I miss Kyoto intimately — not in the way you miss a place, but in the way you miss a good dream the moment you wake up and feel yourself forgetting it.
Compared to the rest of the world, Kyoto seems to exist on an elevated level of beauty. It’s not only the way it looks, but also the way it feels — or maybe that was just the magic of autumn leaves, the chilly prelude to winter in the air.
Kyoto is a medium-sized city, filled with all the shopping streets, food options, and conveniences that come with the territory. It’s also retained its historical and cultural aesthetic, though — mostly because of the temples. Temples and shrines are everywhere; there are over 1600 in the city. You can literally* walk in any direction and you’ll bump into a temple eventually.
This city seems to have the best of both worlds — it’s modern and decidedly urban, but boasts plenty of green spaces, walking paths, beautiful architecture, and easy access to nature.
Did I mention that I miss it? I’m still not over Kyoto’s autumn. The colors. I swoon just thinking about it.
But since I won’t be getting anywhere near Kyoto for a long, long time, I’ll have to settle for reliving it via blogging.
Here’s what my itinerary looked like:
Day 1: Temples
I arrived in Kyoto on an overnight bus, so I decided to take it slow the first day. I visited three popular spots: Chion-in and Kiyomizu temples, and Yasaka shrine, all within easy walking distance of my hostel.
Of these, the one I’d most recommend is Kiyomizu-dera. One of my favorites by far! Easily makes my top 3 for all the temples and shrines I saw. It has a huge, orange pagoda in the front, and then the main building is elevated, so you can look out over a sea of colorful leaves and toward an amazing view of the city.
Chion-in was under construction when I went, so there were significant parts of it I couldn’t see, but as one of the first temples I visited, it still impressed me. (The first picture in this post is from Chion-in). Yasaka shrine was fun to walk around — not the most memorable, but fun. I preferred the shrines to the temples overall. The shrines are usually more dramatic, often decked out in bright reds and oranges.
Day 2: Even more temples
I did five temples that day, which was exhausting but tons of fun.
I started at Kinkakuji, which has the iconic golden pavilion. I wouldn’t consider it a favorite, but I got to take my gorgeous souvenir picture of the pavilion, so I was pretty happy. Do go early, as this one gets very crowded.
Next, I went to Ginkakuji, also known as the silver pavilion, and then to Nanzenji temple. The advantage of doing both of these together is that they’re linked by a popular walking path, the “Path of Philosophy,” which is a scenic 30-minute stroll through a peaceful, pretty part of town. Of the two, I preferred Nanzenji — it’s very grand and dilapidated in some parts, so it just feels old, solemn, and mysterious.
The last two I visited were absolutely incredible: Tofukuji temple and the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine.
Tofukuji’s best feature is its large grove of maple trees. It’s dazzling in the fall, when it feels like you’re wading through an ocean of fiery leaves. I almost skipped this temple, which would’ve been a shame.
Last: the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine is very famous and immediately recognizable because of its torii gates. The shrine sits at the base of a mountain, and marks the beginning of a trail of about 10,000 torii gates that lead up to the peak.
I would definitely revisit both of those last two on a return trip, if I get the chance.
Day 3: Nara
Feeling all temple’d out, I decided to take a day trip to Nara (but still ended up visiting a temple). This town is less than an hour away on the subway. All the main sites are clustered around the deer park, which is nice because you get some fresh air, and it’s easy to navigate & see everything you want to see.
So Nara’s “thing” is the deer — they roam freely through the streets, through crowds, and allow themselves to be petted and fed. I did enjoy my day here, but I won’t lie — the novelty of hanging out with deer wears off fast. A lot of them are pretty mangy and dirty looking — you don’t wanna touch them — which is to be expected because they’re still wild animals, but I can’t imagine that hanging out in a city has made them any cleaner. They’re also, you know, pathetically following people around and nosing at their clothing and bags, begging for food. That was… kind of sad? There’s also a yearly ceremony where they get their antlers cut off so they can’t hurt people, which makes sense but is also very… not cool.
Some of them are still spunky, though, like the one pictured above, who made a valiant effort to eat my map. He failed. Look at that smirk, though.
