After spending the first four nights of our Japan trip in Tokyo, we packed up and headed towards Kyoto. We spent one night at a ryokan in Hakone on the way, but I will cover that part of the experience in a future post. Prior to our trip, I had heard that if you can only go to one place in Japan it should be Kyoto. With our map marked up with a ton of historical sites and places to eat, we were eager to dive in and see just what the former capital city had to offer.
What to see and do in Kyoto
We got up really early the first morning to catch the sunrise at Kiyomizu-dera Temple with our friends Laura and Connor. Even if you aren’t a morning person I would definitely recommend doing this. The Buddhist temple sits up on a hill that overlooks the city. Not only are the temple grounds gorgeous in the morning, but the stunning views and lack of crowds makes getting up early so worth it. There is actually a handful of Buddhist temples right next to Kiyomizu-dera. You could easily spend two or three hours here.
The Kiyomizu-dera Temple is right on the boarder of the Higashiyama district, which is full of restaurants and shops. If you’ve seen pictures of Kyoto, this is probably the area you’ve seen. With its narrow streets and wood buildings, Higashiyama is a historical area that stands in contrast to modern downtown Kyoto, and definitely a place to take some time and explore.
There is no shortage of temples to visit in Kyoto. I think you could spend a week doing nothing but visiting temples and still not see them all. As an outside observer, my biggest takeaway was that the area around a temple seems to be just as important as the building itself. When the gardens are immaculate, when the fountain is placed in just the right spot, and when lush moss covers nearly every square inch of ground and begins to climb up the trees, there is a certain peace that comes over you before you even get inside the temple. I love how the Japanese craft spaces, and then take great care in maintaining those spaces. At one temple we saw a groundskeeper picking out the tiniest little twigs and imperfections in the moss. When he attempted to show us what he was doing, we still didn’t quite understand as the pieces he was picking up were so minuscule. I love that attention to detail and quest for perfection.
While wandering around the east side of Kyoto with our friends Laura and Connor, we decided to check out the Honen-in and Ginkaku-ji temples, which is where the above images were taken. The neighborhood around these two temples is very walkable and quiet if you are looking for a break from the busy streets of the Gion or downtown areas.
Along with finding quiet neighborhoods to spend time in, flea markets or craft fairs can be a way to get “off-the-beaten-path” and to experience a place and culture without dealing with crowded attractions. Lindsay had read about a craft fair in Kyoto that happened to be taking place while we were there. This was one of the highlights of our time in Kyoto. It was full of local crafts people and artisans selling their wares. Located at the Hyakumanben Chionji Temple (not to be confused with the Chion-in temple, totally different area, made that mistake so you don’t have to. See I told you there were a lot of temples!) the market takes place on the 15th of each month (but check this before going as it could change). This was removed from some of the tourist areas and was a true look into what people who live in Kyoto are interested in. It was also a fantastic place to buy authentic gifts for family and friends.
Places to see by train from Kyoto
One of the awesome things about Kyoto is that there are lots of day and half-day trips that are easily accessible by train. Just a short train ride from Kyoto station is the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Most shrines have one torii gate that marks the entrance to the shine. Winding up the hillside to Fushimi Inari, however, are over 10,000 bright orange torii gates. These gates are so close together in some places that they form a tunnel. Since Inari is the patron of business, businesses from all over Japan donate the gates to the shrine. We didn’t make it all the way to the top of the hill, but you don’t really have to go all the way to experience the beauty of this place.
Only a 45 minute train ride on the JR line, Nara seems to be one of the most popular day trips form Kyoto. We had heard about the deer in Nara before going to Japan, but we weren’t quite prepared for just how friendly and persistent they are. These small deer are considered messengers of the gods and they roam freely in Nara Park. Within minutes of entering the park these deer were crowded around us, politely bowing and hoping that we would feed them some “deer cookies.” For 150 yen, you can buy a pack of cookies, more like crackers, that you can feed the deer as you walk through the park.
