Kyoto was a bit of a disappointment. I didn’t expect much from Osaka, and it turned out to be cool. But I thought Kyoto would Wow me. After all, it was a royal capital for a thousand years, and it was one of the few Japanese cities that wasn’t bombed by the Allies during WWII. Yes, the city has outstanding temples, Japan’s finest, there are several cool old neighborhoods, it is reasonably sized and it’s easy to bike around. Finally, just like elsewhere in Japan, people are very nice. But something didn’t quite fit. Anyhow, let’s start from the beginning.
The bad side of Kyoto
We took the train from Nara to Kyoto and again there were buildings everywhere. We are talking about an 800 km long urban sprawl that goes from Hiroshima all the way to Tokyo. I would lie if I said it didn’t disturb me. On top of that, most important sites are overridden by tourists. Yes, I know that massive tourism is not only in Kyoto, but still it was kind of annoying. There was another major disappointment. We biked all over the city for 3 days and tried to enter various natural spots around the city. It simply isn’t possible: a fence surrounds the entire city!
World Heritage Sites
Kyoto has outstanding architectural heritage. As an architect I think this is Kyoto’s asset number one. In total there are 17 Unesco World Heritage sites, 14 in the city proper and 10 of them easily accessible by bike. To visit as many world heritage sites as possible you should divide them into groups. The sites around the center include the Nijo Castle, the Nishi Hongan-ji and the To-ji, but the Kiyomizu-Dera is close enough. Northeast of the center you’ll find the Ginkaku-ji and the Shimogamo Shrine. Northwest of the center and around Arashiyama there are four temples: the Kinkaku-ji, the Ryoan-ji, the Ninna-ji and the Tenryu-ji. We dearly recommend visiting the Nishi Hongan-ji and To-ji. For some reason they are far less crowded! Also note that the Kiyomizu-dera is currently under reconstruction, so you get to visit only part of it.
Other important sites
Yes, Kyoto is famous for its outstanding historical temples, shrines and palaces, but not all of them are world heritage sites. An interesting place to visit is the exceptionally overcrowded Fushimi Inari Taisha shinto shrine, also accessible with a bike. The much-photographed red arches are nice, but there are just too many tourists. Another place sharing the same fate is the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. If you have seen gorgeous photos of its lush greenery without people, trust me it’s not true. The place is as crowded as Barcelona’s La Rambla in the middle of summer! While biking around the city we could see several bamboo forests, but we couldn’t get in! Really?
Let me tell you what I love even more than fabulous temples: cool intimate neighborhoods packed with old architecture and charming streets. Luckily for me Kyoto has that a plenty and if you are biking around you may visit them all. The area between the Yasaka Shrine and the Kiyomizu-dera (around Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka streets) in South Higashiyama is packed with old wooden townhouses called Machiya. As you can imagine, it’s always crowded! For some reason the famous geisha area of Gion is not that crowded. The atmosphere there is quite unique: intimate and mystical.
Another cool neighborhood is the one surrounding the so-called Philosopher’s Path in North Higashiyama. Additionally, if you bike from Nijo Castle to Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple) you’ll bump into some beautiful hidden temples and cute little streets with no tourists on site. Our absolute favorite is the Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine and the semi-pedestrian diagonal street leading to it. We also loved the views from the cemetery around the Shinnyo-do temple. We were practically the only tourists in both areas. Extra tip: Spend an evening around the Kamogawa Delta, it seems that all young locals go there to have fun!
Kyoto has one well defined, centrally located city center. It is known for its numerous covered commercial streets, like the ones in Osaka. The center is located north of the Shijo-dori, south of the Oike-dori, east of the Karasuma-dori and west of the Kamo River. The main market streets are the Teramachi-dori and the Nishiki-dori (food street). The charming narrow Pontocho Street is restaurant central, while the nearby canal next to the Kiyamachi-dori is party central. Our favorite street in the area is Sanjo-dori, west of the pedestrian streets. Most of the remaining pre-war Japanese buildings are there.
Where to stay
If you’ve been reading carefully you’ve realized there are tons of things to see in Kyoto. So where to stay really depends on your interests and the way you plan on moving around. We found the Higashiyama District to be pretty authentic and perfectly connected to the rest of the city. We stayed at the sleek Eco and Tec Hotel in a quiet neighborhood near the Higashiyama Metro Station. A cute Little canal passes through the area and there is a charming covered street nearby. The Museum area, Gion district and Maruyama Park are also within walking distance. Besides, the neighborhood is full of gorgeous hidden temples and they rent their own bicycles!
I know I said in the beginning that Kyoto disappointed me. I should probably say people disappointed me! The city is fascinating and a mandatory stop on any route around Japan. If there is one place that tells the glorious Japanese history, it’s Kyoto. So yes, it is mass tourism that sucks! But that’s the reality of the XXI Century and no major cultural center is immune to it. Also, I didn’t like the fact that natural spots are off limits. But it is part of understanding what Japan is really like. And that’s what traveling is all about.