Skip the taxis; enjoy Kyoto by rail, foot or bicycle
By MARK JENKINS | Special to The Washington Post | Published: September 15, 2017
Japan doesn’t do daylight saving time, so it was already dark when I left northern Kyoto’s Ichijoji Station at dinnertime. The area’s 14 UNESCO World Heritage sites were closed for the night, but Ichijoji is one of the many Kyoto neighborhoods without any especially celebrated temples, shrines or gardens. The area is not even on many tourist maps, at least not English-language ones. But a certain kind of cultural connoisseur regularly finds the place, summoned by the two dozen ramen shops along a few blocks of a street named Higashi Oji Dori.
I discovered Kyoto’s uptown ramen district while finding my way around Japan’s most historic large city. There it was on a map provided by a bike-rental shop, just a short walk from the Eizan line, one of the city’s charmingly retro yet impeccably functional commuter railways. Over three decades, I’ve made three visits to the Golden Pavilion, generally considered Kyoto’s top tourist attraction. That’s more than enough. But the Eizan, Keifuku and Keihan lines? I’d happily ride them every day for the rest of my life.
Many foreign visitors never find these everyday marvels. That’s probably because they see getting around Kyoto as a problem rather than an opportunity. Instead of walking, biking and riding Kyoto’s working museum of train lines, they turn to taxis (expensive and slow) and buses (extensive but even slower).
I prefer to take my cue from the route visitors are prompted to follow through a Japanese temple garden — the kaiyu, or circuit. Most temple buildings are open to the public only on special occasions, if at all. What’s visible is the way the structures are placed in the landscape, and the garden that surrounds them. Its prescribed path is the only available road to enlightenment.
The most rewarding way to see Kyoto and environs is to make the whole enterprise a series of circuits, even if that requires a bit more spontaneity than simply checking off a list of top sites.
On paper, Kyoto (“capital city”) looks simpler than Tokyo (“eastern capital”). It’s much smaller, although not compact; in area, Kyoto is almost five times the size of Washington, D.C. The central city’s streets are arranged in a grid, punctuated by numbered avenues that run east-west. Even the Kamo (“duck”) river, which separates downtown from tourist-beckoning Higashiyama (“eastern hills”), follows a straight north-south course through much of the city.
The wide, regular boulevards draw lots of traffic, which is why buses and taxis travel in slow motion. And the best-known Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are not in the center, but nestled in the hills that enclose Kyoto’s central basin. That’s partly because most temples — and their meddling monks — were banned from what was Japan’s capital during the Heian period (794-1185). Also, many Buddhist sanctuaries began as aristocrats’ country estates, built in scenic and cooler locations in the heights and only later converted to religious uses.
Visitors who arrive from Tokyo, which boasts 13 subway lines, are often surprised that Kyoto has just two. While useful, these directly serve only small areas of the city. But there are several other local lines that serve the area; three of them also connect to nearby Osaka.
Running east-west and north-south, respectively, the underground Hankyu and Keihan lines supplement (and connect to) the subway in central Kyoto. More scenic journeys are available via the funkier operations, which operate mostly on the surface.
The most charming train line in Kyoto operates from a terminal on the west side of downtown. The Keifuku main line goes to Arashiyama, a relatively rustic precinct of temples, gardens and other attractions near Kyoto’s western edge. The line’s northern spur serves Ryoanji, the temple with Japan’s most famous Zen rock garden, and the spur’s terminus is the closest train station to Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion).
Farther to the south are several impressive, out-of-the-way attractions. These are strung along the two train routes to Nara, which preceded Kyoto as the national capital. The JR and Kintetsu lines both stop near the Fushimi Inari Taisha, whose red-orange torii (gates) were used as a location in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” a movie less acclaimed than “Rashomon.” There are about 10,000 torii, often so close together that the experience of walking through them resembles passing through a tunnel.
Inari is the fox kami (god or spirit), one of Japanese folklore’s many shape-shifters. More important, at least in economic terms, Inari is the god of rice and business. That explains why there are some 30,000 Inari shrines across the country. Kyoto’s is the principal one, and the grounds constitute another kaiyu. Meandering paths lead from the entrance up the side of Inari Mountain, passing hundreds of tiny shrines and fox statues.
Less strenuous but nearly as interesting are the streets around the shrine entrance, with their shops and restaurants. This neighborhood is known for fortune cookies — a Japanese invention that became misidentified with China in the United States — and inari-zushi, allegedly the favorite food of the fox god. It’s rice wrapped in a bite-sized packet of tofu skin, which I find disagreeably sweet. I remember more fondly the bowl of soba noodle soup I had near the Kintetsu station, whose platform bears silhouettes of foxes.
The next notable stop is Uji, whose principal kaiyu is a walk along a river that has UNESCO World Heritage sites on both sides. This city is known to the Japanese for the quality of its green tea and for its connection to “The Tale of Genji,” the 11th-century novel that’s partly set there. Uji seems to draw few Western visitors, even though it’s just 17 minutes by express train from Kyoto Station and contains the region’s (and perhaps the country’s) most beautiful temple, Byodo-in. Its main structure, originally built in 1053, is known as Ho’o-do (“Phoenix Hall”).
