Since my travel to Tokyo last year, I never really let go of the idea that in a few months I will be back to Japan, particularly in Kyoto. On one hand, Tokyo was breath-taking. A huge metropolis that surprises you with traditional Japanese culture from time to time. On the other, Kyoto appeals more to my hunger for the traditional Japanese life; away from the hustle of the city and much closer to self and nature.If you have a limited time to explore Kyoto, I suggest you first visit the spots below.
1. Sanjusangendo Temple
This by far is my 2nd most favorite of all the temples that we visited. This is just near the Kyoto station and I highly recommend to visit this place first. If you will research the internet, this is the temple that houses the 1001 statues of Kannon (the goddess of mercy in Buddhism). It was said that Kannon has 1000 arms, 11 faces and was said to be capable of saving 25 different worlds. The Kannon statues are jaw-dropping but, unfortunately, taking of pictures is strictly prohibited. Entrance fee is ¥600.
2. Toji Temple
Toji Temple literally means “East Temple”. This is one among the many UNESCO world heritage sites that can be found in Kyoto. Going inside the majestic garden of this temple will cost you ¥400 but even by standing and exploring the place from the outside is already enough. From the outside you can already see a wooden temple that exudes a unique kind of beauty by itself. There are also shops where you can buy souvenirs and decorations that you can bring home. The main attraction of this temple is a pagoda that towers everything in the area and is quite visible from different vantage point. So you don't need to go inside the garden to appreciate the beauty of the place. You can actually have a picture taken with the pagoda even from the outside.
3. Gion DistrictThe district of Gion is famous for geikos (geishas) and maikos (geisha apprentice). If your planning to have tea and witness a geisha performance in a traditional Japanese fashion, this is the best place for you. Although, it can be quite expensive as the district is home to one of the most expensive restaurants in Kyoto, but if you have the resources then you will be fine. If you prefer witnessing geishas randomly in the streets, try visiting during the late afternoon. This is usually the time when geishas go out to head for work. A minor warning, do not be deceived as there are also tourists who dress up as geishas wandering the streets.This is primarily because many stores here offer geisha make-over for women and Samurai costumes for men. In all of Kyoto, Gion is one among the districts that were able to preserve its traditional wooden Machiya merchant houses, restaurants and tea houses. Some of the streets in Kyoto (that is not known to tourists) are centuries old. We visited one particular street called Ishibori Koji. According to our guide, during the ancient times, this street was exclusive to the royal family and not everyone can access it. Today you can see it as a really quite street surrounded by houses with gates intricately designed with a Japanese touch. If part of your itinerary is shopping for souvenirs, novelty items and other local products, Gion is waiting for you. The streets between Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizudera are filled with shops that offers a wide array of items that you can choose.
4. Ginkakuji TempleThe Ginkakuji is also known as the Silver Pavilion. It was originally built as a retirement villa of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa and was eventually erected as to what it is now. Compared to the other temples that I visited, this by far is my most favorite. It's actually a zen temple surrounded by lush greens and landscapes that will take your breath away. When you follow the route, you will get to experience the entire place. Entrance fee is ¥500.
5. Philosopher's PathA quick walk from the gates of Ginkakuji Temple is the famous Philosopher's Path. It's a 1.8 kilometer path that leads to the neighborhood of Nanzenji. It was named after the famous Japanese philosopher, Nishida Kitaro. It was believed that this was the route Nishida walks everyday to practice meditation while on his way to Kyoto University. It is best to visit this site during the Sakura season as it follows a canal lined up with Cherry Trees exploding with cherry flowers. If you are lucky, you will get to see large Kois gracefully swimming along the canals.
6. Kinkakuji TempleThe Kinkakuji, known as the Golden Pavilion, is also a zen temple like the Ginkakuji. It is a famous site in Kyoto that is located in the northern region. This was formerly built as a retirement villa of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and was believed to be the inspiration behind the creation of the Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion). The golden temple that stands proud in front of a majestic pond is said to have 3 kinds of architectural design that is unique per floor. The second and third floor is completely covered with gold leaf and the top floor is capped with the symbol of the golden Phoenix. When you follow the trail, you will get to see the temple upclose at the back portion but it is equally majestic as it's front view. Before you exit the temple you will see a tea garden where you can relax and enjoy matcha tea and maybe some sweets. There are also souvenir shops and vending machines to quench your thirst after the short hike. Entrance fee is ¥400.
7. ArashiyamaIs a busy district located along the western outskirts of Kyoto. It's as busy as Gion district and like Gion, it showcases many tourist sites and offers different kinds of activities depending on your choice. There are also a variety of shops to choose from if shopping is really your thing. The only site that we visited in Arashiyama is the famous Bamboo Grove. If you rent a bike for a day, you will enjoy the place even more. When you enter the Bamboo Grove just go straight and cross a train track. A few meters after the track is an isolated bamboo garden. If you are looking for a place away from the tourists to just relax and take a break under the bamboo trees, it's a good spot to do it. There are still many sites that you can visit like Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street, Tenryuji Temple, Daikakuji Temple, Gioji Temple, and Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple. You can also try a 2-hour Hozu river boat tour.
8. Fushimi Inari ShrineThe Fushimi Inari Shrine is a shinto shrine located in the southern part of Kyoto. Tourists usually visit the place to explore the mountain trails of Mount Inari. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion Torii gates. The gates are actually donations from individuals and companies. At the back of each gate are inscription of the names of donors and the date they were donated. Tourists can give donations for a Torii gate (You can check the amount below). This is a must-see place to have your picture taken under the torii gates.
These are the top 8 sites that I can recommend when you visit Kyoto. Honestly there are still a lot of temples and historical spots that you can visit but given the limited number of days we had we opted to visit the places above. When you come to Kyoto, I suggest you try these sites first before exploring the others.