Kyoto Travel Guide
Kyoto, widely acknowledged as the cultural center of Japan, is a must on any Japan travel itinerary. While Tokyo is popular for introducing visitor's to Japan's big city buzz, Kyoto will dazzle visitors with it's small town and intimate feel. While I'll admit that it didn't quite live up to my elevated expectations, Kyoto was a quaint town with lots to see and do.
How to get there: Kyoto does not have an airport. Inconvenient, but I guess it helps to stifle tourism to the area which might be a good idea because it felt extremely crowded here, even in the off-season. The nearest airport is Osaka Kansai from which it takes around 1 hour 45 minutes to reach Kyoto city center. Alternatively, you could take a train from virtually anywhere in the country to Kyoto's central station, since Japan is famous for it's fast and efficient train system.
Getting around: I was surprised by the fact that Kyoto still is a rather large city, not really ideal for walking around to visit the main attractions. There is a well-connected metro and bus system with stations nearby every main sight, making it easy still to see everything you want to see in Kyoto! A handful of the main tourist attractions are located on complete opposite sides of town, so expect to be taking buses/metros to and fro.
What to do: First, allow Kyoto to show off its charm with a stroll around the Higashiyama District. It's Kyoto's most famous sightseeing district with adorable little alleys, visitors and locals alike walking around in kimonos, temples galore, and traditional Japanese buildings and architecture still intact, unlike Tokyo which has hyper-developed with ultra-modern infrastructure. Higashiyama is where Kyoto's small town cultural charm comes alive, and its narrow streets almost reminded me of a European city. Be forewarned that this district is crazy crowded - the small walkways are packed with people and it's almost as if you're just a single sheep moving with the herd. As much charm as Higashiyama has, the crowds really took away from it, which may be one contributing factor of why Kyoto didn't 'wow' me like I thought it would. My advice is to wake up really early if you want some extra peace and quiet here.
Next we visited the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine, where you can find thousands of torii gates stacked together to create quite the captivating sight. The shrine itself is located right outside of the JR Inari Station just a couple stops away from the center of Kyoto. It's one of the most iconic spots in the entire city and definitely did not disappoint. My mom and I walked for nearly a half hour, the entire time under stunning torii gates that seemingly never ended. I learned that each torii gate was either donated by a business or an individual and it's nuts to think about the amount of people who contributed to the construction of this beauty. Eventually the torii gates lead to a small mountain summit with a lookout point of the city, but we turned around before we reached it. Again, this place was absolutely packed with people, but still so impressive that it didn't minimize the experience for me.
Finally, another must-see in Tokyo is the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. Located a bit away from the center of Kyoto, you must take either a bus or a combination of trains for around 30 minutes. From the station, it's an easy 10 minute walk to the bamboo forest with signs leading the way. The further you walk along the trail, the thicker and more beautiful the bamboo grove gets! Thankfully this wasn't as crowded as Higashiyama District or Fushimi Inari Shrine, and we finally felt like we were able to breathe a little bit. Not for long though, because it was relentlessly cold and even started to half-snow half-rain while we were here, so we left not long after arriving. I reckon that it would be even more magical to see the bamboo forest in spring or summertime when the sun pokes through the bamboo trees. I guess I'll have to come back one day!
Kyoto's incredible sights surely lived up to its international reputation - I guess what I didn't love about it so much were the crowds and the weather. We felt almost claustrophobic from the masses of people in every corner of the city and ran into some bad luck with freezing cold temps and snow (we're from Hawaii, okay, we're not used to it)! With that being said, I still firmly believe Kyoto can't be missed on any Japan trip simply because it gives visitors a glimpse of traditional Japanese culture that gets sort of lost among the hustle and bustle of the other huge cities, namely Tokyo. Next time I'm in that corner of the world, I plan to wake up with the sun and set out early to see the city when it's not overloaded with humans.