Exhausted from two days of travel, I climbed into the “foreigner friendly” taxi at the Kyoto train station. The woman driver wearing white gloves looked at my piece of paper with the name of my hostel written in Japanese and off we went.
Based on the signage at the taxi stand, I had understood that the driver was supposed to speak English.
She did not speak English at all. Fortunately, her ability to use Google translate on her iPad at every red light was exceptional.
She used it for the language she needed to point out the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple that is just north of the train station and to tell me that the cherry blossoms along the Kawabata Dori, the road on the east side of the Kamogawa River, would be in full bloom in a week's time. She apologized for that. As if the cherry blossoms were late and I was not early. She, like all the Japanese I met on my trip, were polite and kind. Their desire to help was exceptional. We arrived at my hostel with my tour of Kyoto already begun.
Enjoying a National Holiday in Downtown Kyoto
From the hostel owners, I got a map, the lay of the land, and an explanation of how the local transit system works. My aim for the remainder of the day was the Nishiki Market, the Gion District, and Maruyama Park. All would be busy given that it was the first day of spring and a public holiday in Japan.
Vernal Equinox Day is a holiday that celebrates a love of nature and all living things. The three days on either side of Vernal Equinox Day are for honoring tradition and paying respect to ancestors. I saw all of this. Despite the rain, people were wearing traditional dress, visiting shrines to honor ancestors, and taking pictures of the cherry trees just starting to bud. It was wet but wonderful.
Fushimi, the Busy Shrine and Escaping the Crowd
It required one subway ride with a transfer to a Nara line train to get to Fushimi from my hostel. The total travel time was about an hour. On route I met a Vietnamese man as I tried to confirm that I was on the right train. We determined that I wasn't. I hopped off and took another. I did get there in the end and so did he. We met again wandering the gardens of the shrine. Clearly, our communication was not as effective as we thought.
Fushimi is a beautiful area and the shrine is definitely worth the trip. Its dramatic vermillion color is said to expel evil and disease. Wander through the town and enjoy some street food too.
Solo Travel Kyoto: Arashiyama
Getting to Arashiyama on my third day was significantly more difficult. In fact, after one wrong train connection, which was corrected, followed by taking the right bus in the wrong direction, I gave up. I grabbed a taxi to Arashiyama where I wanted to see the famous Sagano Bamboo Forest.
To my disappointment, the forest was full of tourists and, as you will see below, the grove I visited in Fushimi on the previous day was much better (that is, if you like being away from the crowds). This, however, doesn't seem to be a value of Japanese life. Based on the recommendations I received from Japanese, it seems that the busier an attraction, the more people that are there, the better the experience is expected to be.
Arashiyama is a popular destination and has a main street lined with shops. The crowds get a bit lighter towards the bridge, which was the direction I was heading as my eventual destination was the Tenzan-no-Yu Onsen.
Kyoto's Train Station
One stop in Kyoto that many tourists might not explore fully is the train station itself. A dramatic glass and steel structure, it offers extensive shopping and, more amazing, a fantastic view of the city.
More from this trip to Japan:
- Omotenashi: Japan is Welcoming for Solo Travelers
- How to Onsen: The Naked Truth About Japan’s Best Cultural Experience
- Solo Travel Japan: 32 Tips You Need to Know
- Japan Solo: Trip Planning Resources, Itinerary and Budget
Wondering About Travel Insurance?
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You can read my full report on travel insurance here: Going Alone? Travel Insurance is a Must