Kyoto is the ultimate location to be when cherry blossoms are in season. The pale pink blossoms style the ancient temples, parks and canals like piped pink frosting. The contrast of red and pink against a blend of old woods, stone, ancient streets and manicured parks is absolutely striking. I was again treated to a peak bloom visit and saw the best places to soak in these fleeting beauties.
Kyoto is the former imperial capital of Japan. The ancient history of this place boggles the mind. It is so significant that the United States initially considered making it the bombing site during WWII but decided against it in order to protect the historical importance. Today, it retains its ancient feel but does struggle against modern developments.
I could spend weeks in Kyoto visiting the hundreds of shrines, temples, cafes and old streets. With only a couple of days, I had to be strategic. Here was my hit list:
Walk the old streets of Kyoto – The culture, the history, the women in kimonos! I could not get enough of it. A big thing there is to dress up in kimonos and be a Geisha for the day. If I had not been traveling alone, you better believe my companion would have been in matching kimonos with me. Next time!
Tea Ceremony – I got a chance to participate in a traditional tea ceremony, one of the many arts practiced in Japanese culture. My host explained that this art is slowly dying and they are doing what they can to protect this tradition from modern life. It was very unique. Every hand motion, turn of the bowl, whisk of the brush was done with such deliberate grace and purpose. Such a neat experience. I highly recommend Tea Ceremony Ju-An as it was at a convenient location, had convenient times and a very knowledgeable host!
Sanjūsangen-dō Temple – A gorgeous temple, known for its 1,011 golden statues of the Japanese Goddess of Compassion Kannon. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed of these statues but it was amazing.
Starbucks – Ok, hear me out on this. It is not just ANY Starbucks. It sits within a 100 year old townhouse in a particularly charming part of one of Kyoto’s most historic neighborhoods. Coolest Starbucks I’ve ever visited! Women in traditional kimonos, kneeling on mats, sipping Starbucks from the floor… that was quite the sight to see. Ever since then I regularly build in cool Starbucks locations into my travels.
Chion-in Temple – A large and very popular temple, known for having the largest gate of its kind, and bell, in all of Japan.
Heian Shrine & Garden – A popular tourist stop because it is gorgeous, but also a must-visit stop if you’re there during cherry blossom season. They have so many weeping cherry trees which are so unique looking.
Maruyama Park – Another must-visit stop during cherry blossom season. This is THE place for Hanami in Kyoto and it gets very busy. Go hungry as this is the place you want to try all kinds of great street food stalls and lounge underneath the trees. The centerpiece of the park is a giant weeping cherry blossom tree.
Yasaka Shrine (Gion Shrine) – A small but aesthetically pleasing shrine to behold. I recommend seeing it at night when they light the lanterns. It is conveniently located in Maruyama Park.
Kinkaku-ji / Golden Temple – This was one of my favorite visits in Kyoto and arguably one of the top tourist stops. It is absolutely stunning. The REAL gold leafing of the temple reflecting in the still waters of the pond, surrounded by nature is not something you see every day.
Monkey Park Iwatayama – A fun stop but it’s a bit of a hike. Take your time, you’ll eventually get up there. The monkeys are a bit cheeky and a lot aggressive so beware! I thought it was funny to see the tourists in the cage this time 🙂
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – An ethereal walk through a bamboo grove. It was lovely but this is one of those locations where you need to get up at dawn to visit or it just doesn’t have the same feel to it. It is so incredibly busy there (and everywhere in Kyoto during blossom season). I recommend a rickshaw ride through the grove!
Arashiyama – All around this area are wonderful cherry blossom trees, cafes and shopping. I had some fun photographing this area.
Fushimi Inari Taisha – Really rad place! It takes about 2 hours to hike to the top of hill but you needn’t go far to soak in the sensory goldmine that is the 10,000 Torii gates. But, beware of the ghosties at night.
Ginkaku-ji Temple / Silver Pavilion – If you visit the Golden Pavilion, you have to visit the silver one too right? This is another lovely temple and I especially loved its serene garden and walking paths. However, it is not silver. Best part about this stop is that it is along the Philosopher’s Path…
Philosopher’s Path – This pedestrian path follows a cherry blossom tree-lined canal and gets its name from a Japanese philosopher that is said to have walked this path as he meditated on his way to the university. It is almost spiritual and was one of my favorite moments in Kyoto. I am very into “trails” of all kinds, and this one conveniently connected several temples along the way including Silver Pavilion, Hōnen-in, Nanzen-ji Temple and Tenju-an Garden. I felt like I was walking in his footsteps. Plenty of delightful cafes to rest your feet as you go along. It took me about 45 minutes to walk and take photos. Add time to visit the temples.
Nanzen-ji Temple – a Zen Buddhist temple said to be one of the most important in all of Japan.
Tenju-an Garden – Connected to the Nanzen-ji Temple and worth a stop to see a classic Japanese rock garden and pond garden.
Gion District – This is where the Geisha hang out! I had a romanticized idea of what this district would be like and it turns out… I was wrong. It is mostly tourists like me, hoping to see a Geisha. While they do exist and gracefully shuffle about in the district, it is a rare sighting. Your best bet is to hang out in the Gion District at dusk and catch them while they are on their way to a performance (which is another guaranteed way to meet one). An important note – Geisha are not prostitutes. They are highly skilled, high-end entertainers that have trained for years in traditional Japanese arts.
Gion Corner – While my budget forbade me from booking a geisha experience/dinner, I was able to catch a “Maiko” performance. Maiko is what they call a Geisha in training. At the Gion Corner you can watch 7 types of Japanese art performances in less than an hour. Touristy? Yes. But unless you have oodles of time and money, this is a very efficient way to get a taste of Japanese cultural arts. The Maiko performance was my favorite.
Hanamikoji Dori (Street) – This is the main spot to catch a glimpse of Geisha and is sort of their main street in terms of nightlife. Go at dusk and/or at night to see the many lanterns glowing and the hustle and bustle of the nightlife.
I would have been happy to end at Tokyo and Kyoto, but there were still MORE cherry blossoms calling my name! Not to mention some incredibly historical points of interest to still see. Off to Himeji, Osaka and Hiroshima! Read about them here.
– The Time Traveler