Finding the Hidden Gems of Kyoto, Japan

By Julie Cheng.

I never had intentions to visit Japan. It just wasn’t a place on my “must see” list. But when my best friend (Sara) moved there for two years after college to teach English to elementary students I felt the need to visit her.  To this day, I will never forget that trip.  It was life changing in ways that I never expected it to be


The Golden Pavillon in Kyoto (Photo: Julie Cheng)

As I began to plan my trip Sara asked what I wanted to see.  Having no background on Japan, I remember Googling “Cool things to see in Japan.”  I told her that I wanted to go to Kyoto to see the Golden Pavilion.  Apparently that was the thing to see in Japan.

I will admit, it was quite stunning, but I think the build up of the Golden Pavilion wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, you weren’t even allowed to go inside.  Kyoto was home to many amazing sites other than the infamous Golden Pavilion.  We were lucky to find some amazing hidden gems along with other more famous landmarks during our two-day stay.

The morning of the first day Sara and I decided to try to a place less well known.  We jumped onto a crowded bus that offered no English-speaking guides.  Sara tried her best to use the little Japanese she had picked up since living there and we got off the bus when we thought we arrived at our destination.  Luckily, her Japanese lessons paid off and we ended up where we needed to be.  We sat down for some breakfast and to map out our morning.  Sara taught me some Japanese and I practiced saying “ohayo gozaimasu” or “Good Morning” to people coming in and out.  Immediately, I was in love with the friendliness of the Japanese people.  Their warm smiles and politeness made me feel good about being there.  Our first stop in Kyoto was to Mount Takao, a very secluded district that is tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city and home of three temples; Jingo-ji, Kozan-ji, and Saimyo-ji.  This was a place not many tourists travel to and exactly what we wanted.

We quickly found out the reason it is not a big tourist spot.  After hiking up hundreds of stairs, in skirts and sandals no less, we arrived at our first destination.  Jingo-ji, a Buddhist Temple that dates back to the 9th Century.

There were several buildings to look at in this area and we made our way in and out of each marveling at the beauty of them all.  Jingo-ji is set up over the Kiyotaki River and after wandering through wooded path we found a beautiful opening that over looked this majestic river ravine.  We gazed over the lush green landscape trying to take in every bit of this place, and it was breathtaking.

Saimyoji Temple was a short 5 minute walk along the river and over a picturesque red bridge.  Beautiful stone lanterns surrounded the entrance of this temple.  We walked through it admiring everything we saw before heading to the last temple in this district; Kozanji.  This temple was much smaller than the others and took us about 10 minutes to see everything.  The area was filled with all different kinds of national treasures that were fun to marvel at.

After about 4 hours we left the district of Mount Takao and headed to the infamous Kinkaku-Ji also known as the Golden Pavilion.  After marveling at the Golden Pavilion and chatting with some of the locals we headed to Ryoanji temple, which is famous for it’s Zen Rock Gardens. The rock garden is 25 meters going from east to west and 10 meters from north to south.  The gardens are made up with millions of tiny rocks and several larger rocks, no trees or other plants.  The lines in the garden are raked to imitate the essence of nature and provide a place to meditate to the true meaning of life.  Seeing these gardens definitely made you feel at peace.

The last place to visit on this day was the old imperial palace called Ninnaji. Ninnaji was founded by the 59th emperor in year 842 and was now home to a flower arranging school.  We took off our shoes (Custom in all temples and homes) and walked around this massive temple.  There were wooden walkways connecting each of the buildings, it was surreal to walk through them all- imagining the hustle of the emperors past walking through the same areas.  I enjoyed gazing my bare feet over the wooden platforms while imagining all of this.  Before we knew it 5 O’clock arrived and we learned that most of the sites in Kyoto closed at this time.  We headed back to our hotel where I had some fun dressing up in a Kimono and taking some pictures.

Day two in Kyoto didn’t go as smoothly as day one.  Our first stop was to a shrine named Fushimi Inari Taisha.  I can say without a doubt that this was my favorite place in all of Japan. The entire complex consists of five shrines that are scattered throughout the wooded slopes of the Inari Mountain.  There is a pathway that wanders 4 km up the mountain that is lined with hundreds of Torii (A gateway to a shrine with two upright crosspieces painted a bright red-orange color).  We arrived at this shrine so early in the morning we were the only two people there.  Wandering through the Torii was a magical.  We enjoyed stopping at the different shrines, but running through the pathway surrounded by so many Torii was an incredible experience.  I felt unstoppable in there, like no harm could come my way and going through with my best friend made that experience even more amazing.


Wandering through the Torii (Photo: Julie Cheng)


After spending around two hours here we eventually hopped on a bus to our next location.  Sara anticipated our next stop being around 6 stops from when we started.  After passing stop 6 and knowing that wasn’t our location and then 7,8, 9, we finally realized we had gotten on the wrong bus and was headed in the opposite direction of where we wanted to be.  In an attempt to not waste another hour on the bus we decided to get off and explore the area in hopes to find something.  After struggling with the map and trying to get information from the locals we came upon another hidden gem tucked away in a bamboo forest. The Koto-in Zen Temple was established in 1601 and housed several important historical objects from Japan, China and Korea. The garden that surrounded the entrance was probably the most impressive thing about this little place.  We continued down another path and came across another shrine that was enclosed by large trees.  After wandering around some more and stopping for some lunch we decided to head on to find our original destination: The Ginkakuji Temple, also known as the Silver Pavilion.

The Ginkakuji Temple, also known as the Silver Pavilion. (Photo: Julie CHeng)

The Ginkakuji Temple, also known as the Silver Pavilion. (Photo: Julie Cheng)

I’m not going to lie.  I was a little disappointed to learn that this place wasn’t actually made of Silver.  Apparently the plans to cover the building in silver, was never accomplished, but it still holds the nickname.  In front of the temple was a spectacular rock garden; a small part of the garden holds a formation of rocks made to represent Mt. Fuji.  During our visit to this temple we came across a group of Junior High School students.  They wanted to take a picture with us so we did.  Sara later explained that students don’t get much interaction with foreigners so it is exciting to meet and speak with them.  It made me realize how different things are in America, when essentially everyone comes from different cultures and backgrounds.

Thanks to our bus detour, we didn’t really have time for anything else after this.  We were bummed since there was still more on our list of things to see and it was also our last day in Kyoto.  Regardless though, we had an amazing time with what did see and do and I certainly wouldn’t change anything about this trip.

Later that day we wandered around the city of Kyoto.  We sat on the edge of the river and watched young couples on their dates.  We went out to dinner and I enjoyed some delicious miso soup, with tempura and sushi.  Sara enjoyed a vegetarian dish called Yuba.  After dinner we wandered the streets drinking some beers.  We ran into two boys singing on the street and stopped to listen for a while.  We spoke to two girls who were their managers and learned they called themselves Sakuranokaze or Cherry Blossom Wind.

After a while we decided to call it a night before we headed to our next destination.  Overall I had an amazing time seeing many places in Japan, but Kyoto is where I fell in love.  It was full of adventure and rich in experiences I couldn’t find anywhere else.  Everyone we met was incredibly nice and always eager to help us if we were in need.



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