After our 12 hour flight from LAX to Osaka and it’s 16 hour timezone difference, Julia and I anticipated being a little jet lagged and tired. As we woke up to begin our first full day in Japan, we were both surprised by how energetic we felt. We planned our first day to include site-seeing in the central and eastern parts of Kyoto.
From the lobby of our ryokan, we could see a cold morning drizzle falling outside. We pulled up the weather report on my phone, and lucky for us, the rain was only scheduled to appear briefly. We were out exploring the streets of Kyoto by 10:00. My body was telling me it was 16:00 yesterday back home, but my mind was pushing me to take in the the incredible beauty found with every view.
Our first stop was Nishi Honganji Temple, located right outside of our ryokan. Nishi Honganji, or West Honganji, was built in 1591. This is the head temple of the Jodo-Shin sect, with more than 10,000 temples across Japan. The temple is made up of Goeido Hall and Amidado Hall. Amidado Hall is dedicated to Amida Buddha, Jodo-Shin’s most important Buddha.
Our second stop for the day was at Higashi Honganji, or East Honganji, built 11 years after Nishi Honganji. The Goeido, Higashi Honganji’s main hall, is the largest wooden structure in Kyoto.
After spending the morning exploring Honganji Temples, Julia and I grabbed a quick lunch at Kyoto Station before we made our way over to the eastern side of Kyoto. When visiting Kyoto, it’s easy to spend a lot of time in and around Kyoto station. It’s a good thing they have so many food options. I’ll do a separate post for my favorite foods in Japan at another time, but if you’re looking for a quick bite, Kyoto Station is a great place to get one. There are a lot of affordable restaurants under Kyoto Station as part of a shopping mall. There are also restaurants on the upper floors of the station, if you take the escalators to the top two floors (10-11).
When we emerged from Kyoto Station after lunch, the rain was just a light drizzle, and I could tell it wouldn’t be long until the skies began to clear. The timing couldn’t have been better, because we were bursting with excitement in anticipation of seeing the Higashiyama District and Kiyomizudera Temple in Eastern Kyoto.
Kiyomizudera translates to the Pure Water Temple, as it rests on the Otowa Waterfall. It’s one of the most well known and most visited temples in Kyoto. Founded in 780, Kiyomizudera was originally part of the Hosso sect of Buddhism before forming it’s own sect called Kita Hosso in 1965. The entrance to Kiyomizudera Temple is so beautiful I thought I was already in the temple when we arrived. It wasn’t until we saw the temple ticket counter that I realized the best was yet to come. The rain was still falling in light rushes at that point, but it’s slow departure made for a phenomenal afternoon sky.
The temples in Japan are constantly undergoing renovations and restoration to make sure they’re in peak shape. For our visit, Okunoin Hall, Amida Hall, and Shaka Hall were all being worked on. Luckily, the main hall was open.
Outside of the main hall we saw a crowd gathered at what looked like an ancient strength test. I was able to pick up the smaller rod quite easily, but the larger was tough to budge. A German guy, about my size, made the same progress. Person after person went without being able to budge either. Eventually, we teamed up and held the large iron rod high to the applause of the crowd.
Behind the main hall of Kiyomizudera sits the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the god of matchmaking. There were quite a few people saying prayers at that shrine! The biggest line was at the base of Kiyomizudera for the Otowa Waterfall. The fall splits into three streams, with each stream offering a different benefit for those who drink from it.
One of the major highlights of visiting Kiyomizudera is that you enter and exit through the bustling streets of the Higashiyama district. The Higashiyama district is one of Kyoto’s best preserved historic areas. You’ll find all kinds of small shops and restaurants lining these streets. There is a marked path with signs that lead your through the preserved historic streets from Kiyomizudera to Kodaji Temple and Maruyama Park. We followed this path and stopped at all the temples and shrines along the way, as it lead us to our last stop for the day at Heian Shrine.
Our final stop for our first day in Japan and Kyoto was at Heian Shrine. Heian Shrine is a recently built shrine, constructed in 1895. Heian Shrine was built to mark the 1100th anniversary of Japan’s capital being in Kyoto. The entrance to the shrine is marked by a giant torii gate.
My favorite part of visiting Heian Shrine was the beautiful garden on it’s back side. The garden has a number of ponds with koi fish, cherry trees, and a stunning wooden bridge.
Our initial plan had called for us to walk the Philosopher’s Path after visiting Heian Shrine, but our plans were scuttled by the return of rain clouds. They came at about the right time though, because we were feeling tired and ready to find a spot for dinner. We returned to our Ryokan and freshened up before heading back out to Kyoto Station. We went to Kyoto Station before dinner in hopes of making it to the JR Ticket Office before it’s closing time of 20:15. We made it with time to spare, and had our sites set on day 2, a shinkansen trip to Hiroshima and ferry ride to Miyajima Island. With Miyajima on our mind we took the escalators to Kyoto Stations 10F floor, for Kyoto Ramen Koji. This floor has nothing but Ramen restaurants, 8 in total. We ate at Araumado, and absolutely loved it. It was the perfect way to end a perfect first day in Japan.