Where we are from in Colorado, deer are much bigger and generally run away from people. The deer in Nara are the complete opposite. They actively seek out humans and will follow you around, even crossing the street, looking for cookies. It sort of felt like a giant zoo where the animals are actually in charge.
Also in Nara is the Todai-ji temple, which is home to the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha. The huge Buddha is pretty cool, but my favorite part was the building around the Buddha, a huge wooden structure that used to be the world’s largest wood building.
The giant bronze Buddha lives in the above building. Both the Todai-ji Temple and Nara Park, where all of the deer are located, are walkable from the main Nara train stop. I swear, everything in Japan is walkable from a train stop. Their transportation system makes visiting without a car so easy.
The bamboo forest is also a short 30 minute train ride from central Kyoto. We didn’t get here until sometime in mid-morning and it was already very crowded, although I imagine it is quite peaceful when empty. The forest itself is a sight to see, but right outside the huge bamboo trees are the amazing gardens and home of the late silent film star Denjiro Okochi. If the crowds in the forest are a bit too much, definitely check out his former home, Okochi-Sanso Villa. You can walk through the property along carefully manicured paths, and catch a nice view of the surrounding mountains. There is a charge to get in (1000 yen I think, about $10), but it is worth the price. The villa was a quiet refuge from the loud people and selfie sticks on the pathway through the bamboo forest. You are also served a fresh cup of matcha as part of admission, which is the perfect way to end a walk through Japanese gardens.
Right near the bamboo forest is the Katsura River. We walked along the banks and watched all of the people out enjoying the sun. From the forest, you can walk next to the river and up to the Arashiyama Station and catch a private rail line back to central Kyoto. Starting your day at the bamboo forest, touring Okochi-Sanso Villa, and then finishing with a nice walk along the river is definitely on my short list of things to do for anyone visiting Kyoto for the first time.
I love that you can experience the urban downtown neighborhoods in Kyoto just as easily as you can experience the surrounding outlying areas via train.
What we ate in Kyoto
The Nishiki Market is a must stop for anyone interested in Japanese food. The market is full of stalls specializing in everything from seafood, to tea, to beautiful Japanese knives. There are a few small restaurants inside the market as well as some gift shops and non-food related stores. The main part of the market is covered so this is a good rainy day option to keep in mind.
There are tours of the Nishiki Market where you learn about the history of the market itself, then pick out ingredients and create a meal with a guide/cook. Unfortunately those tours were all sold out, but this is something I would look into if you are planning a trip to Kyoto. We had such a good time on a similar tour in Tokyo where we saw the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, and then did a sushi class with the fish we bought at the market.
Some vendors sold quick on-the-go snacks. My favorite was the grilled squid and seared duck served on a stick. There were so many interesting ingredients. Marinating and salt/spiced packed vegetables were on display throughout the market.
On the morning of our sunrise visit to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, we stopped in to get lattes at Arabica Coffee. Their Higashiyama location has a very modern uncluttered vibe, and they make one tasty latte. I can also vouch for their salami sandwiches which were quite good.
While I’m on the subject of hot delicious beverages, we participated in a tea ceremony in Kyoto. The tea ceremony is a special way to prepare and then serve matcha, which is a powder form of green tea leaves. The ceremony has a set of steps that must be followed in a certain order, and the matcha is usually served with some kind of sweet candy to balance out the bitterness of the tea. We booked ours at Tea Ceremony Camellia with our friends and had a great time learning how to properly prepare a cup of matcha.
After our tea ceremony experience, we decided we wanted to take some nice tea home as a gift. Ippodo Tea Company had just what we needed, plus they had these nice little to-go cups of matcha. One of the things I miss about the U.S. when visiting some foreign countries is the lack of to-go cups. I love grabbing a coffee or tea and being able to walk around with it.
