Note: The following is a guest post by Lea Ann Christenson
On Easter afternoon I found myself being whisked from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Shinkansen (bullet) train. Sitting alone in my comfortable seat, the Japanese countryside wooshed by at a speed so fast I couldn’t focus on anything in the foreground. Riding on a bullet train is emblematic of Japan – everything is orderly, clean, on time and efficient.
Although the bullet train was more expensive than other options, costing $160 USD, the 318-mile journey took just 2.5 hours. There are cheaper (and slower) options however, I would recommend planning at least one trip on a bullet train in Japan. They are clean, quiet and ON TIME. Do not be late as they DEPART at the EXACT time on your ticket. In other words if you are on time you will be late.
I departed the train in Kyoto, where I opted to spend five nights. Lately when I travel I prefer booking accommodations on Airbnb because it positions you in a local area rather than a touristy area and often you are provided with amenities that allow you to live like a local.
In Kyoto, as in the rest of Japan, locals have Airbnb down to a science. Sadly, I never met my host Taichi but he could not have been more helpful via email. He even provided step-by-step text and picture directions from the train station to his apartment. I stayed at a cute little studio in a residential area near the site of the conference I was in town to present at. The studio had a kitchen and everything I could ask for to enjoy a cozy stay. A bike was included so I felt like a local biking to most of the attractions and commuting with my fellow neighbors every morning and evening to the conference.
My Godson/nephew and his wife visited Kyoto about a year before my visit so I asked them for advice and they provided thorough recommendation, even including tips on where to buy souvenirs and delicious milk tea from vending machines. Their suggestions hit the highlights suggested in several guidebooks, so I pretty much followed their itinerary, which gave me an excellent overview of Kyoto.
Kyoto escaped bombing during World War II and many historical buildings and shrines remain intact, thus it has a less industrial feel than Tokyo. Around every corner in Kyoto there is a charming little temple or shrine. Kyoto is very easy to get around with a combination of bike, metro and bus. The blossoms were in full bloom and most attractions were crowded because it was spring break for school children.
There is so much to do in Kyoto – you could easily spend five days just sightseeing. I spent most of my time at the conference, but still had time to take in the best of the city. Here, in no particular order are my favorite sites to see, but keep in mind that these are only four of many sights to see.
1.The Fushimi Inari Shrine
I biked from my AirBnB studio up a gentle hill to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is actually a series of smaller shrines connected by countless red gates. A hike through the gates takes you to a hill top shrine overlooking Kyoto. Kyoto is in a valley and the hill top here offers views of the valley and the shrines that lay in your wake.
Each shrine in Japan has a different animal associated with it who are messengers for Shinto gods. The guardian of the Fushimi Shrine is a fox and stone foxes of every size dressed in a red bib were everywhere on the grounds. In the shrines there is a gift shop and you can buy tokens that offer blessings for different people in your life.
2. Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle was the residence of the first shogun, or leader of the Edo Period, a chapter of Japanese history that ran from 1603 to 1868. Built in 1603, the Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The castle isn’t usually open in the evening, but because I was visiting in spring I was able to enjoy the rare opportunity of touring the grounds at night. It was beautiful! The buildings and trees were illuminated and it looked like a magical place. I wandered the grounds and in one building found a woman playing classic Japanese music.
3. Gion Geisha District
One evening I took a guided walking tour of Gion, the largest geisha district in Kyoto. The district is full of traditional wooden houses, temples and restaurants, making it a popular place to shop and dine. I visited at dusk and the district was illuminated and blossoms were in full bloom.
The tour was an interesting opportunity to learn about the history and customs of geishas, well-trained hosts of wealthy gentleman and their guests. It is an unfortunate misunderstanding that geishas are prostitutes. This is not so and in Japanese culture geishas are very well respected. They are highly skilled and entertain visitors by pouring tea and other beverages, playing music, singing and light conversation.
The Arashiyama district is about a 45-minute metro from downtown, on the opposite site of Kyoto from The Fushimi Inari Shrine. It is a beautiful area full of wonderful things to see including a bamboo grove with towering bamboo that looms over you as you walk along to the Tenryu-ji Temple. This temple features large screens depicting a ‘scary ogre and dragon’.
In Arashiyama, there are beautiful hiking trails including ones that lead to Iwatayama Monkey Park home to more than 170 Japanese macaque monkeys. This was one of the highlights of my whole trip to Japan. I meandered up ‘Monkey Mountain’ and wandered along watching monkeys. If you want to feed them you can go in to a little house and buy fruit to feed the monkeys. After a long hike make sure to stop in the nice little village for a cup of tea and be sure to soak your feet in the a foot bath feed by a natural hot springs. Allow at least a half a day in this area.
Apart from touring the sites, my conference presentation went well and it was illuminating to meet other researchers from around the world and hear about their work. I was sad when the week came to an end. Kyoto is a wonderful city to explore and seems to be a very liveable place full of historic temples, beautiful parks and bustling shopping districts.