We’ve already spent two days in Kyoto, Internet Stranger, but believe me when I say I’ve left the best for last. On this day, we will visit the best temple in Kyoto, have the greatest Japanese fine dining experience, and see one of the most beautiful dances in the world: the delicate movements of the geisha. All this, plus cherry blossoms and Japanese fried chicken. We’ve only got 24 hours, so let’s go already!
Morning: Kiyomizu Temple
Address: 294 Kiyomizu 1-chome, Higashiyama Ward
Price: 400 Yen
People visit most temples in Japan, whether or not they are Buddhist, because they want to experience calm and tranquility. They want to admire beautiful wooden structures and temple artwork and Zen gardens surrounded by peace and quiet, perhaps with the occasional chant to punctuate the blissful silence.
Well, Kiyomizu is not most temples. It is a non-stop, action-packed thrill, so thronged with tourists that you might as well call it the Disney World of temples. In other words, I loved it. Where else can you play games, crawl around in the dark and make wishes, and stand on line waiting just to drink a sip of water. If all this intrigues you, I can drop some more knowledge on you with…
three fun facts about kiyomizu temple
1) Our first fun fact is that there is a hidden underground dark chamber experience that is meant to mimic entering the womb of a female Bodhisattva. I’m not sure why she wants us to enter her womb in order to grant our wishes. But the ways of a Bodhisattva are probably beyond me. The entrance to the Chamber of Secrets (I just made that name up) is a small building just outside the main part of the temple called the Tainai-meguri. There’s no sign, so a lot of people miss it.
You need to pay 100 Yen extra to get in, and you will also need to take off your shoes. But your reward is that you will…get to stumble inside a pitch-black hallway with other confused and blind strangers fumbling about to your front and back. You will continue in the darkness with only a rope as your guide. DO NOT TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF THIS ROPE! The rope is your only hope. When you get to the end of the hallway, you will know because you will bump into a giant rock. DO NOT BE ALARMED! Turn the rock, and make a wish. After all that drama, the wish better come true.
PS I hope you did not let go of the rope while turning the rock because you need to keep following the rope to leave.
2) Our next fun fact is that the temple is home to the Otowa Waterfall (pictured above), which is a sacred waterfall divided into three flowing streams. The waterfall is extremely important to the temple because Kiyomizu literally means pure water. The water from Otowa Waterfall is said to give longevity if you drink from it. So if you’re looking to live longer, stand on the lengthy line, wait your turn to pick up one of the long-handled ladles, and drink from the clear crystal stream. I wonder how much longer it will make your life? I think it would be funny if the water added the exact amount of time to your life that you spend online waiting to drink the water.
Don’t forget–you can’t drink the water directly from the ladle! That’s gross. Pour it into your hands from the ladle and then drink from your hands.
3) Another fun fact about Kiyomizu temple is that there is actually a Shinto shrine within the temple. This is the famous Jishu shrine dedicated to love! There are two love stones placed 18 meters apart. If you want to find your true love, you need to stand with your eyes closed next to one of the love stones and close your eyes. If you can walk from one love stone to the other without help, you will find your true love! But if you fail, you’re just going to be alone forever. I didn’t do this because I have already found my true love and now all I need is for Ryan Gosling to start returning my emails so we can be together forever.
Travelerette Treasure: Don’t miss wandering around the temple grounds and going as high up as you can. You can get some sweet views of Kyoto if you look carefully. Also there are fewer crowds the higher up you go.
Like everything else in Japan, the views are prettier during cherry blossom season.
Lunch: Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka
Once you are done with the crowds at Kiyomizu-dera, it’s time for…even more crowds! We’re going to explore the charming streets of Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka. These two pedestrian-only streets form the centerpiece of the main historical district in Kyoto. The delicately lovely restored wooden buildings and confusingly winding streets allow you to pretend that you are in old Imperial Kyoto. This is the area where you are most likely to see women (Japanese and foreign) dressed in geisha costumes.
Just don’t go getting fooled and thinking that one of these women is an actual geisha. Real geisha don’t walk around in their traditional clothes during the day.
Travelerette Treasure: I love the cute little Kasagiya tea house located on 349 Masuya cho. It’s really hard to find because the sign is not in English, but you can use Inside Kyoto’s helpful Google Map to locate it. It was not crowded when I went in, so it was a super place to avoid the crowded. I treated myself to a perfect pot of green tea, a bowl of sweet red bean soup, and a dish of crisp little pickles. If that sounds like a weird combination it…is! But it is also weirdly delicious and warming on a windy spring day.
Travelerette Tip: Whether or not you stopped at Kasagiya, just have a great time exploring and snacking on whatever your little heart desires. A lot of the historic buildings around here are now filled with shops catering to tourists, so you can get anything from teapots to jewelry to soft-serve ice cream, which is pretty ubiquitous all over Japan. I chose cherry blossom flavor ice cream with real bits of cherry blossom in it! I felt like such a classy lady eating flower ice cream. I really think this is an idea that should catch on in the United States.
