By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

An early start for us all this Monday as we begin our final day in Japan, on board the local bus (and still under the watchful eye of our local expert Leah) to the Golden Pavilion, just north of Kyoto. Kyoto Buses announce stops (and include signs) in English as well as Japanese, which makes them a reliable option for navigating this beautiful city.

The Golden Pavilion complex dates back to the end of the 14th Century, the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu converted on his death into a Zen temple. No prizes for guessing the origin of its name – the top two levels of the Golden Pavilion are completely covered by gold leaf.

Two levels of gold leaf!

The Golden Pavilion and Lake. Photo by David Sanz, CC License

Absorbing the view across the lake as the early morning light strikes the gold makes it clear why this is the favourite option for many tourists wondering what to do in Kyoto.

Entry to the Golden Pavilion, and the nearby hojo (priest’s living quarters) is not permitted, but look closely across the lake and you can admire the statues revealed inside the ground floor, including one of Yoshimitsu himself who would be impressed at the dedication Kyoto has shown to the pavilion – it’s been rebuilt at least 3 times, with the current structure dating to 1955.

Ryoan-ji Japanese Rock Garden. Photo by Ryosuke Yagi, CC License

Ryoan-ji Japanese Rock Garden. Photo by Ryosuke Yagi, CC License

Bus number 59 takes us from right outside the Golden Pavilion to our next destination, the Zen garden in the Ryoanji Temple. You may be familiar with Japanese rock gardens – Ryoanji is perhaps the most famous example of Zen rock garden design. In addition to the innumerable small stones, there are 15 large rocks in the design (though the specific meaning is unclear after 650 years). If relaxing the mind is not your idea of fun Kyoto travel, then take up this challenge: can you find the spot where all 15 large rocks can be seen? (Here are some photos – answer in ‘Want to Go? Need to Know!’ below)

The only way to see all 15 stones

Viewing from the air is cheating! Model Photo by Kimon Berlin, CC License

At Ryoanji, the hojo (and the adjacent Kuri – kitchen) are accessible, as are hours-worth of walking trails around the pond. These are best experienced in Spring, however, so we make a beeline for the restaurant Ryoanji Yudofuya and enjoy an early lunch of yudofu (Kyoto’s specialty boiled tofu) among the tatami screens.

Classic Yum!

Ryoanji Yudofuya. Photo by Herry Lawford, CC License

Next, we’re on the tram from Ryoanji to the Arashiyama bamboo grove. The sunlight dapples through the immense bamboo, and even in the middle of the day on the narrower paths there is more greenery than sunshine.

On the train ride back to Kyoto station, Leah shares that one the favourite things to do in Kyoto is an afternoon spent on these bamboo paths until completely running out of sunlight (followed, of course, by dinner in Gion trying to see a geisha).

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Photo by Curt Smith, CC License

What to do in Kyoto? Bamboo

More bamboo than sky! Photo by CLF, CC License

Bamboo and Sunlight

Some sunlight, just. Photo by hslo, CC License

But our time in Kyoto must end before the day runs out, as we take the 2.20pm bus to Kansai International Airport ahead of an evening flight from Osaka to our next daydream holiday destination – Mexico City! Prepare to say sayonara one last time, and practice your Hola for when we touch down!

Kansai International Airport, from the air!

Kansai International Airport, from the air! Photo by mrhayata, CC Licensed

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Leah, our local expert from, is “completely torn” about deciding what to do in Kyoto given the limits of our 4 day trip. If we had another day, the plan would be to spend the whole day exploring the Higashiyama district – done well you can knock over Kiyomuzudera, Yasaka Jinga, Maruyama Park and Chionin.
  • Bus passes are an easy way to travel Kyoto – grab a ‘Bus Navi‘ from the information centre – or you can walk some of the legs. Ryonaji is only a 25 minute walk from the Golden Pavilion, for example.
  • Looking for a website to help you learn more about what to do in Kyoto? Check out Japan-Guide (their links to the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji, and Arashiyama)
  • Want the answer to our Ryoanji riddle? It’s actually a trick question – it is not possible to see all 15 rocks from one viewpoint. So if you find the kids (or another tourist) are getting all up in your Zen, set them the challenge and enjoy the quiet.
  • We cross the international dateline on our flight – so while 15 hours with United is the longest flight we’ve yet done on our dream holiday, we actually depart on Monday at 6.20pm and land on Monday at 7.03pm. I’ve never seen so many movies in just 43 minutes!

Still wondering what to do in Kyoto? Or want to share your favourite moment from our Japanese daydream holiday? Wed love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.