How to Kyoto, Briefly

I went to Kyoto last weekend and thought I’d write down a few thoughts:

– Use the bus. The bus network is extensive, well-air-conditioned and cheap if you use a daily bus pass. The Japanese you are looking for is 一日乗車券 (いちにちじょうしゃけん), and the passes can be purchased at convenience stores or directly from a bus driver. The locals use these, too – I saw several kids using them over the weekend.

– A couple of itineraries that work with the buses:
1. Kinkaku-ji → Ryoan-ji → Ninna-ji → bus back to Kawaramachi Shijo to eat and recover
2. Sanjusangendo → Kiyomizu-dera → Ginkaku-ji → Gion → bus back to Kawaramachi Shijo to eat and recover

– Set aside plenty of time for Nijo Castle. Ideally it’s the first thing you see in the morning.

– When you get to your tourist destination (e.g. temple, museum), the first thing you should do is check the departing bus times. Figure out where you’re heading next and check the bus sign to see when your options are. The buses don’t run as frequently as subways and trains in Tokyo, and knowing the departure times can help you maximize the sights you can see in a day.

– That said, knowing when to use the subway is helpful. I’ve only ever used the subway once so I can’t say anything for certain, but that one line that runs east to west can be pretty handy if you’re looking for a quick way to get across town.

– Sanjusangendo is the most underrated temple in Kyoto, which means it ranks high on the short list of underrated temples in all of Japan. Not that it gets ignored – many people love the place, and there are always lots of visitors. But when people think of iconic temples in Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji are always the first two listed. Personally I think Kinkaku-ji is disappointing. Other than the Golden Pavillion itself, there is hardly anything else exciting about the place. If Ryoan-ji weren’t so close, I think it would be extremely overrated. Kiyomizu-dera is nice, but the crowds can be a drag. So can the hill. Sanjusangendo is an excellent combination of scale (1000+ statues), beauty (the statues are just incredible, especially considering how old they are…if you stare at them long enough, they look like they are about to jump over the railing and attack something), and size (the Kannon in the middle is pretty sizable). Highly recommended. The National Museum across the street, however, can be skipped.

9 thoughts on “How to Kyoto, Briefly

  1. Very interesting. However, for a person not speaking (and, of course, not reading) Japanese, riding the bus was quite a challenge. We took the bus from the railway station and carefully examined the idiograms for Ryoan-ji. Then we found Ryoan-ji on the list of stations (about 40 names, all in Kanji) and gave a sigh of relieve. But then the trouble was that the bus just wouldn’t stop in every station, so we had to be carefull with watching for the right stop. I’m not complaining, it was funny and we did manage to get off the bus in the right place.

    I fully endorse the call for more time allocated for Nijo Castle. It’s not the Castle alone, but fabulous rock gardens, tea gardens, pavillions and so on.

    The plan was to cover Ginkaku-ji as well (for symmentry reasons), but we lost our way on the Philosophers’ Walk somewhere. And it was getting dark.

    I placed some pictures on my blog if anyone cares: The text is in Romanian though, so, the one that says “Palatul shogunului” is taken in the Nijo Castle.

  2. Thanks for the great comment. Good point about the buses – you definitely have to maintain vigilance. Great pictures, too…I really like the color that you get on all of them. The shot of the Kamakura shore behind that Jizo is really nice.

    A comment from facebook friend Wake: “ditto on the Sanjusangendo. It’s the only temple that I’ve ever bought the picture book from. It blows Kinkakuji and Kiyomizu-dera away.

    If you’re in a group renting a MK taxi for a half or full day is fantastic. They have English-speaking drivers and they are required to take tests on Kyoto history. As a result they can take you to out of the way places and know absolutely everything about Kyoto history. This service is however pretty expensive.”

    I actually bought the picture book from Sanjusangendo myself…I think that’s the real reason why they prohibit pictures – they know everyone is going to buy the book.

  3. Hi, Dan-

    While I normally just stalk your blog (heh), I thought I’d comment on your post since your write up about Sanjusangendo, my favorite “touristy” spot in Kyoto, was spot on.

    When we were at Waseda, I visited a friend who used to work at the Japanese-style cafe across the street and she urged me to go in. I was blown away by all of the statues and the details. Ever since, I’ve always recommended it friends visiting Kyoto and I don’t think anyone’s ever come out thinking that it was boring or a waste of money.^^

    Hope you’re well and staying cool!

  4. Hey Colleen, thanks for the comment. The first time I went was also by chance. I was with my family and we were trying to go to the National Museum across the street, which was closed, so we decided to go see the temple across the street. Really glad we ended up there.

  5. Hi Daniel,

    I found your blog as a result of the Japan Times profile, and I’m so glad I did! I am a former Tokyo resident and hopelessly nostalgic about all things Japan (I live in Boston now). I also love Sanjusangendo, but my favorite of all Kyoto locales is Nanzenji. Something about it is just amazingly peaceful. Anyway, just wanted to say I love the blog and will look forward to many more visits!


  6. Hey hey,

    Just saw the article in Japan Times about your blog – looks cool.
    I’m currently living near Osaka, so I’ve been to Kyoto a few times now and would like to recommend Kiyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari-taisha as my favorite temple/shrine (respectively) in the region if not in Japan.

    Keep up the good work! Bookmarking this blog. =)

  7. The problem with taking the bus is how insanely crowded they get on busy tourist days – which in Kyoto, could be any day of the year. You might have to wait in a considerable line at the station to get on the bus initially, at which point it’s invariably standing room only, and people tend to pull the stop constantly. In my experience, it can take you longer to ride the bus to Kiyomizudera than it would to just walk there directly. Waiting around for buses to come or having a timetable for visiting each temple or shrine isn’t too much fun either.

    My favorite way for getting around Kyoto is renting a bicycle at one of the shops near the station – which costs something like 1000-2000 yen for the day, depending on the bike – and using that to get around. You can easily ride up to Nijo-jo directly, then head over to Kiyomizudera and follow the road north to the Tetsugaku no michi, take that up all the way until you get to Ginkakuji, then head over to Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, and Ninnaji in the NW. All the while, you end up biking through local neighborhoods and getting a feel for the city along with your exercise, rather than standing crammed in a bus with the other tourists. I just take a bus map and use that to orient myself on the bike if I need it.

    And though it isn’t in biking distance, I can’t recommend taking the train or bus to Sagano/Arashiyama enough…

  8. I can see how bikes would be nice, but when I was taking people around Kyoto, often they were older (parents) and that wasn’t an option. You also do so much walking at the temples themselves, that having to bike would probably really take it out of you. I also highly doubt that you could do that full circle from Nijo-jo to Ninnaji even on the bus in one day…that’s massive.

    Not using the bus also means that you don’t get to see those awesome flippy things on the bus time tables that tells you how far away the next bus is. Those are great!

  9. I was (am) a big fan of Sanjusangendo. I took a pre-packaged bus tour of Kyoto for the one day I was there, and that was my favorite of the temples/shrines visited.