Kyoto Shimogamo-jinja: Ready, Fight!

 Located in northern Kyoto, but a bit of a ways from Kinkakuji, Shimogamo-jinja, along with its sister Kamigamo Shrine, is one of the oldest and most important shrines in Kyoto. It predates Kyoto's establishment in 794! Shimogamo means "Lower Kamo", and it sits at the junction of the Kamo and Takano rivers.
 The grounds are very nice and many of the trees in the forest surrounding the shrine are over 600 years old. Note that shrines are generally more modest in appearance and the buildings themselves aren't usually too large.
 Visiting during Golden Week, I noticed several people dressed in clothing worn in martial arts competitions wandering the grounds.
 There's a guy holding a weapon, even!
 There are a few outbuildings, though in general this serves as just a nice place to visit.
 However, I noticed a lot of people were gathered around this stage, so being the sheep that I am, I wandered over to see what was happening.
 Martial arts demonstration! I don't know anything about martial arts, but it was fun to watch them practice on stage.
 Later, they even brought out large sticks. I should probably know what they're called by now, but I don't. I've talked in the past about wanting to experience more of Japan's traditional culture, and seeing a martial arts demonstration (and a wedding on a trip last June) brought a bit of history to me.
 Some of the temple was closed off, possibly due to a wedding or the other festivities, so I think I might have missed something. But I can't be sure.
I was still able to find little nooks and crannies with statues or a tiny garden.
 Here's the main gate, looking in.
 And looking from the main gate into the forest.
 There's a large pile of rocks at the entrance. They have a story. It's not on the sign below, though.
 You can enlarge the sign to read the history and legend of the shrine.
 Some of the old sacred trees have passed away. You can walk the long path in the forest to get to and/or from the shrine.
Admission is free, and the grounds are open 5:30-18:00 in summer and 6:30-17:00 in winter. The best access is probably via Keihan Line coming from Kyoto Station. The shrine itself is about a 15 minute walk from Demachiyanagi Station, but most of that walk will be through the old forest along a broad shaded path. Alternately, bus number 4 from Kyoto Station stops right next to the station (this bus also continues on to Kamigamo Shrine).

Kinkakuji Temple (The Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto: Very Beautiful and Overhyped

When sightseeing in specific countries or cities, there are places you just have to go. In London, you see Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. New York has the Statue of Liberty. And Kyoto has Kinkakuji.
 Kyoto is certainly well-known for its cultural and religious sightseeing landmarks, but there are a few places every Japanese traveler has been to if they've gone to Kyoto on vacation. One of those is Kinkakuji. The name sounds wonderful: it translates as Golden Pavilion. And it lives up to its name: it is a pavilion of gold. But how great is this old, historic, valuable building?
 After paying your money and entering the gates, you begin the approach. The temple is set a little ways back from the gates, on the opposite side of a lake.
 And that's where you first see it. Kinkakuji really is a pavilion covered from top to bottom in gold.
 Well, almost bottom. The first floor is just wood. Each floor has a different architectural style: the first is Shinden style, used for palaces in the Heian Period. The second floor is Bukke style used in samurai residences, covered in gold on the outside, and houses statues that are never shown to the public. The third floor is a traditional Chinese Zen hall, and is gold both inside and out.
The building has burned down several times, most recently in 1950 due to a fanatic monk. The current building was finished in 1955.
It is quite difficult to see, especially because my photos are a bit hazy, but the windows on the first floor are open, and you can see the statues inside. This is usually the case.
The pavilion is certainly well-placed with several beautiful angles to take pictures over the lake. Would you like a pine tree obscuring part of the building or not? Perhaps a small bit of an island in front of it to add some depth?
 The path continues and you end up on the back side of the pavilion, permitting you a closer look at the structure.
 All that gold is beautifully shiny, but there isn't any contrast which sadly means it also looks somewhat like a cheap toy. You know, one of those toys you got painted in gold paint? Or perhaps an inexpensive souvenir you bought by the side of the road?
 From the back, you can see the roof's topping: a golden phoenix. Too bad this view is from the back too. But if you ever wanted to see what a golden phoenix looked like in an up-skirt shot, well, there you go.
 Kinkakuji's grounds are nowhere near as impressive as Ginkakuji's, though there is a small cave.

