When you close your eyes and I say the word Kyoto, what springs to mind? Do you picture ancient wooden temples where monks can pray in silent contemplation? Do you imagine winding paths alongside a beautiful river that is bordered by pink and white cherry blooms? Can you visualize a perfectly combed Zen garden made with nothing but rocks, sand, and a delicate bonsai tree? Then this itinerary is for you! Come with me and we will find the beautiful Kyoto of your dreams. We may also find a carriage lying by the side of the road full of happy kittens.
Spoiler Alert: We will definitely find those happy kittens.
Address: 86 Nanzenji Fukuchicho, Sakyo-ku
Hours:8:45-5 Every Day
Price: Free, but it costs 500 yen to go to the top of the gate and 500 yen to go into the Hojo Garden
Nanzen-ji is one of the most important Zen Buddhist temples in Japan. In fact, it was given the title “First Temple of the Land” because of its importance to Japanese Zen Buddhists. It was established at the end of the 13th century, so when you explore here you are really getting a glimpse into “medieval” Japanese life. I always like to make a mental comparison between Japanese temples from this period and medieval churches that I have seen in Europe.
Travelerette Treasure: Before coming here, I stopped at a small Japanese bakery called Browny Bread and Bagels at 50-1 Koyamashimouchi Kawaracho Kita-Ku. Japanese baked goods are not like anything you find outside the country, so I strongly recommend checking some out. I got the french toast, which was a large piece of fluffy Japanese bread coated in what appeared to be a kind of custard, grilled, and then topped with sugar and served cold. It was not like any french toast I have ever eaten before, but it was extremely delicious.
Now that we are all full up on healthy sugar and custard, it’s time to explore! Let me arm you with…
three fun facts about nanzen-ji
1) One of the most famous features at Nanzen-ji is the Sanmon Gate. This giant gate–see above, really you can’t miss it–was built in 1628 to honor those who were killed in the Civil War. The Japanese Civil War obviously, nothing to do with Oliver Cromwell or Abe Lincoln. If you are willing to pay 500 yen, about 5 dollars, and take off your shoes, you will be allowed to go up to the top viewing deck and get a glorious eyeful of the surrounding countryside.
I think it’s worth the money, how about you?
2) Like any good Zen Buddhist temple, Nanzen-ji has a Zen Buddhist garden. Unlike the one at Tofuku-ji, this one is made of rocks, real water, and plants, instead of rocks and sand. It is called the Leaping Tiger Garden because of the shape of one of its rocks, but I couldn’t find the Leaping Tiger rock. Maybe I am simply insufficiently Zen. Do you see one?
I did find this waterfall though, so the exploration wasn’t totally wasted.
Again, it costs 500 Yen to enter the garden, but I think the water alone makes the price worth it. But if you’re strictly on a budget, you can still see some water at Nanzen-ji. Just follow me!
3) Another notable feature at Nanzen-ji is this red-brick aqueduct. It was built at the end of the 19th century in order to provide hydroelectricity and running water to the Kyoto area. But I overheard a guide telling a small group that she was traveling with that it is also famous as a backdrop for Japanese detective shows. I can certainly see why! I bet you could have a great shoot-out under those arches. It would also go well with a trenchcoat and fedora.
Travelerette Tip: Use the exit by the train tracks to leave Nanzen-ji if you are there during cherry blossom season. The tracks are lined with trees and it is magical to walk along the disused tracks under a blanket of pink plumage. Even though I was there on a rainy day, I think you can still get the effect from the photos.
Lunch: Hinode Udon
Address: 36 Nanzenji Kitanobocho
After all those shoot-outs and leaping tigers at the Zen temple, you are probably hungry. Why not get some of the most famous noodles in Kyoto at Hinode Udon? You can choose from about a thousand preparations of noodle, everything from plain to kitsune udon which is udon served in a soup with a big piece of fried tofu on top. I chose curry udon because it was a chilly day and I was in the mood for something a little spicy. They have an English menu, so you’ll have no problem deciding what to order.
