Why Kyoto Will Become Your Favorite City in Japan
Kyoto is the 7th most populated city in Japan, though to most people, it is their favorite (me included). This is because Kyoto is large enough to where you can still have all the conveniences you get with a proper city but, at the same time, possesses a vast array of historical and cultural entities that are just so quintessentially Japanese. The city is very bike-friendly, which is a preferred form of transportation as most of the people rely on a massive network of buses and just a few subway lines along the main avenues (You can get a two-day subway/bus pass for 1700 Yen/Adult). Whether for just a few days or a few months, Kyoto should be a stop that you intend to make on your holiday.
To get you charged up and ready to explore Kyoto, look no further than Coffee House BAU. It's located just north of Nijo Castle and is run by an older Japanese gentleman who seems to have a Ph.D. in the art of making coffee. All joking aside, he carefully and methodically made me a wonderful brew, which I enjoyed in his shop's confines before starting on my day. You can tell he was so dedicated to his craft, and it showed in the taste.
With Nijo Castle right around the corner, you can take in the architecture and surrounding gardens while the caffeine begins to take its effect. The castle has the designation as a "Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto" and is a venue for state-sponsored events for official visitors. Official guest or not, you can venture around and see the various fortifications, gates, and towers in addition to Ninomaru Palace.
When taking the time to view Kyoto's temples, always try to go early in the mornings. These are immensely popular sights that are best enjoyed at first light with few people around. The Golden and Silver Pavilions, better known as Kinkaku-Ji and Ginkaku-Ji, respectfully, are so 'conveniently' situated across the city from one another, so best see them on two different days.
As the name would suggest, Kinkaku-Ji (the golden pavilion), is covered in gold leaf, so it's identification is unmistakable. The temple grounds boast exceptionally well-manicured gardens that emphasize the zen-like atmosphere. Although not covered by gold leaves, Ginkaku-Ji is also very scenic and possesses a Japanese sand garden. Also, about two kilometers in length and starting from Ginkaku-Ji is a short walk called the Philosopher's Path. This was named after a famous Japanese philosopher who would walk this path and practice meditation on the way to Kyoto University. In April, when the cherry blossoms are blooming, this path should be at the top of your list to see.
If you're curious about the best area to stay in the city, try to book accommodation in the Gion District. Here you will find shops, teahouses, stores, restaurants, temples, architecture, history, culture: it has everything you want to see. It can be quite busy during midday, so try to take an early morning or later evening stroll before it gets crowded. Also nearby is Nishiki Market, which has anything from matcha ice cream, a variety of seafood dishes, Japanese souvenirs, to high-end clothing.
Ramen is an incredibly ubiquitous dish in Japan, and you can find it anywhere. Good ramen places are easy to find, but if I had to recommend one place, I would highly say Kyoto Gion Raman Muraji, also in the Gion District. It's well priced, great atmosphere, and the ramen is top-notch.
If you're lucky, you may see geishas strolling around Gion before or after their daily training. If you see one, you may find that many people are trying to snap photos of them (often while chasing them), which can create quite the stir. Instead of this, I suggest simply asking one if it's ok to take their photo since unauthorized photography can now result in a fine. But furthermore, I find it best to admire them for their dedication to their profession and keep the camera packed away.
On the outskirt of the Gion district lies the Kiyomizu-Dera temple. The temple boasts fantastic views of the entire city, and its catalog of gardens and brilliantly colored buildings make it a brilliant backdrop for any photographer. The area is immensely popular, especially in November, where the site holds special evening illuminations (an extra ticket charge). The temple is free to see up to a certain point; then, further access requires a proper ticket.
Arguably, the most special place in Kyoto may have to be a bamboo forest. The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is idyllic, serene, and tranquil and is best visited right after sunrise. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is just the spot to unwind after Tokyo's busy city pace or to relax right after arriving into Japan.
This short path is in the western part of Kyoto and is accessible by the San-in Line train from Kyoto station to Saga-Arashiyama station. Since the trains start a bit later after first light, it's best to take a taxi to Arashiyama (if you're also looking to get a photo without many people). Taxis starting from Kyoto station to this area will run you about 30,000 Yen (about $30), a small price to pay for having such a place to yourself.
A veritable 'must-do' in Kyoto is the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine, known for its plethora of orange tori gates lining its entire path to the top of Inari Mountain. Admission is free, and this shrine is open all day and night. Like the other temples in Kyoto, it is best enjoyed around sunrise. The Japanese characters are visible on the gates' backside, so they can be seen when coming back down the mountain. This was easily my favorite place in all of Kyoto.
Some other attractions to see around Kyoto, easily accessible by train in less than an hour include:
Osaka is the culinary mecca of Japan. Some people often spend days in Osaka and visit Kyoto for a day trip as well, depending on your preferences. Nonetheless, Osaka is reachable by train in less than an hour.
Himeji Castle. Have you ever asked yourself, "Is there a castle in the world that has never been damaged by natural/manmade disasters and has never been attacked in war?" It doesn't matter if you've asked yourself that or not, but this castle DOES exist, and it's in the small city of Himeji. Himeji Castle is, therefore, the most pristine and well-preserved castle in the country. It is located about 20 minutes (walking) from Himeji rail station, and entry is 1000 Yen/Adult.
Nara Park. About an hour south (by train) of Kyoto is the city of Nara. Nara Park is home to hundreds of friendly deer. They are used to human interaction and will often go up to you without any fear. Make sure you grab some rice crackers from a nearby vendor to feed them and keep them around long enough to get that perfect shot.
There you have it - an excellent itinerary for about four solid days in this Japanese city. With its central location in Japan, collection of historically significant monuments and temples, an array of markets and shops, and culinary delights, you have no excuse not to go. Enjoy!
Pro-tip: No matter your culinary preference, don't leave Kyoto or Japan without trying Octopus balls, also called takoyaki. These are made by a wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a special molded pan and are filled with minced or diced octopus (tako) with tempura scraps, pickled ginger, and green onion.