 Heading along the trail you'll come to a small waterfall.
 Some rock carvings with lots of offerings. I believe if you toss a coin into the bowl and it stays inside, your wish comes true.
 A light forest with a stone pagoda next to another pond. I think there are some off-limits sacred grounds attached to Kinkakuji.
 Kinkakuji from a different angle, poking its best assets over the trees.
 Here's the phoenix from a slightly sideways angle. I guess a phoenix is a good choice for a building that has burned to the ground several times only to rise again.
 Another view of the stone pagoda.
 If you come on a busy day, like I did during Golden Week, you can expect the crowds to be quite heavy. The best viewing points of the golden pavilion will be swarming with tourists carrying very expensive cameras to take their awesome photos and cellphones to take their selfies.
There are some small shrines at which to pray near the end of the one-way path before you exit toward the gift shop. There is a tea house just before exiting, but you can enjoy matcha (green tea) and sweets at the tea garden just outside the gates. Fudo Hall, seen above, is nearby and houses a statue said to be carved by Kobo Daishi, one of the most important historical Japanese religious figures.

While the pavilion is amazing to see - an entire building covered in gold! - the one-trick-pony aspect of this site meant that I was really only paying to see a building. And I've done that before, but usually it includes a tour inside or some auxiliary sites; Ginkakuji had the beautiful gardens, observation towers have observation decks, and Abashiri Prison and other architectural museums tell interesting stories about the building and its use through exhibits and experiences.

That isn't to say Kinkakuji isn't worth visiting - it is. Just know what you're getting to see!

Bus numbers 101 and 205 go from Kyoto Station to Kinkakuji, the cheapest and easiest way to get there. However, Kyoto can have heavy traffic, so you can take the Karasuma subway line to Kitaoji Station and catch the 101, 102, 204, or 205 bus to the temple. The subway-bus route is more than double the price, though it is a bit faster and much more reliable on time.

Admission is 400 yen, and the grounds are open 9:00-17:00. While there are plenty of things to see and do in northern Kyoto, there really aren't any other tourist stops near Kinkakuji, so plan your onward destination before leaving Kyoto Station.

Kyoto's Hozugawa River and Kameyama Koen

A little bit away from the rest of the tourist destinations in Kyoto, Hozugawa flows through a mostly-undeveloped ravine. At the point where it exits the ravine to the relatively flat land around Kyoto, it widens and a small park exists at that transition.
 The approach from the station is relatively unimpressive. The water looks refreshing, at least. That's Togetsukyo Bridge in the background, a famous bridge most recently rebuilt in the 1930s.
 Crossing the bridge seen in the prior picture, you can see that the small lake formed by a dam is full of people in rental boats and a few tourist boats as well.
 Across the water is a small hill with several walking paths. These give a good view of the river and the ravine.
 It's a nice hike which, even when the surrounding area was fairly busy, wasn't overrun with tourists. I did pass several people on the trails and paths but I also had plenty of time to myself to relax and enjoy the view.

 The trail system is fairly complex for its size so you have a lot of options. It focuses on nature, though there is a statue somewhere around the middle.
 Some paths are more accessible than others. Make no mistake, this is a good-sized hill. But going toward the back side of the park will provide you with some great views. I don't have a picture here, but there are bamboo groves to walk through as well, which are pretty attractive.
 This is Hozugawa River as it flows through the ravine. The water is pretty calm and the mountains are relatively undeveloped.
 Look closely in the picture and you can see some boats. These boats carry tourists down the river from Kameoka to Arashiyama. I was planning on doing this cruise but time was short and I had other destinations in mind that day. It's still on my Kyoto to-see list. And it's best taken along with a ride on the Sagano Scenic Railway along the mountain.
Several train lines approach the Kameyama area (known as Arashiyama). If you plan on visiting just Kameyama Koen, closest access involves taking the Hankyu or Keifuku Arashiyama line to Arashiyama Station. Coming from Osaka, I arrived on the Hankyu Line (about 5-10 minutes from the bridge). Depending on where in the city you are coming from, you might need to change trains. From Kyoto Station, the JR line has a nearby stop (Saga Arashiyama). It's a direct trip, but a 5-10 minute walk to the bridge.

Tourists planning to take the boat tour should take the JR Sagano Line to Kameoka. Alternately, take the JR Sagano Line to Saga Arashiyama, transfer to the Sagano Scenic Railway (the station is next door, called Torokko Saga) getting off at Torokko Kameoka and taking a short bus ride to the cruise terminal.

The park is free but cruises are about 4100 yen; they depart 9:00-15:30 hourly (10:00-4:30 December through early March, every 90 minutes). On busy days there are more boats and departures are irregular but more frequent. Reservations aren't possible.