Some destinations need to be carefully promoted to the cautious consumer. If I were to try to convince you to spend a perfect 24 hours in Hohokus, you might rightfully be skeptical. But some destinations come already presold in the imagination and Kyoto is one of them. It is so legendarily beautiful that it was spared bombing during World War II because the US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, was so enamored of it. That alone should convince you that Kyoto is worth your time. But if you’re still not convinced, join me for a day of culture and beauty in Kyoto and we will discover the significance of birth and the joy of living.
That’s not my phrase. That’s what it promises on the sign. See:
Morning: Higashi Honganji
Address: 754 Tokiwacho, Karasumadori Shichijo-agaru
Hours: 5:30-5:30 Every Day, Slightly Shorter Hours in Winter
Higashi Honganji is not one of the most famous tourist attractions in Kyoto, but I can only assume that these people who aren’t recommending a visit here just haven’t heard of it. Higashi Honganji is impressive not only because of its size, but because of its importance to the religious history of Japan. It is an important temple for a branch of Buddhism called Shin Buddhism, which is both a kind of Pure Land Buddhism and the most popular branch of Buddhism today in Japan. So if you visit, you will have the opportunity to observe many Japanese people visiting a place of great spiritual significance to them.
Travelerette Tip: Wear shoes that are easy to take on and off. You will be required to take off your shoes if you want to enter any of the halls in the temples. Also, remember that while some people there are tourists, some have come to pray, so be quiet and respectful. Shin Buddhists believe in chanting the name of Amida Buddha, so you may hear this as you are walking around the temple.
Travelerette Treasure: Don’t miss the small museum on the complex, which usually features an exhibit about a cause that is important to the community. When I was there, there was a powerful exhibit on antiwar art done by children. There were also signs explaining how some Shin Buddhist temples had collaborated with the militaristic government in power in Japan during WWII and expressing regret for these actions. I found it very moving that the community was able to honestly show remorse for mistakes in their past.
Late Morning: Shosei-en Garden
Address: Higashitamamizucho Shimojuzuyamachidori Ainomachi Higashi Iru (Yeah, I know)
Price: 500 Yen (About 5 Dollars)
After exploring those imposing buildings, you’ll be looking forward to a charming stroll through nature. That’s why I recommend a break at Shosei-en, which is the garden that belongs to Higashi Hongaji, though it is located in a nearby but separate location. You can spend a lovely hour or so strolling around here and taking in the floral beauty of this semi-hidden gem.
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite feature in the garden is the stunningly reflective Moon Crest Pond. I love that name because the moon is such a big part of Japanese culture and also a big part of the movie Big Bird Goes to Japan. Seeing that movie was the first time I had heard of Japan, but to be fair, I was three years old.
Fun Fact: Japanese legends don’t tell of a man in the moon; they think it’s a rabbit.
Travelerette Tip: Definitely come here in cherry blossom season, like I did. The flowers are stunning and it isn’t nearly as crowded as some of the more popular cherry blossom places in Kyoto.
Lunch: Kyoto Station
You might think I sound a little nutty for recommending lunch in a train station. After all the only edible things you are likely to find in Penn Station here in NYC are a Krispy Kreme and a dead rat. But Kyoto has much better choices. They have not one, but two food courts on the 11th floor of the high-tech Kyoto station. One is called The Cube and the other is called Eat Paradise. Did they eat paradise and put up a parking lot? That strikes me as rather short sighted of them.
I opted for Eat Paradise and had the set lunch at a restaurant called Kyotofu Fujuno, which specializes in using the wondrous tofu in mysterious ways.
When I received my deluxe set lunch, my mind was instantly boggled at all the many ways you could prepare tofu. There was fried tofu skin, fried tofu in broth with noodles, sushi wrapped with tofu skin instead of seaweed, various kinds of fresh tofu topped with different condiments ranging from spicy to salty, and finally different wagashi (Japanese sweets) made from tofu. My favorite was a rice flour dumpling covered in roasted soy bean powder which added a lovely nutty flavor to the dumpling. Behold the power of soy!
Travelerette Treasure: Once you are done with lunch, head to the top of Kyoto Station and check out the sweeping views of the city.
There’s glass blocking the view because I guess they don’t want anyone pushing somebody off the top of Kyoto Station. It would probably delay a train or two.
Afternoon: City of Culture Kyoto Tour
Are you up for a tour of three of the most popular attractions in Kyoto? Of course you are! And by a strange coincidence, this tour meets just outside Kyoto Station, where we just finished our tofabulous lunch! Brilliant!
I had already had a good experience with Urban Adventures in Mexico City going on their Cantinas, Mariachi, and Lucha Libre tour, so I decided to book one of their tours in Kyoto: the City of Culture tour. This tour took in the Tofukuji Buddhist temple (pictured above), the famously foxy (I mean that literally) Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, and the Gion entertainment district, which is best known for being a stomping ground for geisha. I should say a tiptoeing ground as no geisha would dream of stomping.
Our first stop was at Tofukuji, which is a bit of a ways away from the train station, so we took the subway. Our guide,Guillemin, gave us subway tickets that were included with the price of admission, and showed us how to use them. This is very helpful as the Japanese subway system is not like anything we have in the United States.
Travelerette Tip: To use the subway in Japan, you need to put your ticket in the machine to enter AND to leave the subway. Do not throw away your ticket until you are well out of the subway! You don’t want to get trapped underground in Japan forever and have to live with the Mutant Ninja Turtles, do you?