Even though the place is called Hinode Udon, you can choose to get udon noodles or soba noodles. Udon are thick wheat noodles and soba are thinner buckwheat noodles. But I always choose udon because it’s the specialty of the house. My curry udon came promptly and it was so fresh, so flavorful, so warm, and so messy. I used the little wet napkin that they give you to wipe your hands at the beginning of the meal all over my face several times, and I’m pretty sure I still left the restaurant with an orange streak or two on my cheeks. It was worth it though!
Travelerette Tip: There is always a line outside, but don’t worry because it moves pretty quickly. Just bring a book or a friend and you should be fine!
Early Afternoon: Philosopher’s Path
I just feel so proud with how I’ve timed this itinerary because we just finished eating lunch, and now we need to go to our next destination: the famed Silver Pavilion of Ginkaku-ji. But how do we get there, you ask, Internet Stranger? Well by sheer coincidence, one of the most famous scenic walks in Japan takes you right from our udon restaurant straight to the Silver Pavilion.
The Philosopher’s Path was not named after Plato, Aristotle, Kim Kardashian, or any other well-known Western philosopher. It was named after a 20th century Japanese philosopher named Kitaro Nishida who used to go for walks here. I hope someone names one of the streets in my neighborhood where I go walking when I have writer’s block after me some day! #lifegoals
There are so many things to do and see along the Philosopher’s Path and on the many side streets that lead off from the Philosopher’s Path, so let me get you started with:
the approximately top five best things to do along the philosopher’s path
1) The number one thing that the Philosopher’s Path is famous for is the stunning cherry blossoms that decorate its edges. During the cherry blossom viewing season, the path will be lined with tourists and Japanese people eager to snap the gorgeous blooms. Most are pale pinkish-white, but if you are lucky you’ll see a few brighter ones.
Even if it’s not cherry blossom season, the trees are lovely and green in the summer or multi-colored in the fall. But is it better to come when the arboreal canopy is alive with snow-and-rose colored petals? Yes. Not going to lie to you, Internet Stranger!
Travelerette Tip: Have your camera out at all times! The path is very crowded during sakura season and as soon as the crowd clears, you’re going to want to be able to take a picture right away!
I had to push a baby into the canal to get this picture, but it was definitely worth it!
2) I found this adorable carriage of kittens by the side of the Philosopher’s Path, but I don’t know what they are doing there. My Japanese isn’t good enough to read the whole sign; I can just see that it says something about resting and Japan–did these cats travel from afar to Japan just to have a nap? How bold of them. Did they write that sign too? Anyway, if you see these kittens, please tell them that I say hi and I like their stuffed pink bunny rabbit.
3) Keep the cats away from our next destination though because it is the Otoyo Shrine, which is a Shinto shrine guarded by mice. I don’t know that I would really trust mice to guard my shrine. I mean there are so many things that mice would NEED to be guarded from: cats, owls, farmers’s wives..etc. Do these guys look very ferocious to you?
I do admire their choice of hair decor though. (Thought: Do stone mice have hair?)
The shrine is located on 1 Shishigatanimiyanomaecho, which is right off the Philosopher’s Path, making it a great place to take a break during your walk. Just don’t make the mice guardians angry. You wouldn’t like them when they’re angry.
4) Of course snacking is the best thing to do in Japan and the Philosopher’s Path has plenty of little roadside kiosks, especially along the part right outside Ginkaku-ji temple. One of my favorites was a fluffy matcha tea cake.
This is actually a slice of green tea baumkuchen, which is a fluffy German ring cake that is now super popular in Japan. I bet they don’t make the green tea flavored cake in Germany!
This is a choux puff filled with cherry blossom flavored custard. It’s so fun to watch them fill the buns in front of you! The choux puff is brown because it is yatsuhashi flavored. Yatsuhashi is a kind of hard cinnamon cookie that is especially popular in Kyoto. Like if you were a Japanese person from another city who traveled to Kyoto and you wanted to bring back a souvenir for your kids, you would bring them a box of yatsuhashi. The combination of cinnamon and cherry blossoms sounds a little weird, but trust me that it is delicious! I think all choux puffs should have cinnamon in them.
