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Few places in the world mix charm and history like Kyoto, Japan. Spending just a few days here juxtaposes the past with the future for an unforgettable experience. Where else can you see a stunning trio of geishas walking through Gion while fixated on their smart phones?

I visited Kyoto last December and while the stark beauty of winter was apparent, I couldn’t help but imagine the beauty of this town in the bloom of spring or the shifting colors of fall. This alone would be good enough reason to visit Kyoto more than once. Many of the sites around town have a strong connection with nature and the integration of indoor and outdoor spaces illustrates the essence of Japanese design.

If you’re visiting Kyoto, don’t miss these remarkable treasures of history and beauty.

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion

Hope for clear weather if you visit Kinkaku-ji, for the glow of this charming pavilion rivals the sun itself. Originally a shogun villa, Kinkaku-ji became the prominent feature of this 32-acre site at the end of the 14th century. Classical Japanese gardens border the mirror pond which integrates the pavilion within the surrounding landscape of islands, rocks and trees. The pavilion displays three architectural styles in three stories, with the top two covered in gold leaf and lacquer. Through the past centuries, war and arson have threatened to destroy this beauty but the latest rebuild of 1955 shines on for all to enjoy.

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Daitokuji Monastery

Find your zen among the rock gardens of Daitokuji Monastery, founded in 1319. This vast complex requires patience and curiosity to seek out the gems hidden among its many sub-temples, but the rewards are great and the silence is palpable. Spend an afternoon meditating from the engawas or marveling at how all those beautifully raked stones show no trace of a footstep.

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Arashiyama’s Bamboo Forest and Walkabout

Green and lithe above you, the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest dwarfs and awes you all at once. But go beyond this unique landmark and you’ll find even more to explore. Okochi Sanso, marked by a little booth that might deter you with its entrance fee (it’s worth it), offers a labyrinth of stone paths and gardens set around the former villa of a Japanese actor of the early 1900s. North from here, you’ll find artists’ studios and shops among the streets of Arashiyama. Venture farther still and you’ll arrive at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji cemetery and temple. From the late 700s to the late 1800s, people who were brought here received no tombstone or burial. Instead, they were memorialized with Buddha statues, of which there are around 8,000 — along with another bamboo forest that’s prettier and more peaceful than the first one down the road.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine

Inari, the Shinto god of rice and deity of business, inspired this shrine with its seemingly endless series of torii (traditional gates). Founded during the Nara period, it is the head shrine of Japan’s 30,000+ Inari shrines and every torii has been donated by a company or individual, as inscribed on the columns. If you enjoy photography, you will lose your mind here — repetition, color, scale and a path that leads all over the mountain make every angle an image to capture. Larger-than-life foxes — Inari’s messengers — sit at the entrance to the shrine and smaller statues appear frequently along the path. Plan to spend a few hours if you want to walk the gates from start to finish, or you can shorten the four kilometer loop at Yotsutsuji intersection.

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Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Established on the hillside in 778, Kiyomizu-dera offers panoramic views across Kyoto from a complex of halls and pagodas. A natural spring flows into the site and visitors can sip the water at the Otowa Waterfall. Adjacent to this, the Kiyomizu Stage is a marvel of engineering with a framework of 12-meter pillars erected using traditional Japanese timber construction (no nails or fasteners). After touring this scenic temple, wander the quaint streets at its base where you’ll find more examples of traditional architecture and, if you’re lucky, a glimpse of the enduring legacy of Kyoto’s geishas.

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With a bit of planning, the sites listed here can be reached by local train and/or bus from central Kyoto. Daily bus passes are available for Β₯500 at most ryokans. You can hop on and off as many times as you like, making it more economical than paying per trip (Β₯230). Arashiyama is farthest from central Kyoto but rewards with a half-day of exploring at the very least.

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41 comments

  1. Oh wow! What a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing! I have been so keen on visiting Kyoto – this is definitely going to help in the planning process! Were all the mentioned places in your post relatively close to each other? I will only have about 3 days, 2 nights to visit and our travel from Narita is about 2 hours on the bullet train, would you say we could get that all done in that amount of time?
    Piccionetakesflight.com

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    1. Hello Piccione! If you scroll to the very bottom of the post you’ll see a map of where all these sites are in relation to each other and to the center of Kyoto. I think you can definitely see them all in three days. Arashiyama will take the longest but you don’t have to do the walk around the neighborhood — you can just see the bamboo forest and move on to save time, if needed. Fushimi Inari and Kiyomizu-dera are very close to each other so plan to see those together. Thanks for your comment. Hope you have a great trip!

