The Case For Kyoto: Why this jewel of a city needs to be part of your Japan plans
While Tokyo is likely the first location that comes to mind when you think of the island nation of Japan, the smaller city of Kyoto is in with a strong shout, and rightfully so. Whether you have a few unplanned days or have considered Kyoto but are on the fence, this is one stop you will want to make time for.
As the Imperial capital of Japan for over 1,000 years, Kyoto was known as the cultural center of the nation. Many still regard Kyoto as the heart of Japan because of the sheer number of historical and cultural sites that live on today. As a visitor to the city, it would be a challenge not to see evidence of this first hand. With somewhere between 1,500 and 4,000 shrines and temples, Kyoto has plenty to see that can serve as an escape from the modern, urban feel of a city like Tokyo.
With numbers like these, it is advisable to do some degree of planning to prioritize which of the sites you are looking to visit. I found it useful to pick a few points of interest and plot them out on a map prior to my arrival. This allows you get a better sense for how you may want to divide the spots across a multi-day agenda. With just over two days in Kyoto, I ran into the all too familiar issue of wishing I had more time to spend in a city. However, I was able to cross off a number of spots on my list including the Kiyomizudera Temple, the Yasaka-no-to Pagoda, and the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The temple and pagoda are both located in the historic Higashiyama District, which is full of small shops, eateries, and hidden alleyways. If you are a morning person, or can pretend to be one for a day or two, it is well worth setting an early alarm to catch the sunrise and wander through the District before the crowds awaken. The oranges and reds at the Kiyomizudera Temple and nearby pagodas are set alight amongst the rolling green hills, creating a spectacular backdrop for your early stroll.
If you have seen photos of Kyoto, the Fushimi Inari Shrine likely featured in at least one of those images. The shrine's origins date back to the year 711, while the components of the main structure were built just before the start of the 16th century. Thousands of orange torii gates straddle the pathways through the forest, serving as guideposts on your journey up Mount Inari. The Japanese characters on the individual pillars display the names of individuals and organizations who donated the gates as a tribute to the kami of rice. The lettering provided an effective visual distraction when I began sucking wind on the steeper parts of the ascent. While the hike to the top of the mountain and back will take you anywhere from two to four hours, you can still get a sweeping view of Kyoto after about half an hour of walking. The initial portion of the hike provides a great feel for the shrine, so if you do not want to dedicate hours to the site you can make your way back down at any point without feeling like you missed out on something critical.
As you walk up the inclined streets towards the Kiyomizudera Temple perched on the hillside or beneath the tunnel of vibrant gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine, you can't help but think you have either stepped onto a movie set or back in time. While Kyoto does have a hefty population of nearly 1.5 million people, the historic districts serve as both temporal and spatial buffers against a shifting cityscape. When walking around the former capital, the customary Japanese structures and buildings provide an experience that you simply will not get in your typical metropolis like Tokyo.
If you are flying to Japan from the United States, your point of entry into the country will more than likely be Tokyo. Whether you decide to explore the capital first or head straight to Kyoto, the bullet train will be your best means of embarking on your trip west.
Tokyo has two primary airports: Haneda (also known as Tokyo International Airport) and Narita. Your airline and route will play a role in which airport you find yourself in. In either case, you are not too far from the city itself. Haneda is closer to the city center than Narita, but both are accessible by rail. From Haneda, you can board the Tokyo Monorail to Hamamatsucho Station, which will take around half an hour. You will then be a ten minute metro ride from Shinagawa Station, one of the departure points for the bullet train to Kyoto. Narita is about an hour east of the city center, but the Narita Express is an efficient manner of reaching Tokyo Station.
After completing the initial trip to Tokyo from the airport, the main event begins when you board the train for Kyoto. What could be described as an attraction in itself, the shinkansen (bullet train) is an engineering marvel. Quick, clean, quiet, comfortable, and on-time to the second, these trains are everything that Amtrak dreams of being.
There are three categories of shinkansen that differ by speed and frequency: the Nozomi, Kodama, and the Hikari. The Nozomi is the fastest option available, reaching Kyoto in just 2 hours and 20 minutes. The Hikari is what most people will travel on, and it occupies the middle ground in terms of speed, completing the trip in about 2 hours and 40 minutes. The Kodama stops at every station along the route, and thus clocks in at about 4 hours once it arrives at Kyoto Station. For comparison, approximately 320 miles of rail separate Tokyo and Kyoto, which is about the same distance between Boston and Philadelphia along the Northeast Corridor. While the "slow" train in Japan makes a trip of this length in 4 hours, your standard Amtrak option takes around 6 hours (assuming no kids are throwing rocks at the trains outside of Philly). This is the modern day equivalent of the tortoise and the hare without the subliminal messaging - the hare wins every time.
A one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto will run you around $120 with some variation depending on the fare class, train, and the season you are traveling. While slightly more expensive than an equivalent trip in the United States, your experience will be far better. Depending on your plans, purchasing a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) in advance of your trip might be the most cost effective option. You can order a pass online prior to your departure and receive a voucher in the mail to exchange once you reach a JR Rail Pass Exchange Office, which are located in both of the major airports. An adult pass in the standard cabin costs just short of $270 for a 7 day period, and allows for unlimited travel on JR trains across the country, including both the Narita Express and the Tokyo Monorail.
