Sightseeing around Kyoto

We had intentionally based our holiday in Kyoto as the city has a huge range of historical sites and is well placed for travel to many other sites of historic interest.

Kyoto province contains almost 5% of all the UNESCO world heritage sites.

Riding the Kyoto buses

For our first full day in Kyoto, we decided that we would only do some very gentle site seeing, so purchased a one-day Kyoto bus pass for ¥500 each. The buses give much better coverage of the Kyoto than the limited underground system and the tourist buses allow you to view many of the sites of interest in relative comfort.

The buses progressed slowly through the traffic.

On our first day, we rode buses all over Kyoto but only really stopped to look at one of the (numerous) large Buddhist temple complexes. There was a definite feeling of peace and calm emanating from the buildings and gardens.

Although we passed Gion, we saw very little of it from the bus. It is definitely an area to visit on foot.

Gion experience

Our friend Yui and her mother Akemi were our excellent hosts for an evening excursion into Gion.

Gion is the district of geisha, old style Japanese buildings and a range of top class restaurants.

In the daytime, most of the shops and restaurants of Gion are closed, but the streets show many examples of traditional Japanese buildings. Some streets in Gion are preserved under Japanese cultural heritage laws.

Hexagon temple (六角道[ろっかくどう])

Our first stop in Gion was at the hexagon temple. All of the main features of this temple are based on the number six. It is almost surrounded by modern glass buildings.

It is reputed to have been founded at the exact centre of Kyoto in the seventeenth century.

The hexagon temple is the centre or one of the schools of Ikebana (Japanese art of flower arranging).

To the left hand side as you enter, are a set of very small statues, dressed in little knitted hats. These are shrines to Ojizo-san, the patron saint of small children and babies.

At the rear of the hexagon temple is a carp pond that had a variety of wildfowl swimming on it.

Apricot Blossom Tofu restaurant

Around the corner from the Hexagon temple is the Apricot Blossom Restaurant.

Akemi was kind enough to take us to the Tofu restaurant. She had to book it several weeks in advance.

Entry was through a very discreet an indistinctive doorway that led to a downward staircase. The staircase ended in a large brightly lit atrium. Although it was very early in the evening, there was a large number of customers waiting and it appeared that everyone, but us, was Japanese.

After a very short wait, a green kimono clad lady led us towards the eating areas. Following Japanese custom, before stepping up onto the wooden floor, we removed our shoes. Our footwear was neatly filed away. We were then taken to our table.

Our room in the restaurant was just large enough for our party. It had a table was set very low in the Japanese style and the floor was tatami ([たたみ]) matting. The floor actually had a dip just under the table to make it possible to sit in a Western style or for customers to kneel in the Japanese manner. The door was of a traditional Japanese style sliding door made from paper rectangles.

A young waitress brought around a dozen courses to us in accordance with the "fuku fuku zen" menu.

When we had finished the excellent tofu meal, we went for an evening walk in Gion.

Maiko (apprentice Geisa) walking in the Gion district of KyotoAn Evening Walk in Gion

Gion is a busy and beautiful place in the evening. There are many bustling restaurants, but a more interesting sight for patient tourists is a geisha (芸者[げいしゃ]=artistic person) or maiko (apprentice Geisha) hurrying from one venue to another. Despite apparently awkward geta (下駄[げた]=wooden clogs) geisha move very rapidly from one venue to another. Geisha take very small and rapid steps, giving a characteristic clatter as they glide along.

I found that to photograph a geisha as she glided past in the street of Gion it is essential to have a camera out and ready before you spot her.

This photograph of a maiko was taken by having my camera in hand, then running a little ahead of her and her escort. As I raised the camera to compose the picture, the maiko kindly took an extra step forwards so that she would be the centre of attention in the picture. I took the photograph; she hesitated for her customer to rejoin her and then bowed and showed a broad, beautiful smile. Taking the photograph of a maiko may only have taken a few seconds, but it was certainly one of the highlights of my holiday in Japan.

As well as seeing a geisha and a maiko in Gion we also saw the outside of a nearby kabuki theatre. Our Japanese friends confessed that they had never actually seen this traditional Japanese theatre form.

Nijo Castle (二条城[にじょうじょう])

Gardens of Nijo Castle in KyotoNijo castle is one of seventeen UNESCO world heritage sites in Kyoto.