If the crowds are really driving you inside, just turn onto a random side street and get lost a little. Find a hidden shrine, cherry blossom tree, or dark alley with a knife-wielding maniac lurking and waiting to strike. It’s all part of the adventure of travel!
Early Afternoon: Chion in Temple
Address: 400 Rinkacho
Price: The grounds are free, the buildings are 500 Yen (about 5 dollars)
The Chion-in temple is one of the most important Pure Land Buddhist temples in the world. Perhaps even the most important. The founder of Pure Land Buddhism was a monk named Honen, and Chion-in was where he taught his disciples during his later years. He preached the importance of chanting the name of Amida, which is a major practice for Pure Land Buddhists.
But even if you are not visiting the temple for religious regions, there could still be many reasons for you to visit Chion-in. If you like floors that sing, bells that ring, and ghosts that are into sca-ring, Chion-in is for you.
Travelerette Tip: Don’t be a cheapskate, and pay the extra 500 Yen to enter the temple buildings. You can’t take pictures inside, but you need to enter to be able to experience the famous “nightingale floors”. This is just a high-class way of saying that the wooden floors inside the temple squeak like nobody’s business. Apparently this was done on purpose so that intruders would be easily detected. Who are these terrible people going around robbing temples? There ought to be a law against such behavior.
Fun Fact: Your admission fee also gets you into the Nijugo Bosatu no niwa, which is a ruthlessly peaceful Zen garden made with the usual suspects of sand, rock, and squiggly trees. It is named for the 25 Bodhisattva Attendants of Amida, and there is a rock formation of 25 rocks that are meant to symbolize the 25 clouds that the 25 attendants ride on. I really want to be Bodhissatva if it means I get my own cloud to ride on!
Travelerette Treasure: If you climb the steps to the highest point in the temple complex you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of Kyoto and…CORPSES!
In other words, there’s a lovely Buddhist cemetery on the grounds where you can walk around and examine the classy and glassy monolithic headstones with the names of the dead inscribed in kanji. This cemetery is not crowded, so it’s a good way to get a moment to yourself, especially at the hectic time of cherry blossom season.
Late Afternoon: Miyako Odori
If you are in Kyoto during the month of April, you cannot miss the Miyako Odori. These are the traditional geisha performances that have been going on in Kyoto since the 19th century. It is very easy for a foreigner to buy tickets online here. Regular tickets (which are weirdly called First Class tickets) cost 3500 Yen (35 dollars) and Special Class tickets, which include a tea service, cost 4600 Yen. I got the First Class ticket because Special Class was all sold out already.
You will want to buy tickets for the 4:30 show if you are planning to stick to this itinerary. I can’t give an exact address for the theater because the theater where I saw the show is under renovation, so the location might change from year to year. All of the correct information is listed on the website.
The show lasts for one hour and unfortunately photography is strictly prohibited. Attendants will yell at you if you try to take photos. But the show is an unforgettable medley of traditional Japanese dances representing the four seasons, traditional Japanese music, and performances of traditional Japanese folktales. I couldn’t understand what was happening in the folktale performances exactly, but my understanding was mostly that In Olden Times Everyone Was Sad All the Time.
If you are not in Kyoto for the geisha dances, just spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the rest of the neighborhood. I prefer to let you wander on your own, but if you need tips….
approximately top five best things to do in the southern higashiyama neighborhood
1) Head to Maruyama Park, which is not far from Chion-in Temple, and check out the beautiful trees and bridges. Of course they will be extra spectacular in cherry blossom season, but they will not disappoint any time of year. Also, when the park is less crowded it’s easier to see the many cats who inhabit the park.
2) Get a snack while you are in the park! I opted for karaage, the insanely moist and light Japanese fried chicken. Japanese snacks, why are you the best snacks in the world? Where does this genius for making street food come from?
3) Keep exploring and you’re sure to run into some magical hidden treasures like the Kennin-ji temple. Even if it’s not open, you’ll enjoy the outside.
4) Don’t miss the gate of the luridly orange Yasaka jinja shrine all lit up at night. It’s located right where the Shijo-dori street meets Maruyama Park.
Doesn’t it look like a big face that’s trying to eat you? You’ll never sleep again!
5) Go shopping along Shijo-dori, which is the main shopping drag in this neighborhood. It is famous for its covered walkways which mean that you can shop in comfort, rain or shine.
You can buy anything from plastic models of elaborate ice creams to earrings shaped like lollipops to…basically any kind of artificial representation of food that you could ever want. You might even be able to find an ATM that accepts American cards here. Japan is notoriously averse to using plastic and you should always have plenty of cash when traveling around this country.
