The city of Kyoto was once Japan's ancient and imperial capital. Founded in the year 794, it has undergone many transformations throughout its 1200 year history, however the city has prided itself in always maintaining the "highest standards of the times". Today, Kyoto is most well known worldwide for its many impressive shrines and temples. Its unbelievable beauty and rich culture is why Travel + Leisure ranked the city as the number one travel destination in the world several years in a row. With all of this in mind, it was an easy decision to take a long weekend trip to see this place for ourselves. This was the fourth city Ben and I have visited in mainland Japan and it is easily my favorite.
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
One of Kyotos most famous shrines is Fushimi Inari-taisha. The shrine is composed of hundreds of red torii gates, which snake up to the top of Mt. Inari and loop back down to the bottom. Every single torii gate at this site was donated by a Japanese business and the kanji (japanese characters) written on the back the each torii denotes who the donor was. "Inari" means rice in Japanese, so this shrine is clearly dedicated to the worship of rice. However, throughout the site you will see many fox statues and plaques, which could cause some confusion. It turns out that foxes are rice messengers, which is why they appear so frequently at this site.
Mine and Ben's journey up Mt. Inari was one that my legs will never forget. We had absolutely no idea how tall this mountain was, but we were determined to make it to the top. 765 feet and 60 stories later, and we finally reached the pinnacle of Mt. Inari. Our legs were sore and our clothes were soaked with sweat, but every bit of discomfort was absolutely worth it. Both the shrine itself and the mountain are unbelievably picturesque. I've never seen anything in the world quite like it, and I absolutely recommend this site over any other place I've been to in both Japan and Asia. If you ever make it to the far East, go to Fushimi Inari-taisha. You will not be disappointed. As I write about this experience three days later, my calves are still achy and sore, but I would climb this again in a heart beat if I had the chance!
Ben and I went to Tokofukji on a whim, the train station for was only one stop away from our Airbnb location so we figured we might as well check it out. I was expecting to see just a temple, but Tofukuji also featured a traditional style Japanese rock garden. We've never seen anything like it before, which made for an exciting moment. After doing some research at home, I also discovered that Tofukuji is one of Kyoto's most ancient temples, having been built in the year 1236. It's a quiet little site with few visitors and was a perfect place to relax after climbing Mt. Inari.
Kamogawa River and Gion
Gion may sound familiar to you if you've ever heard or learned anything about geisha. This is the very famous district where geisha, both past and present, are taught and work. They still perform their art in this area, however it is very rare to find one. Gion itself is a really cool area to explore because it's old style Japanese architecture has been preserved very well. Nearby is the river Kamogawa which, from personal experience, is the perfect place to wander and sit along the banks.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of the more famous points of interest in Kyoto. The bamboo is quite impressive, is extremely tall, and the stalks are much thicker than I imagined. It's quite a busy place, with a ton of foot traffic, so it's not the most peaceful of places. Ben and I definitely would rank this towards the bottom of the things we saw in Kyoto, but it was still interesting nonetheless.
Adjacent to the Bamboo Grove was the Tenryuji Temple. This temple definitely shined because of it's beautiful mountain backdrop.
Arashiyama Monkey Park
The Arashiyama Monkey Forest was quite... strange. Ben and I were under the impression that these monkeys lived in the area naturally, but it was quite clear that this was more of an "open zoo" concept. Also, the monkeys were legitimately on top of a mountain which you had to walk up. After barely surviving Fushimi Inari, another mountain hike was the last thing we wanted to do! The monkeys themselves were pretty cool, they essentially just lazily walked around and hung out with their monkey handlers. Not the best experience, but the view was incredible so we chalked this up as only a semi fail.
Kinkakuji - "The Golden Temple"
Tied for first as our favorite site in Kyoto was Kinkakuji, "The Golden Temple." Covered in gold lacquer, this temple shines as bright as a real block of gold. Visitors are not allowed in the temple, nor can they even get within 20 meters of it. This, along with it's lake side setting and forest backdrop, created the most serene atmosphere of any of the temples and sites we saw. The hardest part about travelling and seeing these amazing sites is that tons of people from all over the world-from Germany to China- come to see the same points of interest you want to see; it is refreshing to have a site that wasn't over-run by tourists.
Down the street from our Airbnb was Kiyomizu-dera. It's up another extremely large hill (we definitely don't need to work out for a week after this trip) but the temples at the top are worth the trek.
Although the streets of Gion and Kyoto are packed full of women in kimonos, you will rarely ever see a true professional geisha. If you don't research how to spot one beforehand, you will most likely be disappointed. In order to find one of these female entertainers (they are not prostitutes, this is a common misconception) you must be in the Gion area between 5-6 pm, for this is when they arrive at their engagements. A real geisha will have a full face of thick white makeup, perfect red lipstick, and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows. She will have an intricate hairstyle adorned by elaborate hair combs and pins. Their kimonos are far superior to the ones worn by a common tourist or local. A real geisha will absolutely not stop for photos. She will most likely be in a rush to avoid any attention.
I'm not sure if most people care about seeing a real life geisha, but for me it was an absolute must. About 3-4 years ago, I read Memoirs of a Geisha and fell in love with this secretive culture. I never thought I'd ever get an opportunity to go to Gion, so being here was a dream come true! It was completely random that a geisha happened to walk by us at the bar, so I'd like to think that it was fate! Although the picture is quite blurry because she obviously wasn't going to stop for pictures, seeing her in person is something I will never forget.
We're Kara, Ben and baby Zoe also known as the Lesniaks. We’re a Marine Corps family currently stationed in Yorktown, Virginia after a three year tour in Okinawa, Japan. Enjoy our adventures, travels, photos, thoughts, and life together!
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