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InsideJapan’s tour leader extraordinaire and Kyoto resident, Richard Farmer was asked what he would do if he had 24 hours in the cultural capital of Japan. This is what he said…and it is well worth a read…
With perhaps the exception of the buzzing metropolis of Tokyo, Kyoto is arguably the destination in Japan that offers the most options in terms of possible sights to visit. While most people will spend at least two or three nights in Kyoto as part of a holiday to Japan, the sheer number of temples, shrines, museums, and other historical landmarks makes prioritising your time in Japan’s ancient capital a must if you want to get the most out of this wonderful city that I now call my home.
While most sights in Kyoto are open for visitation during the preciously short hours of 9 to 5, with some careful planning (and this is where InsideJapan Tours can do most of the work for you!) you can take advantage of some sights that have extended opening hours to really get the most out of your time in this city.
Here is how I would spend an action packed 24 hours in Kyoto, experiencing a variety of different sights and taking advantage of non-standard opening hours to extend the regular sightseeing hours of 9 to 5 by another 7 hours!
06:00–08:00, Fushimi Inari Shrine
Rise and shine! Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of Kyoto’s most famous and heavily visited sights. Having been nominated by Trip Advisor as the most popular tourist spot in Japan among foreign tourists for 4 years running, it justifiably attracts pretty large crowds. But as the shrine is open 24 hours a day, and with no entrance fee, you can escape the crowds by heading there as soon as the sun rises, allowing you to appreciate the atmosphere before the tour groups start rolling in from 9am onwards.
The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice cultivation. As rice was the main form of currency in Japan in the pre-modern period, Inari has morphed into a god of business, and the main draw of the shrine is the 10,000 vermilion torii gates that wind their way around Mount Inari, all donated to the shrine by different businesses in Japan in the hope of persuading Inari to grant them business boons.
It takes about 2 hours to hike the full course around the mountain (with plenty of steps!), but there are also shorter courses if you’re still rubbing sleep from your eyes!
A couple of minutes on a Keihan line train from Fushimi-Inari station to Shichijo will place you just a few minutes walk from Sanjusangendo temple, another sight at which you can take advantage of non-standard opening hours. Most temples in Japan open at 9am, but Sanjusangendo opens an hour earlier at 8am.
Like Fushimi Inari, it can get pretty busy later in the day, but you can escape the crowds by arriving at opening time to appreciate the 1,001 almost life-sized gold-leaf covered wooden statues of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, in relative quietude.
The wooden hall containing the statues is the longest wooden building in Japan and is 750 years old, as are most of the statues, although 124 of the statues are 100 years older, and were rescued from the original hall as it burned down in 1249.
The sight of hundreds of statues of Kannon lined up in rows stretching into the distance is truly awe-inspiring, although the temple’s strict no-photography policy inside the hall means that I can’t give you a preview here. You’ll just have to go and see for yourself!
10:00–12:00, Gion and Kennin-ji
A 25-minute walk or short bus ride will take you from Sanjusangendo to Gion, Kyoto’s largest geisha district. Hanamikoji is one of the most famous streets in the area, and it’s a popular place for people to go in the evening, hoping to catch a glimpse of geisha hopping between the various tea-houses on their way to appointments. You’re unlikely to see any geisha at this time of day, but it’s well worth strolling down the beautifully preserved street to soak up the atmosphere.
At the far end of the road you’ll find Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, and a high contender for my favourite place in the city. The temple has a beautiful dry-landscape ‘Zen garden’ and plenty of other nooks and crannies to explore.
One of my favourite things to the see at the temple are the beautiful fusuma screen doors, including some recent additions to the temple by contemporary female Japanese artist, Toba Mika. Another thing that shouldn’t be missed is the twin-dragon panting on the ceiling of the Hatto lecture hall, another piece of modern art that is truly breathtaking.
12:00–14:00, Nishiki Food Market
After such a busy morning, you’re likely to be pretty hungry by now, and there’s no better way to satiate your appetite than to head across the Kamogawa river to the Nishiki food market, where you’ll find all manner of local specialities on offer.
Strolling along the market and snacking as you go is a great way to have lunch on the hoof, but it’s also the location of one of my favourite ramen noodle spots in Kyoto.
Gogyo is a restaurant in a lovely converted machiya townhouse and the ramen on offer here is pretty unique too. I highly recommend the ‘burnt soy sauce’ ramen. Don’t be put off by the name, the deep black soup has a wonderful rich smoky flavor! On weekdays you can upgrade to a large portion of noodles for free, which will keep you well fuelled for the next stop where you’ll be burning a fair few calories.
