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Kyoto: Japan’s Beautifully Preserved Gem

Welcome to Kyoto: Where magnificent temples, sublime gardens, preserved traditions, and delectable cuisine await. In short, Kyoto is pure magic and should be the main focus of any Japan itinerary. When planning our ten-day trip, we went back-and-forth about how to best prioritize our days nearly a dozen times. After speaking with people who have both lived in and visited Japan and a little bit of research, we concluded that we should we spend the majority of our time in Kyoto, while allowing time for several nearby day trips. Soooo happy about this decision. As much as we loved Tokyo, and the metropolis is nothing short of FASCINATING (stay tuned for a future blog post), Kyoto is truly the gem here that is deserving of as much time as you can possibly give it.

Tokyo is high-tech, futuristic, bustling, dynamic, and absolutely mesmerizing; it is New York City times five. Meaning it’s extraordinary, alluring, daunting, and sensory overload all at the same time (and isn’t this exactly why so many of us are so intrigued by these booming cities?!). As much as we loved Tokyo, exchanging its all-encompassing energy for the tranquility and traditionalism that defines Kyoto was a delightful and highly welcomed shift.

Tip: The food sold in the train stations is absolutely incredible–seriously, you could do an entire food tour just throughout the train stations. Make sure to buy lunch/drinks (bento boxes are popular and delicious) at the station prior to boarding your train. 

Aboard the phenomenal bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto (approximately 2.5 hours). Read below  for more information and to see why there ain’t no train system like a Japanese train system. 

We spent six nights in Kyoto, although we technically spent three full days exploring the city, as we took day trips on the other three days (stay tuned for a future “Day Trips from Kyoto” blog post). Below are the highlights of our glorious time in magical Kyoto.

 

ARASHIYAMA

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Don’t forget to look up while meandering through this famous and highly sought-after grove. The towering bamboo stalks will make you feel eerily small yet comfortably secluded. Highly recommend going early if you want some good photos ops (as in no or few people in them!). We arrived a little after 8am and while there were already people there, with a little patience and a lot of persistence, we were able to score some pretty amazing people-free pics.

Things to know: Entrance is free; open 8:30-5:30, while the grove is spectacular, it is smaller than expected and you don’t need to allocate a ton of time here.

Otagi Nenbutsuji

This quirky and off-the-beaten-path temple is so worth the extra thirty minute walk from the bamboo grove. After many years of repair following a typhoon striking the temple in 1950, worshippers celebrated by donating 1,200 Buddhist disciples stone sculptures (rakan). A famous Japanese sculptor even taught many amateurs how to carve from stone. The result? 1,200 unique and expressive rakan hidden in the rolling hills of Arashiyama. Truly a hidden gem.

Things to know: Open 8:00-5:00; admission is 300 yen (about $2.60 USD) per person

 

Iwatayama Monkey Park

Also located in Arashiyama, this park is home to about 120 snow monkeys and panoramic views of Kyoto to boot. While the monkeys are often human-fed, they are wild and roam free around the mountaintop. There are plenty of signs heeding advice along the twenty minute hike up the mountain so that the monkeys and human visitors can simultaneously enjoy themselves. If you’re already visiting Arashiyama, the park is worth visiting, although you really don’t need much more than an hour to ninety minutes here (including the round-trip hike).

Things to know: Entrance fee is 550 yen/person (about $5.00 USD); open 9:00-4:00

KINKAKU-JI (TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN PAVILION)

Few structures can rival the beauty and symbolism of this Zen Buddhist temple with its reflection shimmering across the gleaming glass-like surface of the pond surrounding it.  While the complex is rather small and we were undoubtedly overwhelmed by countless fellow tourists, Kinkaku-ji remains one of the most exquisite sites we visited throughout all of Japan. It is absolutely stunning.

Things to know: Entrance is 400 yen/person (about $3.50 USD); open 9:00-5:00

 

FUSHIMI INARI-TAISHA

Dedicated to the god of rice and sake, this enthralling shrine is the head shrine of the god Inari and boasts thousands of vermillion gates. The breathtaking, seemingly endless path of gates is mesmerizing and somewhat hypnotizing (although after an hour or so, I dare say it does become a bit redundant). Similar to the bamboo grove, plan to get here early for smaller crowds (avoiding people altogether here seems somewhat impossible!). One of our favorite shrines of the trip and not to be missed!

Thing to know: Fushimi Inari Shrine is a short walk from the JR Inari Station; entrance is free and shrine is open 24 hours a day.

 

SHOREN-IN MONZEKI TEMPLE

This striking Buddhist temple personifies what countless movies and books typically portray: a stunning temple surrounded by a picturesque setting of zen gardens, serene prayer rooms, a tranquil pond, and a lovely bamboo forest. We loved it here.

 

YASAKA SHRINE

A vibrant and enticing shrine located in the Gion District that’s adorned with shining lanterns and vivid colors, this is a quintessential example of what many may imagine a Japanese temple might look like. Because there are so many remarkable shrines and temples throughout Kyoto and there’s a good chance you won’t have time (or the desire–if you’ve traveled to Asia before, then you know how easy it is to become out-shrined after a while) to see them all, I would limit your time here–we may have spent fifteen minutes in total. If you do go–and you should–it’s centrally located in the famous Gion geisha district, so you’ll most likely already be here. I highly recommend visiting at night when it’s beautifully illuminated, albeit very crowded.

