With a few days off for Autumn break, I made a pretty spur of the moment decision to travel to Kyoto on my own. I was slightly unsure at first, as I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy travelling alone. Another thing was the expensive shinkansen tickets! But I keep saying to myself to go for every opportunity there is, as I don’t want to go back to the UK with any regrets.
With all my hostels booked, it was such bad timing that the day prior to leaving I caught a fever. I had no appetite to eat, and I was constantly shivering and sweating. On the Sunday morning when I was due to leave, I wasn’t feeling any better. Curled up into a ball on my bed, wrapped up in a blanket with the air con turned on. I was very close to cancelling my trip. But the chance of travelling to Kyoto was just too much for me to cancel. I took some ibuprofen, packed my bags and made my way to the train station.
My plan was to stay in Tokyo for one night before taking the shinkansen to Kyoto the next morning. The train journey was brutal. A 2 and a half hour journey with a fever. But I managed to brave through it, and after arriving at Ueno station I ate a big bowl of ramen and made my way to the hostel. As I walked through a side street to get to my hostel, I could see Tokyo Skytree in the distance!
With me being ill, I decided to have an early night ready to wake up bright and early to start my Kyoto adventure.
I got up bright and early the next morning, and made my way to Tokyo station to take the shinkansen to Kyoto! It took just over 2 hours on the shinkansen, so I spent the journey reading up on all the places I was planning to visit.
I finally arrived at Kyoto station and decided to walk to Toji Temple, a 15 minute walk from the station. I stopped by a small cafe to have lunch. Kyoto is supposedly famous for it’s matcha, which is one of my favourites!
My first stop was Toji Temple, one of the oldest structures in Kyoto. I believe it is around 1,200 years old and enshrines the Buddha of Healing and his attendants.
As I approached the temple, the pagoda was clearly visible in the distance and this instantly made me feel the Kyoto vibes! The historical side of Japan which I had only previously seen in magazines and on TV. The contrast between Kyoto and Tokyo is insanely large. Tokyo is all about the city life, the LED lights, crowded and bustling streets. But it lacks the cultural side of Japan which Kyoto takes a lot of pride in offering.
With it being early October, I was slightly early for the pretty autumn leaves. But the leaves were beginning to change colour a bit which was quite nice! Kyoto is said to be one of the most beautiful places in Autumn, with its red and orange leaves. For those wanting to travel to Kyoto, I think late November/early December is the best time to visit!
After visiting Toji temple, I took the subway to my hostel.
I was pleasantly surprised at how great this hostel was! With great reviews online, I decided to book 2 nights at this hostel. The interior was very modern and new, and the staff were incredibly helpful and friendly. At such a cheap price too, it came with free breakfast! I definitely recommend this hostel to anyone planning on visiting Kyoto.
For dinner, I decided to queue up outside a restaurant to try some Kyoto style beef!
I ordered the set, which came with miso soup and many different dips like wasabi, grated yam, curry and pepper. The rice was refillable. The beef was quite nice! But I wasn’t a huge fan of eating it with a katsu crust, as it kind of took away the flavour of the beef. But overall, it was pretty good!
With it officially being Autumn now, the days don’t last as long here now. At around 5pm, the sky already turned black. One of the things I noticed in Kyoto is that a lot of the temples/shrines close at around 5pm. So during the night, there really isn’t much to do. I read online that Yasata shrine, not far from my hostel, is a pretty place to visit at night as the shrine lights up. I decided to take an evening stroll to the shrine.
Yasata shrine was unbelievably beautiful at night, a lot of small shrines inside were brightly lit up. There were quite a few people there praying and making wishes. I’m not entirely sure what the kanji written on the lanterns are supposed to resemble. But seeing them lit up at night was pretty breathtaking.
Later that night, I decided to wonder around Sanjo, the area near my hostel. I was still feeling quite hungry so decided to look for somewhere to have a light snack and a beer. It took quite a lot of courage to go into a restaurant on my own to eat. Especially since people assume that I’m Japanese when they first see me. But travelling alone made me brave, either that or I would have starved to death! Haha!
One of the things I love about exploring Japan, is going through the side streets to try out the tiny local restaurants. I went into a small yakitori bar, and ordered a few sticks of yakitori and a beer. I asked the waiter for a bottle of Asahi beer, and later on saw him about to open a huge bottle. I had to quickly stop him, and asked him if he had anything smaller. In the end, I ended up getting draught beer. It was a close one! No way would I have been able to finish that huge bottle, and I probably would have been staggering my way back to hostel.
The next day I woke up extra early as I had a lot I wanted to see! My first stop was Kiyomizu dera, a must see in Kyoto. I took the bus there and followed some people walking uphill through a side street.
The further I walked, the more people I could see. Before I knew it, I was walking through a street packed with visitors and shops. There were schoolchildren running around taking group photos, countless shops selling souvenirs, snacks and desserts! The atmosphere was really pleasant!
I could see the pagoda in the distance and knew that I was near to the temple. I stopped by a few shops to buy a few souvenirs. I also tried a steamed tofu bun with pork inside which was really delicious.
As I made my way to the top of the street, I could see the entrance to Kiyomizu dera. This is a Buddhist temple founded in 778 and serves as one of the most prominent historical structures in Kyoto.
The entrance was stunning, with its vibrant red coloured gate and pagoda. The place was crowded with tourists, Japanese school children on school trips. It was pretty tough having a fever and making my way uphill and beating the crowds to reach this place, but it was totally worth it!
I followed the steps leading to the temple itself, and the view from the deck was quite breathtaking. Not only could you see Kyoto city in the distance, but you could also see pagodas poking out from the trees. Overlooking the city from such a beautiful temple really illustrated the rich history of Kyoto. I can only imagine this view to be even more incredible in the peak of Autumn with its red and orange leaves.