For my purposes, the pass was the clear choice. Having flown into Narita, a one way ticket on the Narita Express into Tokyo would have cost $27. Add this to a round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto, and I would have already hit the cost of the JR pass without having purchased a return to Narita. However, the Tokyo Monorail from Haneda is only about $5 each way, so I would recommend pricing out your itinerary to see what makes the most sense for you . If you plan on visiting more than just Tokyo and Kyoto, the JR Pass will more than likely be the way to go. However, the pass will not allow you to travel on all trains, as it doesn't include the fastest Nozomi.
Regardless of the ticket you purchase or the train you take, the trip between the current and former capitals is effortless. You can have your early morning tea in Tokyo before sitting down for a late breakfast in Kyoto without feeling like you've traversed a quarter of a nation. A spectacular city awaits, and it could not be simpler to get there.
The Perfect Mix
Having opened with the cultural and historical significance of Kyoto, it's important to note that the city is no relic. After emerging from Kyoto Station, the streets, crowds, and adjacent buildings ensure that, despite all your prior research about the city's history, you do not lose sight of the fact that you are still in a bustling urban center. The city that spans millennia, with its ancient temples and shrines, is the same city with more than twice the population of Boston; the iconic Yasaka-no-to Pagoda stands less than three miles from the headquarters of the company that brought the world Mario and Luigi (for those evenings when you are doing your best James Holzhauer impression from the living room couch). It's this complexity and balance that make Kyoto an ideal destination for all types of travelers.
While I don’t identify as a “foodie” (see previous post on my sushi snafu), I was able to experience first hand why Kyoto is regarded as a gastronomic gem. If you are drawn to Michelin restaurants, you will be visiting the third most starred city in the entire world, sitting just behind Paris and Tokyo. In addition to having plenty of options to choose from, the quantity of these elite establishments means that you can have the Michelin experience without spending what you normally would in a different location. Of course, much can be said about the starless eateries as well - street stands selling delicious noodles and rice cakes, traditional tofu restaurants like Junsei, set amongst quiet Japanese gardens with koi ponds, and cozy dining rooms serving some of the most tender Wagyu beef you will find.
My most memorable meal in Japan came at Kyoto Nakasei Nikuzuki, a small steakhouse adjacent to one of the creeks connected to the Kamo River. The menu of steaks may seem ordinary with its four choices, "Best," "Second," "Good," and "O.K." in regards to the cut, but the quality of the dishes is anything but. My filet was served with a spicy mustard on the side and a small portion of pink salt. The steak could not have been prepared any better, and the combination of flavors put this dish a number of notches above what you normally receive at a Morton's or Capital Grille. This restaurant was the setting for my personal culinary epiphany, but there are countless dining locations in Kyoto that will exceed the expectations of even the most demanding palates.
When you step out of the restaurants and shops, look beyond the temples and shrines, and broaden your viewpoint of Kyoto as a whole, you begin to appreciate the location of this intricate city. Nestled amidst the surrounding mountains, you are witness to the unique interplay between city scenes and the adjacent greens. Kyoto offers so much in the way of history, shopping, and food, but it also provides a backdrop that will appeal to those looking to get some visual relief from a cityscape. Exploring the gardens around the Golden Temple and the shrines along the mountainside in the Higashiyama District, hiking up Mount Inari during your visit to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, or taking an afternoon stroll along the Kamo-gawa River are all great ways to take Kyoto at a slower pace, and get a more outdoorsy experience in the city.
If you have a half day open in your agenda, a trip to Arashiyama will quite literally serve as an escape from the bustle. A district on the outskirts of the city, Arashiyama is about 20-30 minutes by train from central Kyoto and offers a number of unique options you will not have elsewhere. Rowboats are available for rental to explore the Hozu-gawa river, while you can also reserve longer boat tours for a less strenuous view of the adjacent mountains. There is also an option to book a ticket for the Sagano Scenic Railway for a 30 minute trip along the riverside. A short walk from the river is the world-famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, which merits a visit to the district on its own. A lone path cuts through the center of countless towering bamboo trees, creating a scene that would have been hard to even draw up on a canvas. Being one of the most popular tourist attractions in Kyoto, the Bamboo Grove gets incredibly busy during the day. It is best to try and arrive early in the morning if you are hoping to have a peaceful walk amongst the green giants and capture some dramatic shots without people in the background. Regardless of the time of day you visit, the Bamboo Grove, and Arashiyama as a whole offers a nature-centric experience. This quality contributes yet another dimension to the city that already offers so much.
If you consider the qualities of Kyoto, any one of them on its own would qualify the city as a meaningful destination. However, none of these aspects are working in isolation. Tall corporate buildings in downtown Kyoto peer over at ancient shrines; three piece suits walk alongside silk kimonos; whispers of electric taxis echo the winds brushing against bamboo leaves. Kyoto, with all its dynamism, still maintains its roots that span centuries. It seems like an impossible state of being, but somehow it all comes together to give us one of the world's great cities.