Japan doesn’t do daylight saving time, so it was already dark when I left northern Kyoto’s Ichijoji Station at dinnertime one September. The area’s 14 UNESCO World Heritage sites were closed for the night, but Ichijoji is one of the many Kyoto neighbourhoods without any especially celebrated temples, shrines or gardens. The area is not even on many tourist maps, at least not English-language ones. But a certain kind of cultural connoisseur regularly finds the place, summoned by the two-dozen ramen shops along a few blocks of a street named Higashi Oji Dori.
I discovered Kyoto’s uptown ramen district as part of finding my way around Japan’s most historic large city. There it was on a map provided by a bike-rental shop, just a short walk from the Eizan line, one of the city’s charmingly retro — yet impeccably functional — commuter railways. Over three decades, I’ve made three visits to the Golden Pavilion, generally considered Kyoto’s top tourist attraction. That’s more than enough. But the Eizan, Keifuku and Keihan lines? I’d happily ride them every day for the rest of my life.
Many foreign visitors never find these everyday marvels. That’s probably because they see getting around Kyoto as a problem rather than an opportunity. Instead of walking, biking and riding Kyoto’s working museum of train lines, they turn to taxis (expensive and slow) and buses (extensive but even slower).
I prefer to take my cue from the route visitors are prompted to follow through a Japanese temple garden – the kaiyu, or circuit. Most temple buildings are open to the public only on special occasions, if at all. What’s visible is the way the structures are placed in the landscape, and the garden that surrounds them. Its prescribed path is the only available road to enlightenment.
The most rewarding way to see Kyoto and environs is to make the whole enterprise a series of kaiyu, even if that requires a bit more spontaneity than simply checking off a list of top sites. Escaping the taxi or tour bus also offers lessons in a way of seeing that might be called distinctively Japanese, although perhaps also a little bit French.
Paris-bred writer Louis Aragon, one of surrealism’s leading voices, extolled the impulse “to willfully restrict the field of vision so as to intensify expression.” That nicely captures the Japanese flair for framing an exquisite view. But it might also describe the experience of gazing out the window of a local train as it slinks through ordinary Kyoto neighborhoods, passing so close to small shops and tile-roofed houses that they appear within reach.
On paper, Kyoto (“capital city”) looks simpler than Tokyo (“eastern capital”). It’s much smaller, although not compact; in area, Kyoto is almost five times the size of Washington, D.C. The central city’s streets are arranged in a grid, punctuated by numbered avenues that run east-west. Even the Kamo (“duck”) river, which separates downtown from tourist-beckoning Higashiyama (“eastern hills”), follows a straight north-south course through much of the city.
The wide, regular boulevards draw lots of traffic, which is why buses and taxis travel in slow motion. And the best-known Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are not in the center, but nestled in the hills that enclose Kyoto’s central basin. That’s partly because most temples – and their meddling monks – were banned from what was Japan’s capital during the Heian period (794-1185). Also, many Buddhist sanctuaries began as aristocrats’ country estates, built in scenic and cooler locations in the heights and only later converted to religious uses.
Visitors who arrive from Tokyo, which boasts 13 subway lines, are often surprised that Kyoto has just two. While useful, these directly serve only small areas of the city. But there are several other local lines that serve the area; three of them also connect to nearby Osaka. Running east-west and north-south, respectively, the underground Hankyu and Keihan lines supplement (and connect to) the subway in central Kyoto. More scenic journeys are available via the funkier operations, which operate mostly on the surface.
The most charming train line in Kyoto – and possibly Japan – operates from a terminal on the west side of downtown. The Keifuku main line goes to Arashiyama, a relatively rustic precinct of temples, gardens and other attractions near Kyoto’s western edge. (Its bamboo forest offers one of the city’s most celebrated strolls.) The line’s northern spur serves Ryoanji, the temple with Japan’s most famous Zen rock garden, and the spur’s terminus is the closest train station to Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion).
