After an incedible journey through Tokyo and the Alps, Chis and I finally nestled into Kyoto - the part of our itinerary that I was very anxiously awaiting. Kyoto is a much slower pace than Tokyo, but definitely lively and modern as well. I'd read that it's comparable to Seattle, but I can't confirm that since I've never been to Seattle!
We stayed in the central downtown area of Kyoto, close to the Kamo River which was the perfect location for exploring. We were on the west side of the river and also incredibly close to the Gion area (east side of the Kamo River) which is known for it's geisha district. Kyoto's main attractions are very spread out around the city so it's good to be close to public transportation.
After exploring for a bit we head over to Gyogo Ramen, which is really close to the market. Unfortunately it was closed when we stopped by (around 2pm) so we waited until it reopened and opted for an early dinner. The restaurant is really beautifully designed - clean typography, dark wood surfaces, and a beautiful garden that you can view from the main dining room. We both ordered the burnt miso ramen, which is what they are famous for, and it's quite obvious as to why! The ramen is so flavorful and so were the other apps and drinks we ordered. I also ordered Mio, sparkling sake, to really kick it up a notch. After, we randomly stopped in Forum Kyoto on our late night stroll, which was a really awesome space to chill out and get caffeinated at the specialty coffee house.
Day 9: Saturday, May 20
We woke up really early as temps were high and we wanted to do as much as possible before the sun hit it's peak. We took an early bus to Arashiyama (about a half hour from where we were staying), which is on the far west side of Kyoto. Our first stop was Bamboo forest. I'd heard from many travelers on our journey that it was underwhelming, but to me it was magical. Maybe it was because we basically had the forest to ourselves at such an early hour and the sunlight was pouring in through the trees - but I was in awe. I will admit that it's a brief excursion, but worth it in my opinion. And when in Arashiyama, it's something you must do.
After Bamboo forest, we were due for a morning coffee and snack. We stopped at 100% Arabica and I have to say I love their branding almost as much as their coffee. We ordered two cappuccinos and a croissant, and sat outside enjoying the river views and early morning calmness. The interior is simple with bright white and wood accents, and we noticed that every customer was obsessively snapping insta pics.
We strolled a bit and after admiring the boats on the water, decided it was necessary to go for a ride. The 30 minute cruise ended up being one of my favorite memories from our trip – we were able to relax and soak in all of the beautiful views, breathing in the fresh morning air. After, we attempted to go to Shorain for lunch, but for reasons unknown to us the restaurant was closed (Argh, strike 3 in Kyoto!) so we stopped in for a quick bite at Yojiya cafe.
Also on our list was Monkey Park. I'd pictured myself in the midst of monkeys for weeks leading up to our trip, laughing and holding them with a big fat smile stretched from ear to ear. Monkey Park isn't as simple to get to as I thought it might be - it requires a decent hike through a dense forest until you reach the top of the park. You're then greeted with a clan of monkeys - but there are rules. Don't look at them directly in the eyes. Don't squat down to take photos of them. Don't touch them. Chris and I navigated around them carefully, snapping pics when and where we could.
As the day progressed, the temps got higher and higher. Kyoto was definitely the hottest part of our trip, with temps reaching 90 degrees. Which only meant one thing to keep us cool – matcha green tea ice cream before heading to Tenryu-ji Temple for our final stop in Arashiyama. Matcha green tea flavored everything is everywhere in Japan, and this was definitely not our first taste of it.
Tenryu-ji Temple had really beautiful garden grounds and an impressive facade. With the crowds multiplying and feeling exhausted from all of our excursions, we opted to quickly tour the inside and peer out into the garden. We sat inside the temple for a long time and relaxed before heading back.
We took a bus home and chilled out at our place before heading to dinner at Giro Giro Hitoshina – one of my favorite dinners of the entire trip. Surprisingly inexpensive, Giro Giro serves kaiseki - around 8 courses all for approximately $50/per person. Each dish was thoughtfully plated with florals, interesting colorful ingredients and flavors – and the place setting was just so adorable! Highly recommend for at least one of your dining experiences in Kyoto. It overlooks the Takase-gawa canal, so I would imagine lunch would also be a great choice for this restaurant. Chris and I still talk about how much we loved this meal, but for the life of us we can't tell you exactly what we ate.
Day 10: Sunday, May 21
We woke early and made our way to the very famous Fushimi Inari Shrine that's south of the train station and the downtown area. I was familiar with this shrine but hadn't really extensively researched it, and it ended up being hours of amazing hiking, souvenir shopping and exploring. The shrine is massive and you are given the choice to hike all the way up (which you should do!). We made it about 3/4 of the way and headed back down, knowing we had a train to catch to Nara. I do regret not hiking the entire shrine, but I also kind of don't (my hangover from sake at Giro Giro was real, guys).
We made our way back to the train to head to Nara (about a 45 min ride), which is very close to Fushimi Inari Shrine, so it's a great idea to do both in one day. When we arrived, we walked towards Nara park where free roaming deer bow to you in order to get snacks. They are considered to be messengers of the gods, a treasure of Nara, and they're the cutest things ever. Some of them, however, can be pretty aggressive if you have snacks in your hands, so be prepared to feed them! There are multiple vendors at the park that sell the snacks for around 2 yen.
There are multiple temples around Nara, and I highly recommend going to the Tōdai-ji temple that has an enormous Buddha statue. Unfortunately, and my only regret other than not hiking the entire Fushimi-Inari shrine, was not making it to Tōdai-ji. Again, I blame the sake from the night before ...oops. On our way out, however, we were graced by the presence of Starduck Tony, one of the craziest and most entertaining street performers I've ever seen. When we arrived home, we ate at a nearby yakatori place that reminded us of the Japanese version of Buffalo Wild Wings. I don't remember the name of the place we ate, but it was very casual and very delicious.
