Much of the traditional cultural aesthetic associated with Japan, is embodied by the old capital Kyoto, however it's a modern city and nowhere near the traditional Japanese throwback you might be thinking. There's a lot of that here, but it takes a bit more work to find it than you might expect. Kyoto being associated with old Japan / temples and that sort of thing, means it is LOADED with tourists. If you visit it's a good base of operations, but honestly many places in the Kansai region (itself packed with cool stuff) might suit you just as well. If you plan on staying in Japan, don't be disheartened just because Kyoto hotels are booked. (That's how I ended up in Osaka actually). I'm grouping all Kansai region stuff (not in Osaka) on this page, so everything here isn't strictly in Kyoto. I also saw a few things on a tour, then returned later off the tour to see more. The way I organized this is unfortunately putting some of it out of order.
Out of the big cities I visited in Japan, I thought Kyoto was the most livable, but the tourists would drive me insane. They were everywhere. Pretty much anything that would be listed on an itinerary would be crawling with them. Some of the "hidden treasures" would only have a lot of them. But that's the weird thing about Kyoto. You go to one temple famous for something and tourists are all over, but you go to a really nice shrine down the street and no one is there - just because it's not listed as significant. I took the wrong bus a number of times, and have to admit I had the most fun in Kyoto just being totally lost and finding random shrines. Another thing I noticed was that tourist penetration was generally not that deep. Often people would look at the front area (often the most interesting) but rarely go deeper into the grounds to look around. Kyoto is really an odd place with how many people are in some places, but aren't in others.
Iga Ninja Museum
Like many kids, I became obsessed with Ninjas. I really did believe that if a ninja threw a throwing star it would stick to a person's skull and kill them. Hell what American doesn't love Ninjas? The reality is of course something else. I've actually seen the Iga Ninja Museum on TV, and I have to admit it looks fascinating.
There is a ninja house full of all sorts of trap doors and secret stashes that is really interesting. The museum itself has many ninja devices and details their history, and training. As a museum goer, I have to admit this was a treat. Besides that there is also a ninja show which is a lot of fun to watch.
There is also a castle on the grounds, which isn't a real Japanese castle since it was only planned and never truly constructed. Instead a reproduction of the planned castle was constructed for tourist purposes. But still pretty interesting and a short walk from the ninja museum.
Japan is gaining a fair amount of these kind of adventure styled parks. Edo Wonderland is one such place, with a reproduction Edo period village with ninja running on rooftops and samurai battling in the streets. Also in Kyoto is the Toei park. This is a film park where the film an actual samurai drama. They also have a ninja show there, and the Toei anime museum. These are usually expensive and not particularly authentic, but might be fun enough to check out if you're in the area.
Okay, so technically this isn't "Kyoto" but Nara is close by. Taken alone, any one sight would be worth visiting, however it's the concentration of them together that makes this a must see. At the edge of the park is Todai-ji the largest wooden structure in the world which houses Japan's largest Budda statue, Kofuku-ji, a wonderful temple that is a world heratige site, and the amazing Kasuga Shrine (also a world heratige site).
Nara park itself has lots of greenery, incorporating a few adjoining gardens that were formerly private. What the park is most known for are the 1200+ "tame" deer that wander around the park. In fact the deer were considered sacred and it was punishable by death to kill one (a long time ago). They sell crackers you can feed them, and its hilarious to watch kids chasing or running away from overzealous deer. Then you try to feed them and realize why the kids were running. The kids then point and laugh at you so that's only fair I guess. There is more to see in Nara than just Nara Park (about two days worth of stuff I found in a guidebook). It seems like the kind of place that has far more than that if you can find someone who knows the area to show you around.
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I think adaptability is one of the key virtues in having a fun vacation. Which is good since I never plan enough, I adapt a lot. That's part of how I got stuck in the middle of Kyoto with no clue of where I was or where I was going. I visited a few key spots like the Golden Pavilion, and a few other points, then I boarded the wrong bus a few times. In my attempts to visit Nijo castle, I instead saw all sorts of crazy things I had no idea what they even were.