The Keifuku isn’t the only Kyoto railway that links several notable sites. There are lesser-known but equally interesting spots along the tracks that run in a different direction, toward Nara. That rail trip offers as many pleasures as two other kaiyu I’ve undertaken: by foot along the Higashiyama hills and by bicycle along the Kamo River.
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The area just south of Kyoto Station doesn’t look promising. This was once the site of Rashomon, the southern gate to the city, immortalized by Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film. But the gate was demolished in the 15th century, and today the area’s principal historic landmark is Toji, the temple that boasts Japan’s highest pagoda.
Further to the south, however, are several impressive, out-of-the-way attractions. These are strung along the two train routes to Nara, which preceded Kyoto as the national capital. The JR and Kintetsu lines both stop near the Fushimi Inari Taisha, whose red-orange torii (gates) were used as a location in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” a movie rather less acclaimed than “Rashomon.” There are about 10,000 torii, often so close together that the experience of walking through them resembles passing through a tunnel.
Inari is the fox kami (god or spirit), one of Japanese folklore’s many shape-shifters. More important, at least in economic terms, Inari is the god of rice and business. That explains why there are some 30,000 Inari shrines across the country. Kyoto’s is the principal one, and the grounds constitute another kaiyu. Meandering paths lead from the entrance up the side of Inari Mountain, passing hundreds of tiny shrines and fox statues. A ramble to the top and back can take several hours.
Less strenuous but nearly as interesting are the streets around the shrine entrance, with their shops and restaurants. This neighborhood is known for fortune cookies – a Japanese invention that became misidentified with China in the United States – and inari-zushi, allegedly the favorite food of the fox god. It’s rice wrapped in a bite-sized packet of tofu skin, which I find disagreeably sweet. I remember more fondly the bowl of soba noodle soup I had near the Kintetsu station, whose platform features silhouettes of foxes.
The next notable stop is Uji, whose principal kaiyu is a walk along a river that has UNESCO World Heritage sites on both sides. This city is known to the Japanese for the quality of its green tea and for its connection to “The Tale of Genji,” the 11th-century novel that’s partly set there. Uji seems to draw few Western visitors, even though it’s just 17 minutes by express train from Kyoto Station and contains the region’s (and perhaps the country’s) most beautiful temple, Byodo-in. Its main structure, originally built in 1053, is known as Ho’o-do (“Phoenix Hall”).
Visitors to Japan who pay attention to money are sure to see a rendering of the graceful building: It’s on the 10-yen coin. Although positioned next to a pond that once saved it from fire, Phoenix Hall is not one of those temples that’s less striking than the landscape around it. The red, Chinese-style building is airy and birdlike, with two symmetrical wings that flank the central hall, connected by open passageways. The hall was originally built to protect against an expected dark age, so it’s always an appropriate pilgrimage.
The end of the line, Nara, is a frequent one-day excursion for Kyoto visitors. The city is known for its central park populated by tame (but ravenous) deer and surrounded by museums and historic structures. The most famous is Todai-ji (“eastern great temple”), reportedly the world’s largest wooden building, and the home of Japan’s second largest metal Buddha. There are dozens of other attractions, some of them in the wooded hills around the central green.
My favorite Nara destination is secluded yet central. Isui-en (“water-reliant garden”) sits next to Todai-ji, but is overlooked because its entrance is on a side street. This smallish refuge, the most beguiling of the dozens of gardens I’ve visited in Japan, is actually two that have been combined, linked by a central pond in the shape of the Chinese character for “water.” One segment is more open and obviously groomed, the other more enclosed and naturalistic.
Although Isui-en is compact, it incorporates its surroundings through the technique of shakkei (“borrowed scenery”). To anyone gazing outward to the northeast, Todai-ji’s massive gate and the three mountains beyond it appear integral to the garden. As so often is the case in Japan, the correct frame produces the ideal picture.
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Although Kyoto is highly walkable, it has large stretches of unremarkable urban scenery. In the center city, only a few shopping streets – some of them covered arcades – are particularly interesting. But there are many agreeable paths in the hills, as well as one meandering pedestrian route that links most of the attractions of Higashiyama.
