Kyoto and Nara didn’t bring me to tears, as a friend joked, but there were about a dozen times in my few days there where I had to stop and say ‘wow’. I made friends in my hostel and had a good time – a German there even offered to let me stay at his apartment a few days when I get there. I don’t have any good stories to tell though since I mostly just walked around on my own. Well, there was the time I was confused why a fried chicken stand wouldn’t take my money despite my very persistent efforts… it turns out that I didn’t notice that the long line had been set up on the opposite side of the sidewalk. That snack (210 yen) was worth the embarrassment though.
Daigo-ji is the place I recommend the most because it is just so beautiful – the garden, the pagoda, and the treasure room of the museum all stopped me dead in my tracks.
I also recommend the Fushimi Inari shrine – go and enjoy the abundance of torii gates. Yes, you will run into someone who stopped in the middle of the path because they had to take a picture of a particular gate – gates which for the most part, while eye-catching, are exactly the same. Climb Mount Inari if possible to see the natural beauty of the shrine’s grounds and to enjoy the torii in less hectic surroundings. You can also see all of Kyoto from an overlook halfway up.
In Nara, going to see Todai-ji, with its huge wooden Buddha, and checking out Kasuga Tanisha, famous for its lanterns, will not disappoint you. As for the deer, you will disappoint them because they’ve come to expect everyone to carrying the 150 yen biscuits conveniently sold all around Nara Park.
The one-day bus pass (500 yen) is really worth it. For just a few yen more than two trips, you get access to a well marked bus system that even has a few loops around some of the attractions. It was ridiculous when I took a train and had to walk a fair deal when I could have just taken a bus to the front door. You could always do what I did though – take a train, walk thirty minutes in the wrong direction in Arashiyama (western Kyoto), and then wonder why the guidebooks loved a regular-looking neighborhood so much.