While thinking back over the cities we’ve visited, Kyoto is on the top of my list.  The city is a mesmerizing union of modern and medieval Japan. Of busy city life and nature.  A thriving metropolis dotted with mind-blowing Buddhist temples and Japanese gardens.  The city, for me, exemplifies what I love about travel and ranks as one of my favorite cities in the world.  This vibrant urban center is easily explored by a combination of train, tram and walking journeys and deserves as much time — if not more — as other major cities on the Japan travel circuit.

Capsule Ryokan

Him made me use this picture of our hotel because the other one made him look like a goof.

Our hotel in Kyoto was one of the more interesting we stayed in.  Capsule Ryokan Kyoto is a friendly and affordable option in an otherwise expensive city. Both private rooms, capturing the essence of a traditional ryokan, and capsule sleeping compartments, compact but surprisingly well-appointed, offer everything a flash packing traveler would need. In the evening, guests are even invited to try on traditional kimonos.

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn where guests typically sleep on futons on top of tatami mats.  Capsule Ryokan Kyoto manages to provide the friendly, warm and inviting atmosphere offered by significantly more expensive ryokans at a fraction of the price.  Our private room (JP6500/night) was small but very efficient with a fold-out (and very comfortable) futon mattress concealing a storage locker. A rain shower provided a seemingly endless supply of hot water — a blessing in the very cold Japanese winter!  The marvelous toilet in the bathroom had a heated seat and a seat cover that lifted automagically whenever the bathroom door opened.

Although we stayed in a private room, the capsule rooms looked quite comfortable as well — very unlike the alien pod compartments we had imagined. The rooms were similar to dormitories but each sizable bunk came equipped with a futon covered tatami mat, a sliding privacy door and a 20″ LCD TV fastened to the wall.

As Kyoto has more sights to see than most visitors have time, it’s best to research the options beforehand. There are, of course, some must-see attractions:

Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine – This can’t-believe-it-until-you-see-it kind of place is an attraction that shouldn’t be missed.  The shrine, located just south of the city,  is within walking distance from the JR Inari station along the JR Nara line (JPY140 one-way from Kyoto Station).  The site is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, and it predates the move of the country’s capital to Kyoto in 794 A.D.  A walking path courses through literally thousands of vermillion torii gates surrounded by nature.  A full walk up the steep hill will take 2-3 hours, but it’s possible to go just as far (or not far) as you like. It’s well worth hiking to at least the Yotsutsuji intersection to see some fantastic views of the city.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Kiyomizudera – Another must-see in Kyoto, Kiyomizudera’s (JPY300) large wooden platform affords sweeping views of the city.  Here we discovered a unique temple experience: For JPY100 we took our shoes off and descended a staircase into a pitch-black cave offering only a handrail to guide us.  After about 20 feet of stumbling through the darkness, we encountered a spinning stone with a sanskrit character carved into it.  The whole experience was confusing, but we later learned it represented returning to the womb of Zuigu, the great merciful mother.  Certainly an unforgettable experience.

Gion – This historic area of town still maintains a traditional style of architecture making it a great place to stroll, eat and shop.  If you’re lucky, you may even spot a geisha (yes, they still exist!).

Not long after checking into our hotel, an Italian guest attempted to lower our expectations.

“If you see an ugly geisha, that’s probably a real geisha,” he warned, obviously bittered by a reality that failed to sync with repeat viewings of “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

But when our own geisha encounter occurred, we couldn’t help but watch in fascination. We had stumbled across a gaggle of geishas performing circuits within a park, and Her, as if suddenly catching the scent of big game animals, started shooting (her camera, that is). The women’s confining skirts and platform shoes hobbled their stride, and it didn’t take much effort for us to catch up.

We trailed behind at what we imagined was a discreet distance so Her could snap her fill, and then we let them be.

Perhaps the Italian had only observed granny geishas. The women we watched were young, graceful and delicately painted — like exotic birds.

Golden Pavilion – The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji Temple, JPY400) is one of the most famous sites in Japan.  We visited just before sunset, and the views were spectacular, though the crowd was quite large.  While you don’t get to actually enter the structure, the grounds are beautifully manicured and the walking path is very pleasant.  The history of the site dates back to 1397 A.D., but the current structure was built in 1955 as the previous one was burned down by a novice monk supposedly protesting the rising commercialism of Buddhism.