Speaking of wandering around, our friends Laura and Connor had heard about this excellent onigiri place called AO Onigiri, and we stopped in for lunch while walking around the east side of town. Onigiri are basically rice balls topped and filled with different ingredients. They are the perfect snack or meal and can be found everywhere from convenience stores to one-man-shops like this one. AO Onigiri is run by a guy called the “Blue Devil,” but he is actually very nice, and makes fantastic onigiri. There are only about 10 or so seats in the place, but worth waiting for if there is a line. The food is very simple but executed so well. He has a list of interesting flavors, and our onigiri were served with miso soup and pickled vegetables. The entire lunch was around 1000 yen, or $10 for two people.
We had another amazing lunch at a place called Shoraian. If you like tofu, I would highly recommend making a reservation here (above photos). Some people think that Kyoto produces the best tofu in Japan, and Shoraian could very well make the best tofu in Kyoto. You choose from three different set menus, which have a lot more than just tofu on them. Mine came with some seafood and even a small beef dish, along with rice and other vegetable accompaniments. Shoraian is located near the bamboo forest and Katsura River in what seemed like a large open house that blends in perfectly to the hillside. You take off your shoes when entering the restaurant and sit on the floor on tatami mats. This was a very unique experience and a more traditional Japanese dining situation.
As far a unique dining experiences go, we wanted to try a sushi train restaurant at least once while in Japan, and ended up at Musashi Sushi in Kyoto. Instead of servers, a conveyor belt winds its way around the restaurant and brings the food to you. There are different types of sushi riding around on the conveyor belt, and you simply grab whatever you want as it goes by. You are charged by the number and color of the plates you took, some colors costing more than others. This place had hot water spigots at each seat from which you could make your own green tea. Overall the sushi was pretty good and we had a great time picking things off the belt as they went by.
Of course there would be soft serve ice cream! From left to right, black sesame, in the middle we have vanilla swirled with melon, and on the right would be more matcha! I wish I could get this stuff at home in Nashville. For me, I think soft serve is more synonymous with Japan than sushi, or ramen, or other typical Japanese foods. It was literally everywhere, and oh so good!
Not shown is another bowl of ramen that we had in Kyoto Station. Kyoto Station has an area similar to Tokyo Station in Tokyo where there are a bunch of ramen restaurants clustered together, each specializing in a different style of ramen from different regions in Japan. The Kyoto Ramen Street is located on the 10th floor of the building and is such a great option for an inexpensive and tasty meal.
Also not pictured, we ate at a really good all you can eat vegetable based buffet called Miyako Yasai Kamo that was walkable from our hotel and the Nishiki Market. We aren’t vegetarians, but really enjoyed the food here. After lots of fried food and maybe one too many soft serve cones, this place was perfect. All of the dishes I tried were excellent, and I would recommend this to anyone, vegetarian or otherwise. (not sure if it is actually a vegetarian restaurant, or just vegetable based).
Where we stayed in Kyoto
Our home base for five nights in Kyoto was the Citadines Karasuma-gojo. Rather than a traditional hotel, we opted for a small studio apartment with a kitchen. This place was run like a hotel though, with a regular check in counter and a front desk that stayed open 24 hours a day. It was very centrally located and only one subway stop from Kyoto Station. The staff was very friendly, spoke English, and helped us make reservations and even answered questions before we got there.
The apartment was clean and modern, and we lucked out and got a room with a balcony. If you like the idea of having a small kitchen, but like having a front desk where you can talk to someone, I would recommend this place for sure. Another nice feature was that they had coin operated laundry machines available to guests. On longer trips like this one, I love being able to do laundry, which makes traveling with just a carry-on size bag possible.
That’s all for Kyoto! I can’t wait to go back to this majestic city. I feel like we just scratched the surface of what Kyoto has to offer. Still up from our trip to Japan is our time at Tokyo Disney, and some general tips and suggestions for anyone visiting Japan for the first time.