We did not consult our guide book once before taking our trip to Kyoto. Although now flipping through my Lonely Planet guidebook I realize we missed “one of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets…arguably, among the most beautiful streets in all of Asia.” Oops, we’ll just have to return.
We chose our three sights, Fushimi-Inari Taisha, Kinkaku-ji and Kiyomizu-dera, based on recommendations from students, fellow teachers and Blaine’s architecture studies. We were told the end of November is best for viewing the autumn leaves in Kyoto. Our trip was the last Sunday of November; the weather was crisp, the sky was clear and blue and the leaves were in full red, yellow and orange glory.
As instructed by a friend our first stop was the Kyoto Station visitor center. A gentleman who spoke excellent English mapped out our entire day based on the three sights we wished to see. He also sold us a day pass for the Kyoto public buses, which go to most of the major sights, for 500 yen (About $5 USD). This ten minute stop saved us from attempting to navigate Kyoto on our own.
We packed onto a crowded train and headed for Fushimi-Inari. It was a ten minute ride from Kyoto station and as soon as we stepped off the train we saw the enormous orange torii (Shinto shrine gates) of Fushimi-Inari. Fushimi-Inari shrines are scattered all over Japan with the Kyoto sight as the head shrine. They are shrines to the gods of harvest and wealth. The shrines always have large statues of foxes guarding the entrance because foxes are the messengers of Inari.
We hiked inside a tunnel of orange gates, barely noticing we were ascending because the gates offer such great distraction. We hiked for about an hour beneath the gates and decided to save the full two hour hike to the mountain top for a longer Kyoto trip. Being surrounded by the gates had a calming effect and peeking through them into the forest reminded me of hiking in Colorado (with a Japanese twist).
After Fushimi-Inari we headed back to Kyoto Station where we caught a city bus to Kinkaku-ji, which is outside the center of Kyoto and was a fifty minute ride from the station. At Kinkaku-ji we joined the masses in viewing the Golden Pavilion and reflecting pond encircled by conifers and bursts of red from the Japanese maples. The ancient architecture juxtaposed against the beauty of nature is what makes all of Kyoto so impressive. As we wound through the forest trails behind Kinkaku-ji we stopped at the outdoor green tea café. We sat in the center of the tall evergreens, beneath red umbrellas, on red benches and enjoyed Kyoto’s traditional matcha, powdered green tea, and red bean paste dessert.
After Kinkaku-ji we caught a city bus to Gion, Kyoto’s historical geisha district and our final site, Kiyomizu-dera. We slowly made our way down Shijo Street along with the droves of tourists, mostly Japanese, and headed for the temple. We mistakenly figured the first temple we saw must be the right one and wandered around for about twenty minutes before realizing we were in the wrong spot. We rushed down Higashiyama Nijo leading to the real Kiyomizu-dera, which sits on a cliff above the city and offers wonderful views of Kyoto and the surrounding mountains. It was almost sunset and we were desperate to get to the top before the sun was down. The path to Kiyomizu-dera was a steep, narrow street lined with small souvenir and food shops. It was the most crowded street we encountered in Kyoto. Police were managing the hordes making their way up to and down from the temple. We latched on to a Japanese man who was even more determined than us to reach the top and made it just in time for the golden hour.
The original temple was built in 798 and the current building in 1633. There’s so much to see at the top from the views of Kyoto to the pagoda and the temple itself. The temple sits on a cliff and the valley below is brimming with red Japanese maples. I could probably sit all day and stare at Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera. It’s one of the most crowded places in Kyoto, but it’s worth braving the crowds to see Kyoto in the autumn.
One day in Kyoto is not enough.
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What’s your favorite Kyoto photo?