Day 11: Monday, May 22
We decided to have a lazy morning – slept in and relaxed a bit before heading into Gion. We did a lot of souvenir shopping in Shinkyogoku near where we were staying, as well as in Gion. There was one particular antique store that had so many unique finds - great spot to buy sake cups and authentic antiques (still trying to remember the name!). Around 3pm we had a reservation at En, a small Japanese tea house, to witness tea ceremony. I wanted to go because I practiced tea ceremonies in college, and I remembered it to be a very special experience. After, we headed deeper into Gion and explored Ninen-zaka and San'nen-zaka streets, which are lined with souvenir shops and women dressed in colorful kimonos everywhere you look. Ninen-zaka means "slope of two years" and San'nen-zaka means "slope of three years". Apparently, you're supposed to die in two years if you fall down on Ninen-zaka and within three years if you fall down on San'nen-zaka. The big risk takers that we are, we strutted through the streets - no problem. I will admit that I was a bit panicky the entire time, walking at an extra slow pace. The streets lead toward Kiyomizu-dera temple, one of the greatest temples in Kyoto that overlooks the city. We were running low on time, though - and skipped it before our dinner at Hafuu Honten. Wagyu beef was calling, and momma was hungry.
Day 21: Tuesday, May 23
Originally, we'd planned to do a day trip to Osaka, but we were feeling a bit traveled out and stayed in Kyoto instead. We made our way to Kinkaku-ji Shrine (the golden temple) and admired it from every angle in all of its glory.
Without a checklist and now feeling a little bit more at home in Kyoto, we made our way back and popped into a few stores along the way. I definitely found one of my favorite souvenirs at a convenience store - face masks in the form of otters, tigers, opera masks, pigs, and more. Yes, you look like a tiger (or whichever one you choose) when you apply the mask. They're also really great masks, my skin felt amazing afterwards!
Without any dinner plans, I was craving those Japanese pancakes again...so I did a little Tripadvisor research and found a place that seemed pretty good in Gion. Unfortunately, when we arrived, it was closed due to reconstruction (Strike 4!). I was starting to get hangry so we ducked into a casual place along the Kamo river that happened to be open. Nothing is open between 2-5, so we got lucky.
As we were eating, Chris had the brilliant idea to ask the owner where to get some good okonomiyaki. Luck was on our side because he knew of a place next door that was hidden away and completely authentic aka you can't find it anywhere on Tripadvisor. We were greeted by the cutest old lady who took us into a back room where she made delicious pancakes right in front of us. It was truly one of my favorite experiences because it felt so natural and true to Kyoto. There wasn't even a sign outside, just a hidden away pancake spot and the sweetest little woman ever.
After we ate, we decided it was time to hunt for geishas. They are known to come out at dusk, but are rarely ever seen in person. We walked along leisurely, and after a good amount of time and no sightings, we decided to give up. We then strolled along the Kamo river, and out of nowhere at 8:22pm Chris said, "Katie, I see one. Wait, I see a whole group of geishas!" Being the overly observant husband that he is, Chris was peering up onto the balconies that overlook the river. It was there that we found gold. Geisha after geisha on balconies! We stopped in awe and admired them from below. I actually got goosebumps watching them in a real setting, it was really something special and a great way to end our stay in Kyoto.
Overall we absolutely loved the city and would go back in a heart beat. It's filled with beauty that's impossible to fully capture in this post.
Have you ever been to Kyoto? Let us know what we missed for next time!
General Japan Tips:
• Always carry yen. Chris constantly had a pocket full of yen because we'd always encounter a souvenir shop, vending machine or anything else that only accepted yen. If you take a bus, they ask for exact change (even though it isn't necessary) so it's nice to have it on hand.
• Taxi doors close themselves. Do not try to close a taxi door, they are automatic and the driver will be confused if you close them yourself.
• Do not tip! You will only confuse your driver, waiter or whoever else that you believe is tip worthy and you might find someone chasing after you to give you your money back.
• Drinking and eating on the go is not a part of the culture. In Japan, you won't see anyone walking around with a Starbucks coffee and a donut. Everyone takes the time to sit down and consume their meal or drink.
• Chopsticks. Never leave your chopsticks sticking straight up in your rice bowl. We avoided chopsticks sticking straight up in general, in any meal.
• Public transportation > taxi. The trains in Tokyo are your best mode of transportation. They are faster than taxis and cost effective. When choosing a hotel, I'd recommend staying in one near a train station. That way, you can zip around easily. If you will be traveling around Japan and not staying in one location, consider getting a Japan Rail Pass.
• Give and receive with two hands. In Japan, everyone hands things to you with two hands. You should accept what they hand you with two hands, and offer with two hands.
• Choose your shoes wisely. My trusty Fit Bit informed me that I was walking around 20k steps a day, which is around 10 miles. I brought a pair of New Balance and Adidas sneakers, as well as Cole Haan loafers for dressier occasions. In my opinion, heels are a huge waste of luggage space.
• Don't do too much in one day. When you're in Tokyo, you want to do it all. I get it. You've traveled far and you've got a solid itinerary to get through. Spoiler alert: Tokyo is huge and everyone who's ever been there undoubtedly has a list of things they didn't get to do. I urge you to not do too much in one day. It's draining and instead of focusing on a few things, you're just running to get to the next without appreciating the moment. We ran into so many travelers who were just exhausted and you could tell they were in checklist mode. Plan enough so that you have the things you really want to do, but leave room for flexibility and down time so that you are experiencing local life instead of tourist life.
• Get up early for touristy attractions. Crowds are real and if it's hot, the heat is not something you're going to want to face at midday. Early mornings = fewer crowds, pleasant weather, better photo opps, and more time in the day for other things.