Things to know: Open 24 hours; entrance is free

 

PONTOCHO

One of the most atmospheric and distinctive areas of Kyoto, this narrow alley is lined with restaurants, bars, and teahouses (and possible opportunities for geisha sightings!). While there are numerous dining options, some establishments will not admit foreigners and we were turned away on more than one occasion with a polite “fully reserved” gesture. While it’s completely customary, expected, and somewhat normal in Japan (although we only experienced this in Kyoto), to be rejected multiple consecutive times was extremely frustrating.  When we finally found a restaurant that would seat us, we were seated in the back with all of the other foreigners– it was clear that the front part of the restaurant was solely for locals. It’s very well-known that nationalism is a real thing here, and while the Japanese would never dream of being rude or disrespectful to others, some will politely and kindly turn you away and refuse service just because you are not Japanese.

I should note that the particular night that we were turned away, we didn’t have reservations and were being a bit picky and selective about where to go for dinner (still doesn’t make it right). To avoid the sadness that is rejection (and there was sadness–and a good amount of irritability, I should add), either make reservations in advance, and/or have your hotel make arrangements.

It was hard not to be completely enamored, if not a little obsessed, when seeing a geisha. We only saw two geishas during our six nights, but I swear it’s like spotting your favorite celebrity on the street; you find yourself stopping in your tracks, staring with your mouth wide open, and completely mesmerized. The alabaster skin, traditional kimono, intricately styled hair, wooden platform sandals, and mystery and allure that surround geishas–they have represented the epitome of Japanese elegance, delicacy, and intrigue for some time.

WHERE TO STAY

Contrary to popular belief, you can actually do Japan somewhat affordably. You can eat incredibly well across the country without ever stepping foot into a top-rated restaurant; some of the best food we had was while visiting food stalls and markets. Many temples, shrines, and parks are either free or have a low admission fee, and transportation is not only incredibly reliable, clean, and efficient, it is also pretty cost-effective. What’s not cheap are accommodations. Rooms are typically expensive (especially in the cities) and they are teeny tiny, in fact, some of our rooms were the smallest we’ve ever stayed in. Think cruise ship sized room as in a bed and bathroom, and that’s pretty much it!

Here’s where we stayed while in Kyoto:

Ryokan

I highly recommend staying at a ryokan, even for just one night like we did. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese-style inn that dates all the way back to the eighth century. A typical guest room will have reed mat flooring called “tatami”, low wooden tables, sitting cushions called “zabuton”, futons on the floor for sleeping, and an area in the entrance where shoes are removed and stored. Robes, or “yakuta” are provided and should be worn to the bath house–which are typically separated by gender. Meals are either served in rooms or in a dining area. We stayed at Matsui Bekkan Hanakanzashi Ryokan, which was nice but by no means amazing. At $350/night, the three of us agreed that the price was pretty steep for the quality of the inn.

We loved our ryokan’s bath house. 

Kyoto Granbell Hotel

This hotel is gorgeous, centrally located in the Gion district, and at about $185 USD/night, an amazing deal! All three of us absolutely loved this hotel and highly recommend it.

THE NISHIKI MARKET

Sinking my teeth into tako tamago (octopus stuffed with quail eggs–candied and skewered)

Like all of the markets we visited in Japan, this market is outstanding and the variety and quality of its street food is exceptional. The market is basically comprised of one long row of countless vendors lining both sides. The majority of vendors sell local street food and local delicacies, but there are also plenty of shops that sell household items like tea sets, bowls and knives. We spent a good few hours here eating our way down the aisle before settling down at one of the many sit-down restaurants for lunch. They offer countless food tours here–but in my opinion, there really is no need for one; just bring an empty stomach, an adventurous palette, and an open mind and you’ll be all set!

Pickled everything

The three of us are adventurous eaters, but not this adventurous–couldn’t bring ourselves to sample this!

These tofu donuts with caramel (Hershey’s brand, by the way) were unbelievably good. I could’ve eaten dozens of these bites of deliciousness. 

Sea Urchin

Coolest knife shop ever

Takoyaki (Octopus balls)

Pickled uri (large cucumbers in Sake)

In all of our travels, Japan is probably my all-time favorite food destination. Seriously, the food is that good (and wayyy more varied than we ever imagined!). The food in Japan is so extraordinary that I’m going to devote an entire blog post just to its phenomenal cuisine, so I’m sorry to say, but you’ll have to wait for a future blog post for restaurant recommendations. #sorrynotsorry

Sneak Peak: A glimpse of the best gyoza I’ve ever had. 

My other favorite food destinations? Italy, India, Mexico, and Bali. I’ll admit that Bali makes the top 5 because of how vegetarian and vegan-friendly it is…an absolute paradise for non-meat eating foodies!