14:00–16:00, Ninna-ji 88 Temples Hiking Course
Heading to the northwest of the city will take you to Ninna-ji, one of Kyoto’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites. The temple belongs to the Shingon school of Buddhism and has a long historical relationship with the Imperial family, which is why you’ll see so many examples of the chrysanthemum seal adorning the buildings.
The temple’s Shinden garden is well worth visiting, but the main draw for me is the ‘88 temple’ hiking trail located behind the temple. The hike is a miniature version of the 88 temple henro pilgrimage, which circumambulates Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The Shikoku henro takes around 6 weeks to complete on foot, but at Ninna-ji you can do the whole thing in just under 2 hours – a handy shortcut to enlightenment!
Each stop on the route is marked by a tiny little temple, and each one is located just a hundred meters or so apart, so it’s pretty much impossible to get lost. There are also some impressive views over the Kyoto basin to be had from mid-way around the route.
16:00–18:00, Funaoka Bath House
Back in the secular realm, a short taxi ride from Ninna-ji will take you to Funaoka Onsen, a historic public bathhouse. In the pre-modern period, most people didn’t have a bath in their home, and so relied on local neighbourhood bathhouses for their daily ablutions. With the advent of modern housing, many local bathhouses have been forced to close, but Funaoka Onsen is still going strong nearly 100 years after opening.
There are a variety of baths to hop between including an ‘electric bath’, but while you’re changing into your birthday suit, look out for the rather controversial wooden transom carvings that adorn the changing rooms, which depict scenes from the Shangai Incident, an event that occurred in the run-up to the Second Sino-Japanese War.
18:00–20:00, Kyoto National Museum
Having washed off the dust of the hiking trail, you’re ready to hit the road again! Although most temples and museums close at 5pm, on Fridays and Saturdays the Kyoto National Museum stays open until 8pm. The museum has regularly changing special exhibitions, but even just the regular exhibition is well worth a look and offers a chance to see some of the city’s important cultural properties and national treasures, including some of Japan’s finest Buddhist sculpture.
20:00–22:00, Temple Light-up Events
The seasonal evening ‘light-up’ events at various temples around the city are another great way to take advantage of non-standard opening hours. These usually take place in spring and autumn for a few weeks at a time, although some temples also have winter and summer illumination events.
One of my favourite light-up events is at Kodai-ji, a Zen temple originally founded by Nene, the widow of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one the ‘three great unifiers’ of Japan during Japan’s feudal period. In recent years, the temple has gone one step further than simply illuminating the grounds, incorporating a 3D projection mapping show onto the temple’s dry landscape garden.
22:00–24:00, Dinner in Kiyamachi
Time has been marching on, and you’re probably getting hungry again! Although many restaurants in other countries would be getting ready to shut up shop by this time in the evening, restaurants in Japan’s larger cities tend to stay open until midnight, or even later. One of the best places to head for dinner in Kyoto is Kiyamachi street, which runs parallel to the Kamogawa river, with hundreds of restaurants in the locale.
One of my favourite restaurants in the area is Akahige, which means ‘red moustache’. This restaurant specialises in Okinawan cuisine, which originates from Japan’s southernmost islands. It’s a pretty tiny restaurant, with a very local vibe. Make sure you try the goya-champuru, a stir-fried dish that incorporates goya, a type of bitter gourd that appears in many Okinawan dishes, of which goya champuru is the most famous!
24:00–02:00, Cocktails at L’Escamoteur
Your eyelids might be feeling kind of droopy by this point, but what better way to perk yourself up than by rounding off the night with a killer cocktail? Just a short walk further south down Kiyamachi will take you to L’Escamoteur, a bar owned by long-time Kyoto resident Christophe who hails from Marseille in France.
Christophe is also something of a master magician, but the real magic lies with his cocktails – the best I’ve found in Kyoto and at a great price. He specialises in old-school cocktails with a modern twist. I love the Pisco Sour, but my best tip is to let Christophe recommend you a drink – he has an uncanny ability to figure out exactly what you’re in the mood for! The kooky décor in the bar is a huge draw too – see if you can find the toilet!
02:00 – 06:00 More drinks (or maybe some sleep!)
Japan’s larger cities never sleep, and Kyoto is no exception, and you’ll find drinking holes in the Kiyamachi district that remain open until the wee hours, although if you’re hoping to follow this day with another action packed 24 hours, perhaps a few hours sleep would be more advisable. Sweet dreams!
Kyoto is one of those ‘must visit’ places in Japan and there is so much to see. If you have just a short time in Kyoto, then you may want to take note of Richard’s well-informed suggestions….you may like to head to bed slightly earlier though – we will leave that up to you. Kyoto is included in most of InsideJapan’s small group tours and self guided adventures, but if you want some advice on how to make it part of your trip, then do speak to one of our travel consultants now and they will be happy to help.