Unlike the temple you and I saw earlier today, Tofukuji is a Zen Buddhist temple. While Shin Buddhists are more likely to chant the name of Amida Buddha, Zen Buddhists believe very strongly in silent meditation, and I did find that the noiseless atmosphere while walking around the temple was conducive to calming and clearing my mind.
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite part of the temple was this Zen garden, which Guillemin explained was an attempt to create water without water. The sand is supposed to mimic the movement of waves. After he said that, I found it entrancing to focus on the circles of sand and imagine them rippling out further and further, even though I know that’s impossible.
Our next stop was at the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, which is dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, Inari. Guillemin explained that many Japanese people are able to practice both Buddhism and Shinto because they use different rituals at different times in their life. For example, Buddhist rituals are more often performed for funerals and Shinto rituals are more often performed at weddings. I think that sounds appropriate because I’d definitely rather have a black and orange statue of a fox show up at my wedding than at my funeral.
But there is so much more than that to learn about Fushimi Inari Taisha! Allow me to share with you…
three fun facts about fushimi inari taisha
1) The shrine’s great claim to fame are the great paths lined with orange torii gates that are so fun to explore. Apparently Inari is considered good luck for business, so each gate is sponsored by a different Japanese businessperson or company. You can see the names of the donor and the amount that they gave written on the side of the torii.
Some people also leave their business cards on the floor in a room with a statue of a horse god in it for more financial luck, especially if they can’t afford to donate a torii. Our guide said you’re not supposed to, but new business cards are dropped in every day. Some people will do anything to make a buck!
2) After the red gates, the first thing you will notice about Fushimi Inari Taisha is that it is covered with fox statues. Our guide told us that this is because foxes are considered to be the animal of Inari. I’m not sure that I trust this Inari guy. His symbol is a fox and everyone knows foxes are sneaky. He takes people’s money and tells them that he’s going to make them rich…this sounds like a Ponzi scheme to me. I think he might be Bernie Madoff.
3) Many Shinto shrines have tablets or pieces of paper on which you can write wishes for luck. But at Fushimi Inari Taisha, these tablets are of course shaped like foxes. I love how people drew their own faces on the foxes–I saw everything from realistic fox faces to characters from the manga Dragonball Z. Such a creative way of making a wish!
Travelerette Treasure: The favorite snack to get at Fushimi Inari Taisha is a taiyaki, which is a light pastry filled with either red bean or custard–I chose red bean and was very satisfied. It’s not included with the price of the tour, but your guide will stop if you say you want to buy one. I don’t understand why it’s shaped like a fish though. Shouldn’t it be shaped like a fox? Won’t Inari get offended? Do you think I can pay him off with one of my business cards?
Our last stop was in Gion, which is most famous for being the home of most of the geishas who live in Kyoto. This seemed to be Guillemin’s favorite part of the tour, as he was just brimming with much more than…
three fun facts about geisha
1) Don’t call them geisha. In Japan, they are called geiko.
2) Geiko in training are known as maiko. Maiko start training at 15. Only a very few young women are chosen, and it is considered to be a great honor. In order to become a geiko, you need to become an expert at everything from traditional Japanese dance to performing a tea ceremony. Some geiko get married when they retire, but others do not marry and stay on to train maiko into geiko. It’s the circle of geiko!
3) A geiko’s job is usually to serve as traditional Japanese entertainment during a lavish party. She would probably sing, dance, and/or play a musical instrument or demonstrate other traditional Japanese arts. Since the chances of you or I getting invited to one of these parties is slim to none, our only chance to see geiko or maiko perform is in public shows for a festival given in springtime.
I was lucky to have arrived in Japan at the end of March because the spring festival was about to start and I had reserved a ticket in advance online! But I am getting ahead of myself. That show is for another day. The last geiko dance of the day is at 4:30 and this tour ends at 5:30, so there’s no way to do both on the same day.
Our guide concluded the educational tour by saying that it was his last day as a tour guide because he was moving to a different city and thanked us for sharing this special moment with him. So you probably won’t have Guillemin if you take this tour. It was a special tour though, as we learned a lot about Japanese culture and religion, and saw three major Kyoto landmarks that would otherwise have been difficult to see in one day.
Dinner: Issen Yoshoku
Address: 238 Giommachi Kitagawa
Now that the tour is over, you’ll have a little time to explore Gion on your own! If it’s cherry blossom season, I recommend trying to find some because they look like magical pink clouds when they are all lit up at night.
When you are done, head to Issen Yoshoku, which will serve you a very tasty, very cheap, and very fast okonomiyaki. As I explained during our day in Osaka, okonomiyaki is a Japanese savory pancake made with eggs, flour, cabbage, and a bunch of other wacky ingredients, usually topped with sweet and dark okonomiyaki sauce, bonito flakes, and mayonnaise. However, this okonomiyaki was different from the one in Osaka for several reasons.
- It was thinner and more rolled up, kind of like an omelette. The Osaka one was fatter and flatter like an egg pizza.
- It had scallions, the one in Osaka was a scallion free zone.
- This one was topped with seaweed and okonomiyaki sauce, no bonito flakes or mayo.
- This one had meat in it, the other had squid and shrimp.
Both the okonomiyaki here and the one in Osaka were delicious! This one was a bit more no-frills but nothing beats an okonomiyaki hot off the grill. And look! My old friend Billiken even came by the restaurant to say hello.
Thanks Billiken! You’re the best.
And That’s How You Have a Perfect Day in Kyoto!
What would you do with one day in Kyoto? Would you be more interested in Shin Buddhism or Zen Buddhism? Also can you trust a god who takes people’s money and hangs around with foxes? 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.