ADDITIONAL TIPS:

Transportation 

Japan’s public transportation system is nothing short of perfection. It is one of the cleanest, most reliable, efficient, and easy to understand (even as a foreigner!) systems I’ve ever encountered. If you plan on traveling by train at all (i.e., Tokyo to Kyoto), then you need to purchase a JR Rail Pass online prior to your trip. Passes are sold by consecutive 7, 14, and 21 days. We purchased a 7 day pass, which cost $257/person, and set it to start on the day that we were leaving Tokyo for Kyoto. The JR Rail Pass is fantastic, as it provides unlimited and discounted travel on all JR trains.  When you think about the cost and quality of Amtrak, there is seriously no comparison. No.Comparison. As in Amtrak cannot even hold a candle. As in I could’ve paid twice the amount for our JR rail passes, and I would still consider it a remarkable deal! Your JR rail pass includes JR metro and train lines in cities as well as most Shinkansen lines. We used our JR Rail Pass for our round-trip travel between Tokyo and Kyoto, and all three of our day trips from Kyoto. Once you order your JR Pass online (it’s sooo easy), you will receive your pass via FedEx Express Priority mail within three days. Bring your pass to one of the many JR Rail offices in the station along with your passport and they’ll exchange it for a new pass that you will need to carry anytime boarding a JR Rail train. It’s that easy and equally that amazing. Just don’t forget to pack your pass(es)!

And if you get lucky like we did, you may even see Mount Fuji (sans clouds!) while on the train! The entire train was on its feet snapping photos–locals and foreigners alike–a completely visible Mt. Fuji is a rare and special sighting!

Purchase Pocket Wifi

Highly recommend purchasing Pocket Wifi prior to your trip so that you have access to the internet, particularly Google Maps, during your trip. While some people (especially those working in the service industry–hotels. restaurants, transportation) certainly speak English, don’t expect everyone to know English, even in the big cities. Some signs are in English, but many are not. Having Wifi and access to Google Maps was a godsend–I cannot recommend it enough. There are countless alleyways and streets/businesses with no signs, and if they do have signs, they are most likely in Japanese, to navigate–Google Maps was a tremendous asset in finding our way around.  We (and when I say we, I really mean our friend Bryan), spent about $57 USD for a total of 10 days for three iPhones. Next to our rail pass, this was probably the most important and useful purchase we made for our trip.

Carry Cash

While there’s no denying that Japan is one of the world’s technology leaders, there are many aspects that are still very old-fashioned. Much of Japan is straight-up cash, homies (please tell me you get this reference). Many places, including markets, restaurants (even the “fancier ones”) shops, and even some taxis (there is no Uber in Japan), only accept cash, so make sure you have it readily available.

Download Google Translate

If you don’t already have Google Translate on your phone (and seriously, how do survive in this world without it?!), it’s worth downloading it prior to your trip. As mentioned before, English is not as widely spoken as many might think–it’s worth having it as a resource.

Toilets. Glorious Toilets.

I have written about the disgusting toilets (aka holes in the ground) that are so prevalent around China–well let me tell you that the toilet situation in Japan couldn’t be farther away from that primitive and revolting system. Japan has the most elaborate and developed toilet systems that I’ve seen. For one, the seats are typically heated. If you ask me, that is a blessing in it of itself. Two, most of the seats automatically rise as soon as you approach. And three, there are so many spray, flushing, and cleaning buttons and gadgets that you can press for that oh-so-clean-feeling. Try them all–push all of the buttons (but probably not all at the same time–that might be a little overkill). Even some small hole-in-the-wall restaurants will have these highly elaborate systems. It’s truly impressive.

A Nation Defined By Respect

Japan is a country where every action and encounter is characterized by respect and honor. From politeness in manners to the way that the food is prepared, every single activity is executed with intention, obedience, and precision. Japan is also a rules-based culture; individuals wouldn’t dream of walking before the “walk” sign comes on, just like they wouldn’t even think about being late, dressing sloppily, or speaking out of turn.

When arriving at the Tokyo airport for our return trip home, our taxi driver mistakenly dropped us off at the domestic terminal. Our counter agent not only walked us outside in the cold to the shuttle that would take us to the international terminal, she also waited for the shuttle to arrive, and then bowed repeatedly to us as we departed. T and I couldn’t help but laugh as we compared this customer service to what we received a mere ten days before at LAX, as our agent was not only extremely unhelpful, but was also rather rude and dismissive. Of course, this is only one side-by-side example, but the customer service and politeness and kindness we experienced over our ten days in Japan was not only consistent, but in most cases, far superior to that of most countries visited, including the good U S of A.

Bottom Line? Kyoto is a city of enchantment, tradition, beauty, and mystique. And having two wonderful travel companions along for the ride doesn’t hurt either.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give proper photo cred to Bryan. Nearly every single one of these amazing photos was taken by him. Thanks for being so great to travel with, planning nearly every single meal, and for never complaining when asked to take “just one more” photo of me and T. 

Related Reads: Singapore, Great Wall of China, Bali Spas

Recent Reads: Favorite Travel Experiences of 2017, Iceland, Mexico City

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