East of the Kamo, the northernmost site that gets a lot of tourist traffic is Ginkaku-ji, also called the Silver Pavilion. It’s usually crowded, yet remarkably serene. The path around the temple’s elegant traditional buildings, which leads partway up the hill to provide a variety of vantages, is a classic kaiyu.
Just south of Ginkaku-ji begins the Philosopher’s Path, which runs along a narrow canal – and isn’t so meditative as to exclude small shops and eateries. Heading south, the hills are on the left, full of temples, shrines and cemeteries.
One of the less-visited but most attractive ones, Honen-in, is near Ginkaku-ji. Cross the canal to the east and enter through a moss-covered gate to encounter an exceptionally tranquil site.
The temple is known for its lightly manicured natural landscape, but also has an arty side: It hosts lectures and exhibitions and is the burial place of Junichiro Tanizaki, whose “The Makioka Sisters” is among the greatest 20th-century Japanese novels. The main hall, with its black Amida Buddha statue, is open only for two weeks in April and one in November.
The gentle downhill walk leads to a road that borders still more temples, most of them worthy detours. Midway through the route is an escape hatch: Keage subway station. The tired, bored or overwhelmed can opt out here, perhaps to continue another day.
Twisting to the west, the route leads into Maruyama Park. A right turn here leads to stately Yasaka Shrine, founded in 656.
Just beyond is Gion, the bustling commercial hub that includes what remains of Kyoto’s geisha district. To the left and uphill is Yoshimizu, a secluded traditional inn that’s the most atmospheric of the half-dozen places where I have slept in Kyoto.
Continuing south leads to Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka, stone-staircase streets flanked by traditional shops and teahouses. The final destination is Kiyomizu-dera, a temple whose main hall has a terrace on stilts, standing nearly as high as the hills around it. The complex also includes Jishu Shrine, which reputedly helps the lonely find love.
Trickling under the main building is a waterfall that is the source of the temple’s name: Kiyomizu means “pure water.” Like the walk that leads here from Ginkaku-ji, the water descends from the heights, linking mountain and city.
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Bicycles are ubiquitous in Japanese cities, but used mostly for local errands or to pedal to commuter train stations. (Japan’s rail-depot bike garages dwarf even Holland’s.) Kyoto is an exception, in part because it draws so many tourists. At least a dozen bike-rental companies cater to visitors, and many of the firms are located on back streets immediately north of Kyoto Station. That’s where I found Kyoto Cycling Tour Project (KCTP). It may not be much different than the rest, but it does offer an English-language cycling map packed with useful and unusual information.
Pedaling about Kyoto’s downtown goes much as in other Japanese cities. Major thoroughfares are tricky, but there are lots of alleylike secondary streets.
Where bike lanes exist, they’re narrow and on sidewalks, so using them involves plenty of pedestrian dodging. The area does boast some off-road routes, including one that runs from Arashiyama to Nara – the longest cycling road in Japan, according to KCTP. There are also walking-biking paths along both sides of the Kamo for much of its run through the city.
I found my way to and across the river, and headed north. Within a half-hour, I had cycled farther uptown than I’d ever traveled by bus or on foot. The bike path disappeared, and I shifted onto neighborhood streets. The Kamo split, and I randomly went to the northeast, now following a branch called the Takano. This area is mostly residential, with elegant neotraditional houses grouped closely together but separated by walls and tiny canals. The occasional shop and Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines offered to slake my thirst.
In addition to the river, the Eizan tracks provided a visual through-line amid narrow, winding streets that sometimes blocked forward progress. Eventually, I found myself on the sidewalk along a major road into the mountains. I encountered the entrance to a minor shrine, almost as commonplace in Japan as a conbini (convenience) store.
The wooded hillside complex, Sudo Taisha, is said to hold the soul of Prince Sawara Shinno, younger brother of Emperor Kanmu, who declared Kyoto the imperial capital just nine years after Sawara’s 785 death. Kanmu was ultimately commemorated with the Heian Shrine, now one of Kyoto’s major attractions. The Sudo Shrine is much older, but less of an honor.