The site of Nijo Castle is easily accessible by bus or underground services in Kyoto. It is quite near to Kyoto railway station. Guide leaflets are provided in a wide variety of languages, including English.

600¥ is all that it cost to enter and view the old Shogun's palace and as usual in Japan, some exquisite gardens. Unfortunately, interior photography is not permitted.

The original castle was built for the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu while the palace was built for his grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu. The palace was complete in 1603 and provides one of the best remaining examples of Momoyama architecture.

Walking around the corridors of the palace provides views of full-scale tableaux of the Shogun's court as well as the layout of many of the rooms. Walking also makes the visitor very aware of the noise of the nightingale floors.

Between two rooms of the palace, there is a particularly magnificent woodcarving. Although the carving goes through the piece of wood, the scenes on either side are unrelated. Only the perforations through the wood match.

A visit to Nijo Castle should be compulsory for anyone interested in the Tokugawa Shoguns and Japanese architecture.

Imperial Palace

Imperial Palace on KyotoThe old Imperial palace is located near to Imadegawa underground station and well served by the Kyoto buses.

The palace stands in a large park that is permanently open to the public, with walls separating it from the bustle of Kyoto's city streets. Within the grounds there is an excellent café which sells a range of traditional Japanese dishes including a range of seasonal and vegetarian food.

There is no fee to enter the palace itself, but it is necessary to register with the Japanese imperial household office. This can be done a few hours before entry. The Imperial household office is very close to the palace entrance. The Japanese authorities require visitors to the palace to provide their passports and to fill in a registration form.

Visits to the imperial palace are at restricted times and groups are led by an English speaking guide. Tourists are shown the exterior of the various palace buildings, imperial gates and some beautiful Japanese gardens. The tour only provides glimpses of the screens and interior décor. Some of the history reveals that the use of the gates was restricted by the rank of the people entering them.

Security personnel keep a very tactful distance from the group at all times.

The gardens and background information, such as the construction of the cedar bark roofs, are very worthwhile.

The guided tour of the Imperial palace in Kyoto takes about one hour.

Golden Pavilion Temple (金閣寺[きんかくじ])

Golden Pavilion Temple in KyotoThe Golden Pavilion is one of seventeen UNESCO world heritage sites in Kyoto. It is easily accessible by the Kyoto tourist busses, but some routes will require a walk of around 350 metres from the nearest bus stop.

The Golden pavilion was originally built as a retirement palace for the former shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in the Kamakura period (late 14th Century). After Ashikaga's death, the palace was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple in 1422.

In 1950 the building was burnt to the ground and then reconstructed as an exact reproduction in 1955. It gets its name from the fact that upper two stories of the golden pavilion are covered in gold leaf making the building shine brightly in the sun. The gold leaf is estimated to weigh 50Kg.

The pavilion lies on the edge of its own landscaped pond; a golden phoenix looks down from the golden pagoda's apex.

Unfortunately tourists are not permitted to enter the palace, but the temple grounds and views are, as any visitor to Japan comes to expect, beautiful.

Visiting to the Golden Pavilion should be compulsory for anyone interested in the Japanese architecture.

Silver Pavilion Temple (銀閣寺(ぎんかくじ))

Silver Pavillion Temple in KyotoThe Silver Pavilion is one of seventeen UNESCO world heritage sites in Kyoto. It is easily accessible by the Kyoto tourist busses.

The silver pavilion was originally built by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa in the late 15th Century as a villa and meeting place for artisans and intellectuals. After Ashikaga's death, the site fell into decline until it was restored in the 17th Century.

The silver pavilion itself was built in 1489. The lower storey is built in the wayo style while the upper storey is built in the Zen butsodo style. The silver appearance of the upper storey gives the site its name.

The togudo was built in 1485. It enshrines the patron Buddha of temple also provides a study area. The study areas are the oldest existing ones of this style.

As you enter the temple complex, there is a large raked gravel garden. A variety of other garden styles that can be viewed by following a path up the hillside behind the temple complex.

Although the buildings do not appear to be is good condition as the Golden Pavilion, the garden views from the Silver pavilion are probably better.

Visiting to the Silver Pavilion should be compulsory for anyone interested in the Japanese architecture.

Kyoto Brighton Hotel Day trips from Kyoto