To keep things simple, David and I chose to spend most of our time in Japan in Tokyo, taking deeper dives into precincts by day. We did want to see Kyoto, and decided to take a day tour to Kyoto through Sunrise Tours.
It was definitely a change of pace, following a schedule for this day, But, we got to see a lot in a short period of time, and we think it was worth it.
The day started with a two hour trip from Tokyo to Kyoto in the Shinkansen bullet train. These trains run like clockwork and go 320 km/hr at their peak. Very relaxing and comfortable ride, and beautiful scenery riding by. We recommend grabbing snacks from a nearby convenience store for the ride (though they do sell food on the train as well).
One of the highlights of the tour was our excellent guide Yuki. She was lovely and super funny. Some of her gems – she called student groups her “small enemies” and the revelation that Japanese “are a very shy people, unless we get drunk.” She also gave us great information on Kyoto – did you know it has 3,000 shrines and temples? As we drove around the city, there was a shrine literally every few minutes. Beautiful city.
Our first stop after a pretty blah tour lunch was the the Heian Jingu Shrine. It was a lot like the Asakusa shrine we visited earlier in the trip, and we learned how to properly pray and use the purification waters, that Shinto shrines all have the big red tori gates, and fish heads adorn the top corners of the buildings.
On our way to our second stop, we drove through the Gion area, best known as the old geisha area of town. It was packed. While a romantic and gorgeous city, it is full of tourists donning rented kimonos wandering the streets.
The Sanjusangendo Temple is a very special place. So special and religious, you can’t take photos inside, so I have a googled image below. One thousand intricately carved and unique statues fill the main building – each with 42 arms and many heads to help find as many people in the world as possible to rescue from their suffering. Truly spectacular. Also, full of people and hot and stuffy, so it’s hard to spend much time inside.
Our final stop is the most popular temple in Kyoto – the Kyomizudera Temple. Built on a hillside, it is very much like a sacred mountain. At least, it used to be, before being completely filled by tourists! Seriously, walking up the shopping street to the temple is wall to wall tourists (and we aren’t even in peak season)!
Once you get up to the temple, it provides amazing views, and as you wander the grounds there are many special little surprises awaiting you if you pay attention. David even saw a real little fox watching us from the forest.
We really just saw a very tiny part of eastern Kyoto on this day tour, before heading back on the bullet train. We didn’t get to see the famed red tori gates, and were sad about that. But, we’re happy we got to experience some of Kyoto, and to get back to a more leisurely independent pace on our own in Tokyo.