by Travels with Matt – “My name is Matt and I love to both travel and write about it. I currently live in Tampa, Florida, and have traveled quite a bit over the years, both inside the United States and to Japan several times.”@travelswithmattblog
One of the best trips I have ever taken was back in late 2019 when two friends of mine and I were able to travel to Japan and explore several cities including Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
While Tokyo remains one of my favorite cities of all time, Kyoto was an incredible part of the trip that stood out to me throughout the various places and towns we visited.
What struck me the most about Kyoto was the contrast between the ancient capital and the modern city of today and how the two have become woven together over time. For example, upon arriving at Kyoto Station (which itself is a modern marvel), you will find yourself in the heart of a bustling, vibrant downtown scene filled with bars, restaurants, and shopping centers on every corner. However, just a few blocks in any direction away from the city center and you will find a quiet, residential street with a small shrine tucked away on a corner. You will feel transported into the past and are miles away from the modern city.
It’s these small, quiet, and unique streets that make Kyoto so charming and so much different when compared to Tokyo and other cities in Japan.
The Gear You’ll Need
Before I started to explore Kyoto, I made sure to have some gear on me before even leaving the hotel. The first thing I always had on me was a battery back-up (with the proper cords). My cell phone never really had an issue keeping a charge, but the pocket Wifi I had rented for the trip often needed a charge towards the end of the day. So, that battery back-up was a life saver. Even in large, urban cities like Tokyo, finding public Wifi is hard to do. And while exploring remote parts of Kyoto, you could experience disconnections without the Wifi. Just remember to have that charger.
Another item to carry is some kind of coin purse or wallet that can hold coins. Much of Japan is still cash-based and many vendors only take cash. Make sure you have something that can hold the various coins you will get from transactions. Lots of Japanese currency is metal coins.
Lastly, I always make sure to have a handkerchief with me as many restrooms (especially in the country) do not have paper towels (plus it can get quite warm while walking all day, so it’s just a good idea to carry one on you). These are probably not the most high tech must-haves to carry with you, but when exploring an ancient city like Kyoto, having some of the most basic gear on you can be the difference between a comfortable trip or a long one.
Travel to Kyoto and Enjoy these Hidden Experiences
One of my favorite spots that we were able to visit in Kyoto was Tofukuji Temple. It is a Buddhist Temple that was originally built back in 1236 AD. The temple is quite hard to find as it sits tucked away on one of those quiet, residential streets that I had mentioned before. The temple seemed to be hidden among the beautiful houses. You could have easily walked by it if you weren’t looking for the simple wooden bridge that leads to the temple grounds.
I loved this temple! It was so quiet with very few crowds to speak of. The entrance area was a little hectic with street vendors selling various goods and tour groups gathering together, but once you explored further inside the grounds, it was almost hard to find anyone else.
The grounds are stunning as you explore the different halls and small, individual shrines that are off on their own. There is one spot that requires a small admission fee. It is worth the price of admission because you can explore a gorgeous moss garden and other parts of the shrine that are hidden from view. I recommend visiting this quiet shrine during the fall, when the leaves begin to change colors. The changing leaves just pop; it’s a photographer’s dream come true. You may even get a chance to see some of the monks that call the temple home, like we were lucky enough to witness back in 2019.
One of the best experiences that I can recommend for anyone visiting Kyoto and specifically this area (around Tofukuji Temple), is to also visit Fushimi Inari. Fushimi Inari is one of the most visited sites not only in Kyoto, but in all of Japan.
It’s orange torii gates are well known, so why make this a place to see while looking for hidden gems? The trick is to make your way from Tofukuji Temple to Fushimi Inari, which is just an 11- minute walk between the two sites.
Be sure to take the back roads. When we were there, we asked a super-friendly officer which way to go. He quickly pointed out it was a straight shot. We just followed the roads and looked for the orange gates. Just like he said, you couldn’t miss it. He was spot on. Taking the backstreets to the Fushimi Inari was one of the best ideas we could have done.
Walking the narrow, quiet, residential streets felt almost surreal. It was so quiet with just the locals coming and going. It’s a unique experience that you will not find anywhere else while exploring Japan.
Just be aware of the narrow streets in Kyoto. It can be tight quarters if a car is passing through, but it is definitely worth the trip. Make sure you have your camera ready. You never know what kind of random shops or buildings you will find along the way. Don’t worry about getting lost. You will not miss the torii gates of Fushimi Inari.
Take a Walk and Just Explore
Lastly, one of the most hidden/underrated things to do in all of Kyoto is to just walk and explore. Pick a location you want to see (like any temple or shrine) and then walk to it, just as long as it’s not too far away. The things you will discover along the way cannot be found in any guidebook. The buildings, places, and people you meet along the way are probably one, if not the best, part of the trip to Kyoto.
Just remember there is only so much a travel guide can tell you about a place, part of travel is exploring on your own and embracing every part of the journey.
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