If you want to roll the dice and leave it to chance, getting lost in Kyoto is a blast. Eventually I just said screw it. After I looked around, I'd go to a random bus stop and get on the next bus. Usually I'd confirm on my phone GPS that it would take me the exact opposite direction I expected - I seem to have a knack for that. Kyoto buses have an intercom announcing points of interest for upcoming stops in Korean, Chinese, and English. If it looked cool or sounded interesting, I'd get off and check it out. Then look at other things in the area, before doing it all over again.
Sometime in the afternoon I realized I only had about $17 left, and I couldn't find an ATM that took my card. (7 Bank is your friend). I had a Kansai Thru pass, so I had unlimited public transport wherever I wanted and could still get back to my hotel in Osaka. I probably should have worried about that food vs starvation thing, but I figured screw it. How often do I get to run around Kyoto? They got vending machines with hot coffee (yes the cans come out hot! It never gets old!) all over the place. I figured I could live for 2 days on those.
That adventure lasted a few hours until I found a train station I could make sense of. I could have enjoyed doing that longer but I wanted to hit my last (high priority) point before dark. Getting lost was a ton of fun. I'm not sure I'd recommend doing it that way, but if you get lost in Kyoto try rolling with it.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
I've been fascinated by Torii since I was a little kid. My friend had a game called Spellcaster (I found out like 5 minutes ago the game was based off of Peacock King). Perhaps my fascination with Japan began all the way back then, realizing there existed a place where cool arches were built serving no practical purpose. I loved the aesthetic idea of that. So there I was in Kyoto standing outside the "torii motherload". Fushimi Inari Taisha is a shrine dedicated to the Japanese fox goddess Inari. Thousands of torii line the path going up a mountain.
This shrine is often said to be overlooked, but I think it's the going up the mountain part that keeps it off itineraries. Many probably never go much past the very nice front section of the shrine. Then starts the ascent of steps and torii. There are thousands, of torii going up mountain paths in this area. Most people get to the first stop and turn around. Partially due to laziness, but also because they've decided it's just more of the same and already lost interest in it. While it does go up high, I found the steps relatively gradual. Believe me, Japan has mountain shrines going up high and fast that will kick your ass. However I found the ascent Fushimi Inari Taisha gentle enough, providied you don't push yourself. There are also many many spots to take a break and check out the view.
As I got higher and higher I noticed less and less people. After the very first set of torii, there weren't many even at that point. It was practically deserted only half way up. They say it's best to visit around sunset, but it was around 5pm so I'd suppose many were looking for dinner, and it was a little dreary (cloudy with occasional drizzle) by most standards. This turned out to be exactly one of the experiences I wanted to have in Japan. Peaceful, beautiful, and exotic. Damp, lush and green, surrounded by amazing history. Even somewhere as touristy in Kyoto in a well known spot, you can find hidden treasures.
At the summit there's a TON of fox statues and flags all over the place, in a way congratulating you for making the hike. If you're worried all that exercise might make you too healthy, there's cigarette vending machine there too.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is site pick of Kyoto.
Odds and Ends
I went to Kyoto with a tour group, which was kind of meh. Anyone who's been to a tea ceremony with a tour group could tell you how that went. I also returned to Kyoto about a week later on my own time. It's interesting that I saw more historic things on the tour, but had more memories of the time I wandered around by myself.
I went to Japan before cherry blossom season, but with freaky luck the blossom season started the earliest it had been in half a century. I'd really enjoyed them in Tokyo, so looked forword to seeing something similar in Kyoto. Let me tell you, Tokyo has nothing on Kyoto when it comes to cherry blossoms. It's seriously that amazing.
In anime class trips always go to Kyoto, and often hit the Golden Pavilion as a spot. Sure enough, like every 10 minutes another class of students would be walking through there. It's true O_o; I missed the manga museum, but I've heard it doesn't have much English content. It was on the opposite end of town from everything else so it got left out. Had I spent more time in Kyoto (not lost), I defiantly would have gone though.
Population: 2.8 million