Along with feeding the deer, I spent some time at Todaiji temple, which has a giant Buddha, and the Kasuga Taisha shrine, which is known for its rock lanterns.
I thought I was tired of temples but I would recommend stopping by both of these; they’re truly impressive, they each had something to set them apart from all the others, and there’s not too much else to do in Nara.
Day 4: Arashiyama
I had to fit in one more iconic, touristy site, and I decided on Arashiyama’s bamboo forest. There were loads of people there, so it wasn’t exactly relaxing or peaceful, but it was magnificent. Just stick close to the edge of the path, near the trees, and look up at the sunlight coming down through the leaves. It doesn’t get more peaceful than that.
Go through Tenryuji temple’s north gate to get there. The temple has pretty gardens you can wander around, a nice prelude to the forest.
The main road, which starts at Togetsukyo bridge, is filled with cute souvenir shops and street food. Lots of street food. I got around to trying dango — sticky rice balls on a skewer, sometimes dipped in syrup — and taiyaki, a fish-shaped, deep-fried pastry with a sweet filling. Then there was the sakura mochi at that cafe, and the dumplings… yeah, I ate well in Arashiyama.
You can make a really full day of this area — there are other temples and things to see in town, plus a monkey park nearby — but I mostly wandered around, ate, and took photos. A chill day in a chill place.
Then, to cap off my Japan trip, I went to Osaka for one day and night. I was sad to be leaving Kyoto, but I planned to end my trip on a high note.
Osaka, Day 1:
Purely by accident, I was able to be in Osaka in time to detour to Kobe’s Luminarie Festival — something I wouldn’t have even known about if a girl at my Tokyo hostel hadn’t mentioned it. That’s one of the joys of traveling alone, staying in hostels, and hanging out with strangers — awesome recommendations from fellow nomads and flexible travel plans to accommodate them. But let’s rewind.
My day began at Umeda station. It’s one of Osaka’s busiest spots, and I happened to know of a fantastic ice cream place that was located there. The shop is called Far East Bazaar**, and they do organic, fair trade ice cream in flavors like chai, apricot, fig, date, and gianduja (which is like nutella — chocolate and hazelnut). It’s all mind-blowingly good. You might not think you need fig-flavored ice cream in your life but, trust me, you do.
There’s also a Pokemon center in Umeda station, which I was super excited about. (Yes, this was before Pokemon Go came out. Part of me is permanently ten years old.) Pokemon centers are big stores devoted entirely to Pokemon merchandise, so naturally I spent half an hour there.
Eventually, I headed to Kobe to do some exploring before the Luminarie Festival.
The festival started in 1994 as a memorial for victims of an earthquake. In their honor, several streets get decked out once a year with what are essentially Christmas lights. Colorful and arranged in elaborate patterns, they’re an enchanting December sight, well worth a side trip.
I began at Sannomiya station and walked to Motomachi station, which is the festival starting point. The neighborhood in between is filled with shops and restaurants, and Chinatown is right next to Motomachi, so there’s plenty to see while you wait for sundown and the start of the festival.
The crowd for this event is huge. A solid wall of people stretching for blocks and blocks. You shuffle down a roped off path together, which leads to the big centerpiece of the festival — a big gate of colorful lights with an equally bedazzled tunnel stretching down the street. Everyone takes a million pictures and you can’t walk. (Still magical.)
At the end, you’re rewarded with tons of street food. I got to try Kobe beef — the most expensive in the world — on a skewer from a street vendor, which is surely the best way to experience it.
I flew out of Osaka the following day. And that was the end of my 10-day trip to Japan! For part 1, see my post on the 5 days I spent in Tokyo. It’s been almost a year since I visited, and I still feel so lucky I got to do this. It was the very definition of a dream trip.
*When I say you can walk in any direction while in Kyoto and count on bumping into a temple…
…I’m not exaggerating.
**Far East Bazaar can be found in Kyoto on floor B1 of the Daimaru department store near Hankyu Kawaramachi station. The Osaka location is at the Umeda JR station, first floor, in Eki Marche.
All images used in this post are mine! Find them on my instagram.