My first day in Kyoto started a bit later than what I was hoping, as I had arrived rather late the night before after a long hitchhiking day. Days were somewhat short, as it was getting dark around 5 PM, and although rest was needed, the ever-so-present guilt for not making use of every possible travelling minute followed me throughout the day.
After paying the tourist information centre a short visit, I decided to focus on checking out the modern areas of Kyoto - not quite the usual reason why anyone ventures into that city - but it was very nice nevertheless. Much smaller than Tokyo, of course, but still a very nice, somewhat vibrant downtown area. I spent a lot of time just walking around as well as visiting some of the notorious Japanese department stores, well known for their generous sample giveaways.
On my second day I was full of plans and ready to go bright and early in the morning. I was fortunate enough to have a great host in Kyoto, and he had offered me to take his spare bicycle to get around town, in true Japanese style. Although I was a bit intimidated at first, I figured I should give it a shot as it's the single most common method of transportation locally. Besides that, it would save me a fair bit of money on bus fares all the time, which in a country like Japan, is always welcomed.
And so I left, towards the Higashyama district of Kyoto, stopping and asking for directions every 15 minutes along the way. At that point I was already pretty comfortable with a few sentences of Japanese. It had been rather helpful actually - even though my knowledge was very basic after only 8 or 10 classes (and not having studying after them, at all), knowing to ask for directions, count, greet people turned out to be incredibly useful. I started cycling throughout the city until a foreigner that seemed to reside locally suggested I go by the riverside, and that turned out to be a very enjoyable, scenic ride.
Once I reached the starting point of the self-guided walking tour suggested by my guide book I parked my bike (nobody used locks, bicycles were always just left anywhere, and nobody would touch it!) and started my walk in the very traditional Gion district of Kyoto.
The area is definitely very atmospheric, and with that comes the touristy factor. Mostly Japanese, but still. I walked through really cool "tea alleys" full of traditional wooden houses towards countless temples and shrines... They were really beautiful!
Kiyomizu Dera, Chion In, Heian are some of the temples I visited, but honestly, there were thousands of temples and shrines all around Kyoto, and it didn't take me too long to get slightly "templed out". They were all set in lovely areas though, and even with all the tourists walking around them, it still felt very atmospheric. It's not unusual to spot Geishas walking around in between their appointments in Gion, and I was lucky enough to meet a pair. They were rather kind and agreed to let me have my picture taken with them. There were lots of Japanese tourists dressed up in traditional outfits (they seem to be rentals, I'm unsure) walking around the city and having their pictures taken. It was neat to see that they are actually visitors appreciating the history and culture of their own country.
I took a long stroll at the Maruyama Park, and the autumn colours were everywhere to be seen. Although April is the most popular time to visit Japan, due to the cherry blossom season, I am rather pleased with visiting Japan in November - the second most popular season for visiting the country. The weather is nice and the scenery is truly blessed by the fall colours. I walked all day, and when it got dark I started the long walk back in order to pick up the bike. Then I made my way back to the river side, really enjoying the opportunity of cycling around Kyoto - what a great idea! Eventually, I reached home, tired and hurting from a full day of cycling and walking, but extremely happy for an amazing day!
On the following morning, I started a walk through a path called "The Philosophers path" which might end up being my favourite thing about Kyoto. A truly peaceful setting, walking by a canal with gorgeous nature... Later on I took a bus to Kyoto's postcard sight: The Golden Pavilion Temple. The temple was truly beautiful, and I was really happy to have gone there. I took a bus back to the centre and ended up going back to Gion, in order to take a good look at what it is like at night. Gion was particularly beautiful, all lit up. Back in the centre, I met my host and a friend of his, and we went out for a night of traditional sushi, conveyor belt style. To finish the night off in true Japanese style, we ventured into one of the city's many Karaoke rooms, for an incredibly fun-filled evening!
On my last day in Kyoto, I had planned to visit to the Nijo Castle. The grounds were really beautiful, and it is one of Kyoto's many UNESCO World Heritage sites, but I expected more. I then took a bus to the Arayashyma area - this was a really beautiful area, full of nature, rivers, mountains, temples and shrines. It's also famous for its bamboo fields, including an area where scenes from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" were shot.
Kyoto is just an extremely atmospheric place! My best times were spent just walking and cycling around as well as hanging out with the people I had the pleasure to meet through my host. Overall, two thumbs up for Kyoto. Very different than Tokyo, but not better in my opinion, just a very different experience and a highly recommended one.