Asia, Japan

Kyoto: A Taste of Ancient Japan

Asia Japan

At the end of our trip to Japan, as we (I travelled with a group of close friends) pondered which part of the trip was our favourite and why, I remember distinctly thinking, Kyoto was my favourite. For anyone who says “I have been to Tokyo, and therefore Japan,”- I would say you haven’t really seen Japan until you have been to Kyoto. If time is of the essence and you want to make sure you see the best of what Kyoto has to offer, I hope my tips for you from my recent trip to the ancient capital of Japan will be of help!

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Of all the shrines I had the pleasure of visiting, this one was probably the most impressive shrine complex. The place gets crowded, so head there early if you are keen to get some great photos. If you are staying in the center of Kyoto, it’s about a half an hour taxi ride. We got there at 8:30am and that was just before the busloads of tourists started pouring in. I recommend getting there for 8am. Have a look at the official website and it has a map of the entire complex with a write up of what each site is about. You can read it as you walk around the complex.

One of many tunnels of torii gates at the shrine complex and a purification fountain

Ponto Cho and Gion

To see some traditional architecture and to feel like you are taking a step back in time, head to either Ponto-cho or Gion in the evening. Better yet, visit both! Ponto-cho is a narrow alley way of wonderful bars, restaurants and tea houses. It is simply magical at night! If you are as lucky as we were, you might even spot a Geisha on her way to an appointment! It’s hard to know or pick where to dine when you don’t have a local guide, so stroll around, and if you see a place you fancy and has an English menu, walk in! If you are heading there for dinner, make sure you go before 10pm, as most take their last orders at 10pm. The chances are that the food will be pretty fantastic anyhow! The same goes for the bars; try one, then the next and the one after and I assure you, you will be impressed.

Typical alley and restaurant entrances in Ponto-cho

Head across the river and you are in Gion, the most famous Geisha district. A Geisha experience is expensive and exclusive (north of $700) but Gion corner offers a more accessible experience; a one hour cultural show covering seven of Kyoto’s performing arts which include dances performed by a real maiko. Kyoto has over a 100 Michelin starred restaurants and if you are looking for a Michelin star dining experience, Gion has plenty! Be sure to book in advance though.


A district west of Kyoto, Arashiyama is also about a 30 minute drive from Kyoto’s center. Top things to see are the Bamboo grove, Tenryu-ji temple and the Iwatayama monkey park. If you intend to go inside the temple, I recommend just buying the entry to the gardens and you can see the temple from outside, as it is pretty much an empty structure. Best time to head to the bamboo grove, which is open 24 hours and free, is around 7am. It is a great time to get those photos taken as the sunlight peaks through the grove and before the crowds roll in. The monkey park is about a 30 minute hike from the point of entry and in addition to seeing the Macaque monkeys, you will have an amazing view of Kyoto from up there.

Bamboo grove at Arashiyama, temple gardens, monkey park and view from the top

Tea Ceremony

I’m sure you can do a tea ceremony in other cities too but Kyoto was where it was born, so my recommendation is try it here. Dressing up in a kimono and learning about the art and customs of preparing and drinking Matcha tea was definitely one of the highlights for me!

Tea Ceremony

These are the places that stood out for me during my time in Kyoto. Of course, if time permits by all means add a visit to the Nishiki market, Kinkaku-ji (golden pavilion), Kiyomizu-dera, Nijo castle and Imperial palace! I hope this helps, happy tripping!

Contributed by Shalini Fernando