Sawara was awarded the posthumous name Emperor Sudo, but he was never emperor. He was accused of plotting to seize power and sentenced to death by starvation. He only got that fictitious title – and his own shrine, built in 859-877 – to appease him after a smallpox epidemic was attributed to his angry spirit.
It’s not exactly an uplifting story. But here on the edge of town, on a bike ride to no place in particular, I’d happened on one strand of the thousand-year capital’s historic tapestry. The Sudo Shrine isn’t even on KCTP’s map. But with about 90 minutes of daylight left, it was time to turn the bike around and head toward someplace that is: Ramen Street.
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Jenkins is a writer based in the District. His website is reeldc.com
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If you go
Where to stay
Bentendo ue, Maruyama Park, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
This bucolic ryokan snuggles into the Higashiyama hills, yet is just a short walk from the Gion geisha district and the Keihan line. The vibe is traditional with a twist of hipster. Some rooms have en-suite toilets and sinks; baths and showers are communal. Rooms starting at $76.
Kyoto Garden Hotel
Minamiiru, Oike, Muromachi-Dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto
This standard mid-price hotel is notable not for its garden but its location: two blocks from Karasuma Oike Station, the interchange between the two subway lines, and within easy walking distance of downtown dining and shopping areas. Rooms starting at $65.
Where to eat
Ichijoji Nishisuginomiyacho 49, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto
Perhaps the best of the Ramen Street eateries. Open till 2:30 a.m. most days; closed Wednesdays. Near Eizan’s Ichijoji Station. Inexpensive.
Kurumayacho-dori, Nijo kudaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto
Beloved traditional soba restaurant in an old wooden building, two minutes walk from downtown’s Karasuma Oike Station. Inexpensive.
278 Karasuma Dori, Kuramaguchi Higashi IRU, Kita-ku, Kyoto
Of the city’s many Buddhist-temple vegetarian restaurants, this is the fanciest and priciest. It’s also the only one that serves alcoholic beverages. Near Kuramaguchi Station in north-central Kyoto. Reservations required.
What to do
Ukyo Ward, Kyoto
Temples, shrines, gardens, a monkey sanctuary and strolls through a bamboo forest and along a lazy river. JR, Hankyu and Keifuku trains all serve the area, but the last offers the most enjoyable journey.
Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion)
2 Ginkakuji-cho Sakyo-ku, Kyoto
One of Kyoto’s finest temple complexes and gardens. Entry is $4.50.
30 Goshonodan-cho, Shishigatani, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto
This temple complex is known for its naturalistic setting. Free.
1-chome, Kiyomizu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
The “pure water” temple stands in, rather than below, the hills. Entry $2.75.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
612-0882 Fushimi-ku, Kyoto
Thousands of orange-red gates mark the paths on the fox spirit’s mountain. Free.
116 Uji Renge, Uji
Perhaps the most graceful temple in Japan. Entry $5.
74 Suimoncho, Nara
Experience two gardens in one at this sublime example of Japanese style. Entry $8.
● Kyoto is a major stop on the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to the southwest. The fastest time from Tokyo to Kyoto is 2 hours and 15 minutes. The closest international airport is Kansai, near Osaka. JR trains travel from Kansai to Kyoto in 75 minutes.
● A JR Rail national pass covers travel to and from Kyoto, and can be used on local lines that serve Arashiyama, Nara and points in-between. It’s no good on the subway or private rail lines.
● The Kansai Thru Pass covers the subway and all private rail lines. It’s expensive for people visiting only Kyoto ($35 for two days; $46 for three) but it offers discounts on many local sites, and can be a bargain if used also for more distant locations such as Osaka, Koya-san or Kansai Airport. Available at the bus ticket office in front of Kyoto Station.
Kyoto Cycling Tour Project
552-13 Higashi-Aburanokoji-cho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
KCTP has four other locations besides this main one near Kyoto Station. Bikes range from $8.50 to $13 per day.