72 Hours in Kyoto: Highlights
At the advice of nearly every Japan travel guide out there, I took the weekend+ and spent four days in Kyoto, the former capital of Japan also known as the City of Ten Thousand Shrines. Here are the highlights (and recommendations, if anyone is planning a trip to Japan in the near future)!
1. My first day down there I actually took a day trip away from Kyoto proper to Nara, about an hour train ride south east of Kyoto. Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan and for that reason is home to some of Japan's most historic sites including some of the oldest and largest temples. There are tons of temples to choose from, but Todaiji is definitely one worth seeing and paying for (500 yen, or about 5 USD). The temple holds a breathtaking Buddha statue that has to be seen to be believed and a number of other huge and beautiful statues that are impressive as well (but slighted by the Buddha).
Nara Park is also pleasant to walk around and is famous for the hundreds if not thousands of deer that wander around, gladly eating from the hands of anyone who will feed them (they are known as the messengers of the Gods in the Shinto religion, the explanation for their prevalence).
Finally, Nara has a great opportunity for Sake tasting at the Harushika Brewery. The building is somewhat hidden and nestled into a side street but worth finding; 500 yen gets you a tasting of 5 different Sake and a souvenir sake cup to keep!
2. Kyoto (day 2), had just as many cool things to see and I had an awesome local "tour guide" showing me around that made the experience every better! The Fushimi Inari Shrine, known for it's impressive red gates (in both size and number) is frequently touted as the best Shinto Shrine to visit while in Kyoto. It takes about an hour to hike up to the top, but about 2/3 of the way up is amazing view of Kyoto and of course the top itself is very majestic even though there isn't a view to go with it.
The Tofukuji Temple was a temple we just stumbled onto, but is also worth checking out! It is one of the principle Zen temples in Kyoto and is a head temple of one of the school of Zen Buddhism. There are a number of fun facts about the temple, one of them being the famous dragon painting on the ceiling of the main hall by Japanese painter Insho Domoto that I would have missed if I hadn't had a Japanese local as my tour guide.
Arashiyama is another must see place when visiting Kyoto. It is home to the iconic Togetsukyo Bridge, and the beautifully serene bamboo groves. I had an incredibly enjoyable time riding a bicycle around (that you can for 550 yen/day) the area as it also has fun shops and good restaurants as well. For 550 yen you can climb 10-20 minutes to the Iwatayama Monkey Park at the top of the Arishiyama mountains where monkeys roam freely. The monkeys were so fun to watch and of course the view of Kyoto from the top was spectacular!
A trip to Kyoto wouldn't be complete without attending a geisha performance, as Kyoto is said to be the place where the geisha tradition remains the strongest, so of course I attended one. For 2300 yen (cheapest tickets), I went to a show that lasted a little over an hour including intermission. I had a difficult time following the storyline as I don't speak Japanese, but the dancing, music, costumes and stage decision are beautiful enough to make it worth it!
3. Osaka was an awesome place to visit that was surprisingly less touristy than I was expecting. The Osaka Castle is a must see; it is one of Japan's most famous landmarks and the museum that now inhabits the inside of the castle (600 yen to enter) explains the important role the castle played in the unification of Japan in the 16th century.
The Umeda Sky Building is also an Osaka highlight, most known (not surprisingly) for the view from the observation deck connecting the two towers. It costs 700 yen to go to the top and the "floating garden" tagline that usually accompanies most descriptions of the Umeda Sky Building are misleading as their isn't actually a garden, but the amazing view of Osaka at the top--especially if you can make it on a sunny day--is well worth it!
And finally, you can't talk about Osaka without talking about the food, as that is something Osaka is known for. We found a great Takoyaki deal near the main plaza in Nishishinsaibashi--9 pieces for 500 yen--and it was delicious! (Sidenote: I have a bit of a moral issue with eating seafood with ocean conservation being very important to me, but I've had to resolve myself to the fact that seafood is next to impossible to avoid in Japan). We also stumbled upon an amazing waffle shop called Maison de Gigi that may or may not be unique to Osaka, but was amazing nonetheless.
Overall I had an amazing time in Kyoto. As a tourist, 3 or 4 days was plenty of time to see the city, but I most definitely wouldn't mind going back someday.