Arashiyama – Be sure to spend a day visiting Arashiyama, located on the western outskirts of Kyoto.  This picturesque area is a great place to spend a day strolling, sightseeing or enjoying a scenic boat ride along the Hozu river.

Kyoto Station to Saga-Arashiyama Station on the JR Sagano Line (JPY230 one-way) will get you there in about 15 minutes.

Our two favorite sights here were:

Sagano Bamboo Forest – A walk through this stunning bamboo forest will make you forget you’re in a major urban area.  I don’t think it’s possible to take a bad picture in here.

Iwatayama Monkey Park – The JPY550 entrance fee to this sanctuary is worth every yen. The privately run park uses entrance fees, concession sales, and donations to care for about 130 Japanese macaque monkeys.  The monkeys are accustomed to people, but aren’t tamed, so be careful!

Iwatayama Monkey Park

Monkey rules at Iwatayama Monkey Park

Our experience went something like this:

We hiked up the steep entrance (be ready for a 10 minute, uphill walk to the top), and, a few steps from the top, were greeted by a large macaque monkey on the side of the trail.

Her stopped to stick her camera in the monkey’s face, and he promptly proceeded to growl and bare his teeth.

Her ran up the mountain, I ran down and the monkey jumped in the middle of the path, separating us.

We sat for some time, Her on the path above the monkey, me on a bench below the monkey. I shouted complaints at Her over the monkey in the middle, and he occupied himself by picking bugs out of his coat. Eventually, the monkey became bored and selected another path down the mountain.  (We sure showed him!)

Together, we proceeded to the summit and entered the visitor center, a small building with windows covered in chicken wire. Encased in this building, the humans become the zoo specimens, purchasing bags of peanuts and chopped apples to dole out to macaques reaching from the outside to secure a treat.

As long as you don’t attempt to feed the monkeys outside, it’s safe to walk amongst them as they engage in monkey Club Med activities: grooming one another, playing on playground equipment and chasing each other around a small swimming pool.

Our visit happened to coincide with a unique feeding ritual every visitor should try to see: The caretaker marched around the area throwing food on the ground to the dozens of shrieking monkeys following him. A second caretaker followed behind the monkeys, swiftly sweeping up monkey poo as it emerged lest someone start swinging. All this while Offenbach’s “Can Can” blared through a PA system. It was a truly unexpected and entirely enjoyable experience.

Higashi-Honganji Temple – Although this temple, built in 1895 to celebrate one of the two major sub-sects of Shin Buddhism, was under major repair while we were visiting, it featured an exhibit we couldn’t resist: a massive rope made from human hair.  That’s right.  A hair rope.

Higashi Hongan-ji Temple

The legendary hair at Higashi Hongan-ji Temple

Ordinary rope of the time was not strong enough to support the weight of the huge pieces of lumber, so female devotees donated their long locks to form ropes for hoisting large timbers used in the construction.

Sanjusangen-do (Temple of 1001 Buddhas) – As the English version of the name suggests, Sanjusangen-do (JPY600) is famous for an expansive hall containing 1,001 statues of the Boddhistava Kannon carved during the 12th and 13th centuries.  The temple was also the site of major archery contests through the ages, and it contains images celebrating the feats of endurance from these competitions. One such warrior was Wasa Daihachiro who, in 1698, scored 8,133 successful hits with 13,053 arrows. To accomplish this, he had to fire six arrows per minute for 24 hours straight.

We arrived at the temple very late in the day and almost missed an opportunity to see this fascinating site, so be sure to check times.  Although photography in the main hall (with all the statues) is prohibited, and they claim to search your camera when you leave, you can easily snap a few shots with a cell phone camera if you’re sneaky.

We managed to time our visit to Japan perfectly to coincide with the start of the cherry blossom season which made many of the above sites even more spectacular as trees bursting with pink and white flowers filled our camera lenses.  But even if you don’t visit during the cherry blossom season, this city will be sure to awe and inspire you.