Recently, I journeyed solo to Kyoto, the most historically and culturally rich city in all of Japan. Around almost every corner you can find a shrine, a temple, great food, a geisha… so for these reasons I found it imperative to visit before I left Japan. To not go would be the equivalent of going to Greece and not seeing the Acropolis!
Here's a little taste of my experience there:
Taking the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto was wicked cool. In just 2 short hours I made it there in high speed with great views. Kinda felt like time traveling….
As soon as I arrived at Kyoto station I put my backpack in a locker and went straight away to the bamboo grove in Arashiyama, in order to not waste any time on my limited 4 day trip.
The bamboo grove was magical for me who had not experienced so much bamboo in my life before. But, it is really just a grove and by no means a forest. So if you've been lucky enough to experience "a real bamboo forest" this site is a pass.
After the grove, I made my way to Tenryuji temple gardens. (Picture below)
Following that, the next important destination in that area I went to was the Monkey Park.
From the bamboo grove, it was a 13 minute walk down the street past very touristy shops, lots of matcha and bamboo flavored ice cream and over the bridge to the park.
From the park, it was a 20 minute hike up the monkey mountain to see a great view of all of Kyoto and to get to experience essentially what it's like being inside the monkey house at a zoo, but better. The animals just roam around everywhere! They walk past you casually, maybe even sit like 1 foot away. The best part was going in the feeding house.
Video of a greedy little guy:
Next stop coffee break at % Arabica Cafe. If you know me, you know I love lattes and my latte art. Supposedly, there is a latte artist at this cafe who won a latte art competition. It was too crowded for me to ask for a special design, but I'm happy with the latte regardless. Great flavor.
To end the long day of traveling (5 hours in total) and site seeing, I got my backpack and went to check in at my hostel, The Khaosan Kyoto Theater near the Gion area of Kyoto. Great location, great staff, bar environment to make friends, everything you want in a hostel as a solo traveler.
And friends I did make.
In fact, because of these new people I was able to try the winner of best gyoza in Japan & I love my gyoza!
About an hour trip by train, I went to Nara to see the famous bowing deer and the Todaiji Temple, home to the Big Buddha statue that almost bankrupted Japan once upon a time.
For 150 yen I bought snacks for the deer, getting to witness their polite behavior for the savory treats.
What they don't tell you is that once you feed them once, they become slightly less polite and keep nodding their heads because they want you to feed them the whole pack of food. The key is to not panic, say no in Japanese and walk calmly away from the greedy ones.
I found that the deer just outside of the Todaiji Temple were way more polite and less pushy towards food. So maybe skip the deer park and just go near the temple if you're planning to make a trip.
Overall, the deer were incredible to see. I even got to take a selfie with one of them.
Let me tell you about Todaiji temple: massive, beautiful, jaw dropping. Walking through the gates to the temple is dreamlike and totally worth the trip.
The Big Buddha also lives up to the title of "big"
When all was said and done, I finished off my day with a nice bowl of Ippudo Ramen, Ranked as one of the best in all of Japan.
Temple Hopping around Kyoto
I started off this day with a steep goal of wanting to see around 4 temples and shrines in the same day. I knocked off half of this goal.
First on my list was the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, said to have over 10,000 tori gates up the mountain. The tori gates are donated by companies during times of prosperity, giving thanks to their good fortune. On each tori is the company's name, a really cool chunk of history given that this shrine is 1300 years old.
I took the long way up at around 11am at a temperature of 94 degrees with 80% humidity. You could imagine that it took me about an hour & half because of heat exhaustion and that by the summit I looked like I had jumped into a shower with all of my sweating.
Pro tip: most people give up and don't go up the whole mountain. Don't waste your time trying to get that perfect selfie at the bottom with the rest of the tourists. The perfect picture awaits you if you put in the time to get to the top!
Pictures don't do this place justice and it ranks as my favorite historical site in Kyoto.
Next, I hopped on the subway to visit Kiyomizu Dera Temple with the big orange pagodas that stand near its entrance. Unfortunately, the actual temple is covered with scaffolding due to renovations so it wasn't quite worth the entrance fee. Regardless, the pagodas, garden and surrounding tourist area is very attractive and worth a see.
Something you may notice is a whole bunch of people dressed in kimonos touring the area. Almost around every corner in that area are shops that rent kimonos for the day. Some also offer the hair style.
Kinkakuji Temple (the golden pavilion) and Nishiki Market
On my last day in Kyoto I decided to visit the famous golden pavilion. You can't go inside the actual temple, but it is beautiful to see nonetheless.
It was originally a villa to Shogun Yoshimitsu and it was his wish that once he died, the structure would be converted into a Zen temple.
After this great view, picture taken by a stranger and walk of the gardens I took the bus back near my hostel to stroll down Nishiki Market Street before I caught the subway to Kyoto station to take the Shinkansen back to Tokyo.
Similar to Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, this is where you go for a plethora of street food.
I got to explore a lot of things about myself as a solo traveler during this excursion. There's a lot of freedom to do what you want, see what you want and stay as long as you find necessary.
In 4 days I think I captured all the must see's Kyoto had to offer. For longer trips I'd suggest seeing more of the off the beaten path temples. There are close to 2000 temples in all. Best of luck!
Here is a great website I used for my itinerary planning: