrines are the perfect place to grab some!

It was still raining heavily when we left the shrine so we decided to amble our way back through the park and streets of Nara to the station, stopping at an arcade on our way.  Just walking through the park will take you past some amazing sites like the impressive Kofuku-ji. Also a great game to play as you stroll through the city is spot the deer merchandise, it’s everywhere!

Favourite Nara souvenir!

Though we only spent a day in Nara and Kyoto respectively they were some of my favourite days in Japan and they are at the top of my to do list when I head back to the country, hopefully in the near future.

So here ends the Japan travel series. It’s an incredible, unique country and an amazing place to visit. 10 out 10 from me. The trip was also so wonderful I think because I got to share it with my best friend, who was always patient with me when Google maps crapped out on us and was up for anything, even things outside her comfort zone. Always pick a great travel buddy, because it will make your trip a thousand times better/funnier/happier, and I am so lucky that I got to see Japan with the best travel buddy in the world. I only hope I get to go on another trip with Livie very soon!

Happy travels!

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