If you were to ask me where my favorite place to visit of all time is, I would pretty immediately say that Japan was hands down one of the best places I’ve travelled. It doesn’t come down to one thing I saw or a specific location I went to, it really is about the people and the culture of Japan that makes it so incredible.
I’ve gone through in detail what it was like to visit both Hong Kong and Taiwan on long layovers, here and here, respectively. My third and final long layover on my Southeast Asia trip was in Osaka, Japan. I was a little hesitant about a 12-hour layover to Japan only because its one of my favorite countries and this just didn’t feel like it would my need to see more of this beautiful place. I quickly concluded that I was all about any amount of time in Japan because it’s just that amazing.
On my previous trip to Japan, I only visited Tokyo and Kyoto so Osaka sounded like a good idea - then I learned it would be only a 75 minute bullet train ride to Kyoto. I was sold. Kyoto is such a beautiful juxtaposition of the old, traditional Japan and the bustling technologically-advanced country it is now. I knew I wanted to see Kyoto again rather than visit Osaka. One day I'll get back to visit Osaka.
If you have the option of visiting Kyoto for only a day, I’ve come up with the quintessentials Kyoto places and experiences you should fit in. I'll walk you through the steps to ensure you can fit everything in your time frame.
TRAINS + LOCKERS
When you fly into the Osaka International Airport (Kansai), you’ll have to find your way to the train station just outside of the terminal. It will be connected by a foot bridge. It is covered, but still slightly outside. I only bring this up because this was the first I realized how freezing it was during January in Japan. I had come from Malaysia that got to the 80’s and I hadn’t properly packed for cold weather. If you go during winter, be prepared, trust me!
If you have extra bags with you, don’t fret. We attempted to use the lockers in the airport just outside of the train station but couldn’t figure out if they would be locked for enough time. So, we decided to take our backpacks with us which ended up being a great decision. There are coin lockers of every size and tons of them at the Kyoto Train Station. Kid you not, they are everywhere.
Buy tickets on the Limited Express Haruka line from Kansai Airport to Kyoto. As long as you buy a HARUKA ticket, you’ll be golden. Once you get your ticket, the train departs from platform 4. For more information on traveling to Kyoto, I read this article. For time tables and prices, check out the Japan Rail site, here.
ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO GROVE
If you’re doing a full day in Kyoto like I did, hopefully it’ll still be early when you arrive in Kyoto. We headed straight to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove to get there as early as possible for two reasons. It is a very popular tourists spot and I wanted to get some pictures in before the crowds. It also is the furthest away from the Kyoto Station in the places I chose to visit. Rule of thumb, go furthest first and work your way back.
We took a taxi straight about of Kyoto Station to the Bamboo Grove. There is public transportation to get around Japan, but for the purposes of time, my friend and I decided to go the Taxi route. Heads up, as of January 2018, uber and lyft did not exist, yet, in Kyoto. This hopefully will change. Taxi’s will definitely be a little pricey, but totally worth it for the sake of seeing as much as you can in a short period of time.
The grove itself was much smaller than I thought it would be. At 8am, it was already pretty packed with sightseers. Tip for pictures: Wait at a curve to get some solo photos. Just as people turn the corner, snap your photo. It’s much easier than the straight away parts that are scattered with people. All in all, a very cool sight and quite calming despite the crowd.
Hop in a cab to get to the Kinkaku-ji. By the way, this could prove to be a slightly difficult task if it is still early in the morning. There didn’t seem to be taxi line anywhere, but luckily for us, one drove by after dropping someone else off.
The Kinkaku-ji, otherwise known as the Golden Pavilion, is a buddhist temple that is probably one of the most recognizable landmarks in all of Japan. This is one place that you should not miss. It is gorgeous and the grounds around it are equally as gorgeous.
I think the Kinkaku-ji is pretty self-explanatory. If you scrapbook or like to save pieces of travels, the ticket you buy here is beautiful and very unique.
The third and final landmark you should visit during your short stay in Kyoto should absolutely be Fushimi Inari-Taisha. It is one of my favorite places in the world. Fushimi Inari is probably one of the most different types of temples you’ll ever visit. It’s famous for its thousands of vermillion red torii gates trailing up a mountain to many small shrines.
The first time I visited this temple over 5 years ago, I was in awe. It was incredibly peaceful to walk through the torii gates. I almost half expected a geisha to pop around the corner at any moment like a scene from Memoirs of a Geisha. This time around, I’m not sure if it’s the insane attention this site has gotten through social media posts or that it was mid-day. This time around, I felt like I was cattle being herded through the maze of gates. I often get annoyed of the crowds, but try to remember these people are getting out there and often being encouraged to travel more from social media inspiration. Just that they want to get out and see more gives me some kind of joy.
If you want to grab a picture under these beautiful gates, head further up the mountain through the twisting maze. You’ll encounter less people. Also, patience and the age ol’ game of waiting is the way to go. There are often breaks in the crowd, so don’t get discouraged. My friend and I waited, taking pictures every few minutes for 10-15 minutes and ended up getting some great shots.
After you visit the temple and torii walk around the streets of Fushimi Prefecture. You’ll find a lot of great souvenir shopping and amazing street food. We had some grilled mochi with some kind of soy-based sauce that was to die for.
ORDER FOOD FROM A VENDING MACHINE
This is one experience you shouldn’t miss out when in Japan. Who doesn’t like the novelty of getting food from a vending machine?
By this time, after seeing all the sights, you’ll probably only have time to get back to the train station and grab some food there. There are a ton of options, and I mean a ton! The giant Kyoto Station features stores and restaurants in a 15-story building and even has a hotel, an art museum and a theater.
I think the best part about ordering food from a vending machine in Japan is that it is in Japanese and the only way to choose is to look at the pictures. You really can’t make that knowledgeable of a decision unless you can read Japanese. I think that’s the fun part, hoping you ordered something you’ll like. But really, don’t fret because you can’t go wrong with the food in Japan. Everything is delicious.