Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: Kyoto, Japan
Visited: March 2018
As Japan’s former Imperial City, Kyoto is rich in history and culture. There are thousands of shrines and temples inside the city. Some of the best food in the world can be found here, including 174 Michelin star restaurants. Kyoto is a major draw for travelers and local tourist, and it is not difficult to understand why.
Japan is most crowded in March and April during Sakura (cherry blossom season), and in July during Gion Matsuri. Finding discounts on hotels at these times is less likely, but travelers should not let cost discourage them from visiting. Kyoto has many capsule hotels, hostels, and other budget lodging options for those who book far enough in advance or are happy to come at times other than peak season. Cheap eats are not hard to find, and admission to many attractions is free.
The Kimono is very much a part of traditional Japan, however, in modern times, most Japanese wear these beautiful garments solely on special occasions. Kyoto is working to encourage people to keep kimono culture alive and ensure that the elegant attire does not fade away from Japanese culture altogether.
Kyoto promotes wearing kimonos by offering the Kimono Passport. The passport is available to both locals and tourists, and the only requirement for use is that you are wearing a kimono. Participating businesses offer discounts on transportation, food, museums, tea ceremonies and more.
Tip: Visit the Kimono Passport website in Google Chrome for the option to translate it.
Pachinko Parlor, Kyoto
The popularity of Pachinko reaches far beyond Kyoto, but if you would like to try a game or two, you will have no problem finding a parlor in Kyoto. A favorite pastime for gamblers, Pachinko is a version of a slot machine where your fate is decided by how well you maneuver a handful of tiny silver balls. Pachinko parlors look much like casinos lined by pachinko and other similar machines. Gambling for cash is illegal in Japan, but winners can claim prices, which most players trade for money elsewhere. Pachinko creates more revenue in Japan than it does in Vegas, Macau, and Singapore combined.
Kinkaku-ji, in northern Kyoto, is one of the most visited structures in Kyoto. It became a Zen Buddhist temple in the early 1400s following the death of a shogun named Ashikaga Yoshimitsu who had acquired it for his retirement. The temples top two stories have been covered in gold, and many referred to it as, "The Gold Pavillion." Gold was initially used on the outside of the pavilion because it is believed to keep out negative energy. It is also a great show of wealth during Yoshimitsu's time.
Exploring the grounds of Kinkaku-ji
In 1950 a young mentally ill monk burned the pavilion down completely. It was rebuilt a few years later and underwent restoration in the late 1980s.
The Kinkaku-ji grounds are well manicured and make for a pleasant stroll. Most stop to admire the painted screens of the former priest’s hojo which still stands just past the Kinkaku-ji and the pond. Further on is the Sekkatei Tea House and temple area.
Crowds at Yaska Shrine during sakura
Yasaka Shrine is a small shrine at the eastern end of Shijō Street in the Gion District. Each July Japan’s biggest festival, Gion Matsuri happens here. It is said to have started in 869 as part of a purification ritual, to end the spread of plague in Kyoto with prayers to the god of the Yasaka shrine Susanoo-no-Mikoto. In modern day, the celebration has evolved into a multi-day street party and feast. Admission to the shrine is free.
Maruyama Park during sakura
Most enter the park through the Yasaka Shrine discussed above. Around the park are more shrines, the Ryozen History Museum and Higashi Otani Mausoleum, which is said to contain the ashes of Jodo-Shin Buddhism founder, Shinran.
Maruyama Park and the weeping cherry tree
The park is lovely year-round but becomes particularly festive and crowded during Sakura when people gather to eat prepared meals among the cherry blossoms and pose for photos in front of the giant weeping cherry tree for which the park has become well-known. Admission is free.
Gion District at night
Gion is Kyoto’s famous geisha district, and though geishas and their apprentices, called maikos can be sometimes be seen in public here, it is considered quite rude to bother them. It is good to remember that though spotting a geisha may seem like spotting a unicorn, if you do happen to see them in full costume, they are working. Being overly aggressive or disturbing these women is highly frowned upon, especially if they are with a guest. If you do take a picture, do so from a respectable distance.
The full geisha experience cost around JPY 99,620 / USD 900 for a full evening. Appointments can be made here. Those looking for a more affordable option can visit Gion Corner to enjoy geisha performances for JPY 3150 / USD 30.
If you are interested in experiencing geisha or maiko training, there are several options for training, makeovers and photo shoots in Kyoto. Two that seem to be quite popular are Maica and Kyoto Maiko & Geisha Makeover. These are not budget activities, but Maica is popular in part because it is said to be less expensive but still offer a quality experience.
Maiko & Geisha Makeover
Nijo Castle gate, Kyoto
The Nijo Castle was completed during the reign of Tokugawa Iemitsu when Edo (now Tokyo) was becoming the center for politics in Japan. Still, the Imperial Court remained in Kyoto. The Nijō Castle was constructed near the Imperial Palace to house shōgun traveling to Kyoto to attend Imperial Court.
A moat and two fortification rings surround Nijō Castle. The space between the fortification was intentionally engineered to separate the classes. Those considered to be of the higher ranking were welcome and hosted behind the second wall, while those of a lower cast received less protection and consideration in the outer circle.
Founded around 1600 by Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Higashi Honganji (East Honganji) is one of the most massive wooden structure in the world and the spiritual center for the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism in Kyoto.
Nishi Honganji (West Hongagi), also built around 1600, is the main temple of the Honganji faction of the Jodo-Shin sect. The temples are in central Kyoto.
Dragon fountain, Higashi Honganji
The architecture and ornamentation of both are impressive, and a stroll through the grounds and exhibits is enjoyable for visitors from all walks of life. Admission is free.
Ran theatre performer
Catching a show at the Ran Theatre is a fun way to spend part of your evening and an excellent way to support local musicians. All shows include Japanese folk music performed on traditional instruments in a nightclub setting. The performers and their humor keep the audience engaged and entertained even between songs. Dinner and drinks are available during shows and tickets are JPY 4320 / USD 40 https://www.rankyoto.com
Senbon torii at Fushimi Inari-taisha
Fushimi Inari-taisha in the southern region of Kyoto is a shrine for Irani, the god of rice who has also become widely accepted as the god of business. The more than 10,000 Tori gates, known as Senbon torii, are the gateways typically placed at the entrance of Shinto shrines. Passing through them symbolizes moving through to better things, and donating a torii is believed to help the donors' wishes come true. The Senbon toriis were each given by a different business. Fushimi Inari-taisha is open 24-hours and admission is free.
The Kyoto Station website is an excellent source of information on transportation in Kyoto. You can get anywhere in Kyoto by bus or train, but it is important to note that though a Japan Rail Pass can be used in Kyoto, Japan Railways does not always offer the most direct route to where you are going. It is wise to map out your day in advance because the distance between sites can make traveling by bus time consuming in Kyoto especially if they are far apart. Some travelers prefer to get around the hill free streets by bicycle, and if budget is not your primary concern, you can always hire a driver.