Late Afternoon: Ginkaku-ji
Address: 2 Ginkakujicho
Hours: Every Day, 8:30-5
Price: 500 Yen (About 5 Dollars)
Ginkaku-ji is a Zen temple built at the end of the 15th century. It is also known as the Silver Pavilion because at one point it was supposed to be covered in silver foil, but this never took place. So it really should be called the No-Silver Pavilion.
Fun Fact: The roof of the temple is made of Japanese cypress. One of the tiles of the roof is on display and you can touch it if you’ve always wanted to know what Japanese cyprus feels like.
Travelerette Tip: There’s always a lot of people here and you have to keep to a pretty strict walkway when you are exploring the Zen gardens. But just because other people are moving quickly doesn’t mean that you have to. Just step aside if you want to smell the sand formations and let other people skip you.
After all, the whole point of a Zen garden is to encourage quiet contemplation and it’s very hard to contemplate, quietly or otherwise, if you are rushing from one tourist attraction to another.
Travelerette Treasure: If you follow the walkway to its highest point, you can get some great views of Kyoto. If you squint, you can pretend that you are in Kyoto in the 16th century yourself! I love how Kyoto’s skyline isn’t choked by massive structures and skyscrapers. It really makes the city feel unique.
Dinner: Cafe Bibliotec Hello!
Address: 650 Seimeicho Nijo Yanaginobanba Higashi iru
When you are done at Ginkaku-ji, I strongly suggest putting this guide away and exploring the surrounding neighborhood, known as Northern Higashiyama, on your own. If you need some motivation, I’ll show you some things I found in this area when I went off on my own without a guide.
The Shimogoryo Shrine, where people pray to avoid natural disasters.
This guy who is doing something on March 9, 12, and 15 between the hours of 10 and 1 and 2 and 5 but I don’t know what. Shooting lasers out of his eyes, perhaps?
A cafe that has been tragically overrun by cats.
The Okazaki Shrine which houses the god and goddess of childbirth and so is protected by rabbits.
I’m not going to tell you why rabbits are associated with childbirth. I’m sure you can figure it out on your own, Internet Stranger!
I hope those pictures convinced you to get off the beaten track a little. But when you’re ready to settle down for some dinner, you should get back on my beaten track and head straight for Cafe Bibliotec Hello! This cafe is full of books, hipsters, great coffee, and delicious food, which are definitely three of my favorite things. The menu is available in English and most of the staff is young and speaks English well, so you should have no trouble finding a tasty dinner here.
I started with the spring vegetable soup topped with a refreshing foam.
I was definitely in the mood for some seasonal vegetables after my stroll through the cherry blossoms, the ultimate symbol of spring in Japan, and this soup was right on the money.
Next I had another seasonal dish, the pasta with firefly squid.
The spicy sauce and the sharp broccoli raab added such a punch of flavor to this dish without overwhelming the delicate firefly squid tossed into the sauce. If you are in Japan in the spring, you simply must try some firefly squid. They have all the taste of regular sized squid without any of the rubberiness that squid can sometimes have.
I wanted to prolong my evening in this lovely spot as long as possible, so I got an adorable coffee with a side of latte art…
and a sakura cupcake! It doesn’t get more seasonal than this!
The base was actually a green zucchini cake; I think to make it seem like the cupcake was part of the plant. The frosting was dense and sugary with actual pieces of cherry blossom in it. I was impressed with all the work that must have gone into making this cupcake, and it tasted delicious too! Good for the eyes and for the taste buds! What more can you ask for?
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Kyoto!
What would you do with one day in Kyoto? Would you rather eat green tea matcha, yatsuhashi cream puffs, custard covered French toast, or a cherry blossom cupcake? Should temples be guarded by stone mice or stone bunnies? Please leave your thoughts below!
I am here to provide perfect travel itineraries with 24 hours, 3 fun facts, and 1,000,000 laughs! I hope that I can motivate you to get out there, see the world, learn something, and have a sense of humor about it all.