One thing I was really impressed by was the structure itself. Kiyomizu-dera is famous for being built entirely from wood with not one single nail used. Walking down the steps and seeing how the structure was put together was fascinating. The pieces of wood all seemed to lock into one another.
In the photo above you can see Kiyomizu dera taken from the ground. If you look closely, you can see the tiny elementary students wearing their yellow hats!
After Kiyomizu dera, I decided to take a walk along the side streets surrounding the area which is known as Higashiyama. This was probably the highlight of my entire trip, as the narrow streets and tiny shops made me feel like I got a real taste of Kyoto.
The further I walked, the less tourists there were. It was quite steep walking down the narrow cobbly streets, and I remember reading that if you trip, it brings 3 years of bad luck! I was sure to be careful! As I continued further down the street there was a huge, black and murky pagoda visible in the distance which made the view incredibly beautiful and picturesque.
The pagoda was such a huge contrast to the one I had just seen at the entrance to Kiyomizu dera. I read that this pagoda was the only surviving structure from a fire, which burned the temple beside it. Its charcoal black colour made the pagoda seem like a huge shadow in the distance which I thought was eerily beautiful. I had to take a moment to really appreciate its beauty. It almost felt like I had transported myself thousands of years into the past.
As I walked through the narrow streets of Higashiyama, I made sure to visit the various food shops they had.
Here I stopped by a small dango shop. Dango is a sweet which is more or less like skewered mochi.
I tried mitarashi dango, which is covered in a soy sauce glaze and served with what seemed liked brown powdered sugar. It was really nice, and not too sweet! the sauce made the dango extra sticky, and it went really well with a nice cup of matcha tea!
After walking around Higashiyama, I took the bus to my next stop, Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion). Ginkakuji was the retirement place of a former shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa in 1482 and is a zen temple.
The grounds were stunning, and I could definitely feel the zen surrounding the area. It was incredibly peaceful and well kept. The buildings were very contemporary at that time, which greatly influenced the architecture of the whole of Japan.
The garden was beautiful, surrounded by sand gardens, luscious trees, ponds and bridges. The leaves were just starting to turn red, which was nice to see. But this garden is known to be breathtakingly beautiful during the autumn when the entire garden turns red. I walked around the entire garden which was quite a nice long walk. The view from the top of the garden was gorgeous. Overlooking the garden and also the city of Kyoto.
With the name Ginkakuji, Silver Pavilion, I was expecting the structure to show some form of silver which it didn’t. I later found out that it was given the name Silver Pavilion because at night time when the moonlight reflected on the structure, it gave it its silver appearance. This building is also only one of two structures in the garden which has survived earthquakes and other incidents staying completely intact.
After walking around the gardens, I took a walk along Philosopher’s Walk, a stone footpath along a river nearby Ginkakuji. They say that one of Japan’s most famous philosophers Nishida Kitaro would take this route on his way to Kyoto University, and he also practised meditation here.
There are many cherry trees along Philosopher’s Walk which would make hanami season the best time to visit this place! The walk was very relaxing, and it was nice to get away from the places swarmed with tourists. There were many different shrines and temples along the way, and I decided to check them out.
As I followed a sign to a temple along Philosopher’s Walk, I came across this sign.
I forgot the name of this shrine, it was incredibly small, hidden and disguised in a moss covered forest. There were only a couple of visitors at the shrine, but it was still quite nice and worth visiting.
After a long but eventful day, I headed back to Sanjo and had dinner. I love going into the back streets and finding small local ramen bars. I never get sick of a nice bowl of tonkotsu ramen!
This was my last day in Kyoto! I wasn’t ready to go back to Tochigi, as I felt like I hadn’t seen enough of this beautiful city. I woke up really early and checked out of my hostel, and headed to Kinkakuji. Kinkakuji (golden pavilion) is like the sister of Ginkakuji, it’s the retirement villa of Yoshimasa’s grandfather. It was pretty far away from all the other attractions, so the bus journey took quite a while.
I was already impressed by the entrance to the villa. It was such a beautiful day and the buildings surrounding the entrance were really cool.
I bought my ticket to enter the villa, and shortly after entering I could see Kinkakuji temple just across a large pond. I didn’t expect the temple to be so beautiful! I had seen photos of this place online and in my travel books, but seeing it in person was completely different. The clear, crispy autumn day made the temple glimmer in the sunlight, and together with the yellowing leaves reflecting off the large pond made the entire scene stunning. The top two floors of the temple are made entirely of gold leaf.
It didn’t take long to walk the entire villa, but it was definitely worth travelling to the outskirts of Kyoto just to see this beautiful temple.
After visiting Kinkakuji, I took the bus to Nijo Castle. The castle was huge!! Just walking round to the entrance took a long time.
Nijo Castle was built during the Edo Period, and was used as an Imperial Palace. It took a quite a long time to walk around the entire thing. But it was very interesting to actually enter the castle and see the beautiful rooms where visitors would wait and meet the shogun. Each room was beautifully designed with their own unique paintings.
That was it! It was time to take the bus back to Kyoto station to take my shinkansen back to Tokyo. My trip to Kyoto was far better than I had imagined. Even though I was quite ill, I’m so glad that I never cancelled the trip. Travelling alone was definitely an experience. Having to be impulsive in decisions, and also having my own freedom to travel was quite a liberating feeling. It was nice going through the back streets and trying out food in local restaurants/bars. The historical sites in Kyoto were wonderful, and I felt like there was so much more to see!
I definitely need to make another trip to Kyoto, I managed to tick off most of the places on my to do list, but there were so many other places I didn’t get a chance to see. Until next time, Kyoto!
Anyways, that’s all for now. Have a great weekend!