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  2. Poop. You went to Japan. I guess that means now I have to go to Japan. Since you’re the lead dog here, girl, can I at least suggest you go next to Tahiti, so I can go there? I think I was a Shogun in a previous life. And after that, or maybe before, a monk who had to rake all that sand, just so. I love that first photo…the light is perfect. And I like the one with the two geishas touching hands. Maybe I was a geisha in a past life, too?

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    1. If you think you were a Shogun, you should definitely go to Japan! The culture is so quietly deep and people are just really nice. Thanks for liking the first photo. That was the only spot of sunlight I got from that vantage point and I was kind of bummed the rest of the landscape was dark but it turned out okay. Sure, I’ll go to Tahiti!! There might be a trip planned in that neck of the woods sometime next year. Fingers crossed! Nice to hear from you. πŸ™‚

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  3. Stunning photos – I especially liked the raked stones; I think they calmed my frazzled mind a bit! This is a place I am really eager to go – Japan in general and Kyoto in particular.

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      1. Oh, you’re nice! It seems like I’ve been a lot of places (and I have by most counts), but I feel like there is so much undiscovered Earth out there waiting for me!

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  4. Love these photos! Sure, Kyoto is picturesque, but you obviously have a gift for photography ~ the two of you together is sheer magic. I imagine the sounds of the bamboo forest when I see these photos and think it must have been lovely in person. I am definitely going to Japan! Just not quite yet. But soon! Thank you…

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  5. The magic of Japan ~ you’ve captured it well. The Bamboo Forest photo series was incredible (all the photos were) ~ and you bring out the charm of the city so well in photos and in your words “stunning trio of geishas walking through Gion while fixated on their smart phones” πŸ™‚ A funny sight to imagine.

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    1. Thanks, Randall! Actually, if you want to see that trio of geishas, check out my Instagram feed (link is near the top right of my home page). The photo is about 8 rows down. I managed to capture the three of them walking through Gion. What amazing beauties they are! Thanks for saying hello. πŸ™‚

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  6. Just by looking at those photos of the raked stones I feel calm already — such is the appeal of Japan. Really love all of your photos, Kelly. Japan has been on my wishlist for the longest time, even when my father asked me why I learned how to use chopsticks when I was little I said because I wanted to go to Japan. I should look up this post again when I plan the trip. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Bama! I love your story about chopsticks! You knew you were a traveler before you were even traveling. πŸ™‚ You will LOVE Japan — it will feed your love of history, food and culture for sure. Thanks for your comment — always great to hear from you.

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  7. Ooooo what wonderful places. And you got some beautiful photos. I love the geishas, and the red tori, and the path winding through the bamboo. I can’t wait to go to Japan. It’s pretty high on the list. August/Sept is a possibility for 1 week HK/1 week Taiwan/2 weeks Japan/4 weeks China. Not more than an idea at the moment. We’ll see.
    Alison

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    1. Thanks, Alison! Wow, your idea for August/September sounds fantastic! You’ll love Japan, whenever you decide to go. Efficient, peaceful, beautiful and such nice people. Just amazing. Hope you and Don are well in Mexico! OlΓ©! πŸ™‚

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  8. Hi Kelly ,

    This is Saul at GPSmyCity, a publisher of travel apps on iTunes App Store and Google Play. We have reviewed your blog and are interested in working with you for mutual benefits. We are interested in (1) sponsoring a giveaway on your blog and (2) converting some of your blog posts into mobile apps so they can be sold on iTunes App Store and Google Play. If you wish to learn more about these opportunities, please reply to my email at your earliest convenience. Thank you.

    Best regards,
    Saul Tarasoff
    GPSmyCity.com

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    1. Hi Saul. Thanks for your interest. Can you point me to an example of a travel blog where you’ve sponsored a giveaway? Or an example of blog content sold as a mobile app through your company? Thank you!

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      1. Hi Kelly! Thanks for your interest. Could you please leave me your email so I could answer your questions directly? Or, you can contact me at sault at gpsmycity dot com.

        Looking forward to your reply! Thanks.

        Best regards,
        Saul

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  9. Oh how beautiful the Japanese gardens are and my heart took a leap for joy at the bamboo forest! Beautifully captured in photos. My husband lived in Japan for four years, but I have only been there for 18 hours (Tokyo)…. This makes me yearn for more.

    Peta

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    1. Only 18 hours?! Wow, I think you need to go back! πŸ™‚ Sounds like your hubby could be the perfect, experienced tour guide! Yes, the bamboo forest was quite a sight. The whole country is overflowing with culture and beauty. I see myself going back many times. Thanks for your comment Peta!

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  10. I totally love your blog and your photos are incredible! Japan is one of my fav places in the world – in particular Kyoto and this just took me back. Also impressive that you had some great photos – I was stuck with hoards of tourists.

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