Dinner: Gion Karyo
Address: 570-23 Gion-machi Minami-gawa
Hours: Closed Wednesday
It is literally a crime to go to Kyoto and not try kaiseki ryori, which is the Japanese version of haute cuisine. Maybe you won’t actually go to jail, but I will definitely judge you, and I’ve been told experiencing my wrath is worse than prison. However, it can also be hard to find a gastronomic palace like this that is actually welcoming to non-Japanese. That’s why I was so lucky to read about Gion Karyo in Lonely Planet. It is a gorgeous kaiseki ryori restaurant that actually has an English menu and welcomes foreigners.
Travelerette Tip: You’ll need to make a reservation to have dinner here, but you don’t need to do it super far in advance. I made my reservation in person a couple of nights before I wanted to dine here. But if that’s not possible for you, you can try calling or having someone at your hotel call for a reservation by using the number on this website.
When you arrive, you’ll be presented with an English language menu–there are no choices at all. In kaiseki ryori, you eat what the chef is serving that day. There is a traditional progression of the type of dishes starting with an “amuse bouche” and ending with dessert. Allow me to walk you through a traditional Japanese meal and feed your brain with knowledge as my belly was filled with incredible food.
Course 1: Sakizuke (amuse bouche)
Kaiseki ryori must above all be seasonal and as I visited in April, I was treated to the flavors of spring. The first course was the insanely verdant sakura salmon tofu served with sea urchin, green pea sauce, broad bean, and white asparagus. It tasted so much like spring I might as well have been eating a cherry blossom tree.
Course 2: Wanmono (Soup)
This was a white miso soup with eggplant, duck, lily bulb, and bamboo shoot. I love miso soup, but this was so much richer and less salty than the miso soup I am used to making for myself out of packages. And I love the idea of eating lily bulbs in the spring.
Course 3: Mukozuke (Sashimi)
I am not 100 percent sure what kind of fish I was served but I do know that all three kinds were impossibly fresh and didn’t need any soy sauce or wasabi. I think the dark one is a tuna, the one on the left is sea bream because it seemed to be in season, and the white one is squid. The white (possibly squid) sashimi was my favorite because of its chewy texture and subtle flavor. Again, why doesn’t the sushi at my local gas station look like this?
Course 4: Oshinogi (Small Dish)
This little wonder was steamed rice with sea bream, carrots, and peas. I gathered that sea bream are seasonal in spring because they were all over the menu. I think sea bream is also called dorade in French, and it has a very rich flavor that balanced well with the plain rice and light vegetables. I was amused by the little paddle that the rice was served with. Was my rice naughty? Did it need a spanking?
Course 5: Yakihassun (Grilled Dishes)
This was the biggest course so far. Really it was two courses in one because it started with a delicate combination of abalone and bamboo shoot in a rich walnut, Japanese pepper, and miso sauce…
and aaaall of this which is: Grounded cabbage soup, boiled stem lettuce, trout sushi, rape pickled in miso, boiled octopus, icefish and burdock tempura, sweet potato, kiwi, and Shimeji mushroom in tofu sauce, and seaweed in vinegar. It was all so delicious, but I can’t remember what each individual dish tasted like. The sweet potato kiwi dish was my favorite just because it was so unusual tasting and I never would have guessed that the white sauce was tofu. But tofu doesn’t really have a taste; it’s sneaky like that.
Course 6: Takiawase (Simmered Dish)
This felt very much like the main course because it was the most substantial dish of the night: beef with taro, pumpkin, and yuba sauce. My main memory of this dish is how tender the beef was. I really want to know how long they had to simmer the beef to get it like that. It didn’t need to be cut with a knife or anything. It was basically the opposite of the steak served at my high school cafeteria, which had to be cut using a chainsaw.
Course 7: Shiizakana (Side Dish)
This dish, firefly squid, egg cockle (a kind of mollusk), snap garden peas, tomato vinegar, egg vinegar, and basil sauce, felt the most seasonal of all the dishes. After being in Japan in spring, firefly squid are one of the first things I think of when the flower buds begin to pop out. Also, just look at that presentation! It looks like a Miro painting!
Course 8: Gohan (Rice Dish)
This is the traditional course before dessert: rice with seasonal fish and vegetables, miso soup, and pickles. The rice-miso soup-pickles combination is so Japanese. I had these three things served with almost every meal I ate in Japan. But this was the best rice because it was so fluffy and the fish and vegetables were so fresh.
Course 9: Dessert
You can choose between a Japanese dessert and a more Western-style dessert, and I chose the Japanese dessert. The delicate jelly on the left is topped with kinako, which is a roasted soybean flour with a sweet, nutty flavor. I felt almost guilty for eating the perfect pink flower on top, but then I remembered that I don’t live inside a Disney film and flowers don’t have feelings. It was the perfect soft finish to a flawless meal straight from my dreams.
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Kyoto
What would you want to do in one day in Kyoto? Have you ever eaten trout sushi, icefish tempura, or egg vinegar? And how much longer does Water of Longevity let you live? 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.