May 11, 2014

On my last full day in Kyoto I remember being underwhelmed by seeing another temple from the 9th century. “This is pretty,” I thought, “but is it worth $5 to go in?”

My third leg on my Japan trip, Kyoto represented a notable contrast to Tokyo and Hiroshima. I learned while at Hiroshima’s Peace Museum that Kyoto was also on the short list for cities to attack with an atomic bomb, and for that reason Kyoto was spared heavy bombardment. (American officials were concerned about destroying too much in a city ahead of an A-bomb to be able to measure the bomb’s effects.) Kyoto is also rare among Japanese cities in that its mostly-named streets are on a familiar grid, so waypoints like bus stops are often referred to as intersections instead of “in front of such-and-such bridge.” Some streets are numbered, so if you know that Sanjo, Shijo, and Gojo are “Third,” “Fourth,” and “Fifth” streets, navigation becomes easier.

I knew that Kyoto was a major seat of Japan’s traditional culture before I went, so I envisioned it as a European-style “old town” where I could just happen upon landmarks by going for a walk. The grid makes Kyoto look a lot more compact and walkable than it really is; distances were measured in multiple kilometers on many street signs near my hotel, meaning that most trips involved 30 minutes of walking each way. On my first evening I walked to historic Nijo castle while passing modern apartment buildings, schools, and nail salons on streets large and small, and then I took Kyoto’s surprisingly minimal subway back to my hotel, where I meticulously researched bus and subway directions to the sites I wanted to see. Kyoto is also the first Japanese city where I’ve taken taxis; they’re everywhere and their prices are reasonable especially if split multiple ways. (Sites like Japan-Guide recommend them to hop from a train or subway destination to an attraction and back. I think that’s a good idea.)

I only spent two full days in Kyoto but a traveler can easily invest a week to experience it at a measured pace. The city is truly sprawling; to get to the old streets of Arashiyama from Ginkakuji temple via the Philosopher’s Path took about an hour on foot, and then after lunch I rode a bus for 50 minutes to get up to the gold-toned splendor of Kinkakuji temple. During my two full days in Kyoto, my Fitbit reported that I walked about 31 miles.

Kyoto is one of the most visited cities in the world for good reason: its historic sites are beautiful, immaculately maintained, and inexpensive to visit. Each temple charges around 500 yen (about $5 U.S.) to enter and tour, about the same price as a cup of coffee at the city’s many cafes. The heavy rain made sightseeing and photography more difficult, but at least it thinned the crowds down to those travelers on package tours. I’m very grateful that the modern Itoya Hotel, where I stayed, offered free loaner umbrellas.

I was in Kyoto for the start of Golden Week, a time when many holidays occur in quick succession. Many shops offer special “GW” sales and public transit is even busier than usual. My tip to beat the crowds is to start early. At the Fushimi Inari shrine, I arrived before 10:00 AM and the pathways were mostly deserted. The many cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops on Inari opened later, too, so I wasn’t distracted during my walk.

By the time afternoon and night roll in, gift shops go into overdrive. “Green tea all the things,” several coworkers observed after I brought back a duffel bag full of Pocky, Kit Kats, and other treats mostly flavored like the ubiquitous drink. Even domestic tourists are tempted by special Kyoto Kit Kat limited edition flavors. My friend Kaipo, who formerly lived in Kyoto, recommended a shop called Tsujiri. Its Gion location has two stories: the ground floor is for tea retail sales and above it they sell desserts including delicious, elaborate parfaits. I highly recommend it for the indulgent sweet-toothed traveler. (Tsujiri’s line was an hour long before dinner, but afterward I could get a dessert with almost no wait.)

My last leg of my second Japan trip was a bit of a slog: drenched, exhausted from extremely long walks, and sniffly after a week of public transportation germs, my daily routine was to see a few sights, rest in my room, and explore a bit more in the afternoon. My advice to the Japan newbie is to allot plenty of time and energy to exploring Kyoto. I only scratched the surface on this trip.

See all my Kyoto photos on Flickr.