Visitors to Japan who pay attention to money are sure to see a rendering of the graceful building: It’s on the 10-yen coin. Although positioned next to a pond that once saved it from fire, Phoenix Hall is not one of those temples that’s less striking than the landscape around it. The red, Chinese-style building is airy and birdlike, with two symmetrical wings that flank the central hall, connected by open passageways. The hall was originally built to protect against an expected dark age, so it’s always an appropriate pilgrimage.
The end of the line, Nara, is a frequent one-day excursion for Kyoto visitors. The city is known for its central park populated by tame (but ravenous) deer and surrounded by museums and historic structures. The most famous is Todai-ji (“eastern great temple”), reportedly the world’s largest wooden building, and the home of Japan’s second largest metal Buddha.
My favorite Nara destination is secluded yet central. Isui-en (“water-reliant garden”) sits next to Todai-ji, but is overlooked because its entrance is on a side street. This smallish refuge, the most beguiling of the dozens of gardens I’ve visited in Japan, is actually two that have been combined, linked by a central pond in the shape of the Chinese character for “water.” One segment is more open and obviously groomed, the other more enclosed and naturalistic.
Although Isui-en is compact, it incorporates its surroundings through the technique of shakkei (“borrowed scenery”). To anyone gazing outward to the northeast, Todai-ji’s massive gate and the three mountains beyond it appear integral to the garden. As so often is the case in Japan, the correct frame produces the ideal picture.
Although Kyoto is highly walkable, it has large stretches of unremarkable urban scenery. In the center city, only a few shopping streets — some of them covered arcades — are particularly interesting. But there are many agreeable paths in the hills, as well as one meandering pedestrian route that links most of the attractions of Higashiyama.
East of the Kamo, the northernmost site that gets a lot of tourist traffic is Ginkaku-ji, also called the Silver Pavilion. It’s usually crowded, yet remarkably serene. The path around the temple’s elegant traditional buildings, which leads partway up the hill to provide a variety of vantages, is a classic kaiyu.
Heading south, the hills are on the left, full of temples, shrines and cemeteries.
One of the less-visited but most attractive ones, Honen-in, is near Ginkaku-ji. Cross the canal to the east and enter through a moss-covered gate to encounter an exceptionally tranquil site.
The temple is known for its lightly manicured natural landscape, but also has an arty side: It hosts lectures and exhibitions and is the burial place of Junichiro Tanizaki, whose “The Makioka Sisters” is among the greatest 20th-century Japanese novels. The main hall, with its black Amida Buddha statue, is open only for two weeks in April and one in November.
The gentle downhill walk leads to a road that borders still more temples, most of them worthy detours. Midway through the route is an escape hatch: Keage subway station. The tired, bored or overwhelmed can opt out here, perhaps to continue another day.
Twisting to the west, the route leads into Maruyama Park.
Just beyond is Gion, the bustling commercial hub that includes what remains of Kyoto’s geisha district.
Bicycles are ubiquitous in Japanese cities, but used mostly for local errands or to pedal to commuter train stations. Kyoto is an exception, in part because it draws so many tourists. At least a dozen bike-rental companies cater to visitors, and many of the firms are located on back streets immediately north of Kyoto Station. That’s where I found Kyoto Cycling Tour Project (KCTP, kctp/PC/en). It may not be much different from the rest, but it does offer an English-language cycling map packed with useful and unusual information.
Pedaling about Kyoto’s downtown goes much as in other Japanese cities. Major thoroughfares are tricky, but there are lots of alleylike secondary streets.
Where bike lanes exist, they’re narrow and on sidewalks, so using them involves plenty of pedestrian dodging. The area does boast some off-road routes, including one that runs from Arashiyama to Nara — the longest cycling road in Japan, according to KCTP. There are also walking-biking paths along both sides of the Kamo for much of its run through the city.
I found my way to and across the river, and headed north. Within a half-hour, I had cycled farther uptown than I’d ever traveled by bus or on foot. The bike path disappeared, and I shifted onto neighborhood streets. The Kamo split, and I randomly went to the northeast, now following a branch called the Takano. This area is mostly residential, with elegant neotraditional houses grouped closely together but separated by walls and tiny canals. The occasional shop and Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines offered to slake my thirst.
In addition to the river, the Eizan tracks provided a visual through-line amid narrow, winding streets that sometimes blocked forward progress. Eventually, I found myself on the sidewalk along a major road into the mountains. I encountered the entrance to a minor shrine, almost as commonplace in Japan as a conbini (convenience) store.
The wooded hillside complex, Sudo Taisha, is said to hold the soul of Prince Sawara Shinno, younger brother of Emperor Kanmu, who declared Kyoto the imperial capital just nine years after Sawara’s 785 death. Kanmu was ultimately commemorated with the Heian Shrine, now one of Kyoto’s major attractions. The Sudo Shrine is much older, but less of an honor.
Sawara was awarded the posthumous name Emperor Sudo, but he was never emperor. He was accused of plotting to seize power and sentenced to death by starvation. He only got that fictitious title — and his own shrine, built in 859-877 — to appease him after a smallpox epidemic was attributed to his angry spirit.
It’s not exactly an uplifting story. But here on the edge of town, on a bike ride to no place in particular, I’d happened on one strand of the thousand-year capital’s historic tapestry. The Sudo Shrine isn’t even on KCTP’s map. But with about 90 minutes of daylight left, it was time to turn the bike around and head toward someplace that is: Ramen Street.