Ah, Kyoto. Japan’s third largest city – and it’s oldest. Rich in traditional Japanese culture, Kyoto is undoubtedly an experience unlike any other. It’s a special place where the modern and ancient worlds appear to seamlessly merge.
For instance: I loved how I went to a super sleek restaurant in the center of the city for cocktails (naturally, the rooftop was still closed for the season *sighhhhh*), but just across the river one would find the historic district, Higashiyama. The same goes for the commercial hub surrounding the Nishiki Market — it’s easy to notice a small shrine smacked between the boutiques and brand name stores (hi, Zara.)
There is so much to see in Kyoto, that I wish that I could have spent even one extra day there. Sure, I hit nearly every major site worth seeing, but the winding streets and the classic Japanese architecture could keep me aimlessly wandering for, well… ever. But, as my Uber driver reminded me when he dropped me off at my hotel earlier this afternoon, all good things must come to an end (weirdo), and the two days in Kyoto flew by.
. . .
After the quick stint in Hakone, it was time to grab the JR Passes, jump back on the Shinkasen (which reaches speeds up to 200 MPH, BTW), and head for Kyoto. The train ride took around 3 hours, which left me with nearly two full days to fill with activities by time I arrived in Kyoto later that morning.
I curse myself every day for not taking more pictures of the AirBnb. It was a tremendous apartment in the extremely convenient Kyoto-Shi neighborhood and was not only owned by multiple families (making it HUGE), but it was designed to emulate a traditional Japanese tea house. See the listing for yourself here. The AirBnb wasn’t ready upon arrival, so after dropping off the bags, it was time to head out and see the city.
After a coffee (thank God) and a quick brunch nearby (see my coffee picks below), I headed to the Fushimi Inari shrine, which helped start the visit to Japan’s Imperial Capital off with a bang. Keep reading for the rest of my Kyoto itinerary:
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Taisha is an absolute must see. It would be a sin to place this experience anywhere outside of the top three things to see in Kyoto.
Odds are, you’ve seen this Shinto shrine on the ‘gram at one point or another, but in case you’re unfamiliar, it’s most famous for its trails lined with thousands of torii gates (ah, remember this word from my Hakone post?)
There are various shrines along the route up the mountainside, but I would say that the pathways with the gates are the real draw. There’s also an amazing selection of street food and vendors towards the entrance of the shrine, so there’s no shortage of things to see (or eat.) Get there via the JR line, or the subway (Fushimi Inari stop.)
The Nishiki Market is an awesome spot if you’re into local vendors and eats. The market consists of one specific pedestrian-only street that spans about 5 or so blocks. You’ll find various different locally sourced meats, seafood, and spices. Honestly, the food is to die for – I tasted the best grilled shrimp I’ve ever had in my life there. Remember, though, eating your food on the go is considered rude, so you’ll have to eat at that specific stall if you decided to grab something.
I passed through the seven levels of the
Candy Cane Bamboo Forest
The Arashiyama Bamboo forrest is another incredible must-see in Kyoto. Unfortunately, due to Golden Week crowds, I had to share this tranquil experience with nearly a thousand of my closest friends.
Crowds aside, the bamboo forrest is a sight to behold. It consists of a long path lined by towering shoots of bamboo that seem to shoot straight up to the sky on both sides (ha, punny.)
I’d imagine that visiting the bamboo forrest first thing in the morning would allow for a more serene, meditative atmosphere, but in either case, I absolutely loved it.
The grove is located slightly outside of the city’s center, but you can take the JR line from Kyoto station to Saga-Arashiyama or, you can jump in a cab (use Uber to pick up a local taxi service.) One thing that’s worth mentioning is the fact that it’s slightly difficult to find the entrance to the forrest. Don’t be confused with the summit “Arashiyama” on the map. It’s located across the water from the Monkey Park and near the above train station.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
If you’re headed to Arashiyama, it’ also worth visiting the colony of Japanese macaque monkeys that have overrun the top of Mt. Arashiyama.
It’s a lengthy trek up to the Monkey Park. I’m also biased because I stubbornly started the journey in platform sandals before swapping to sneakers #MONKEYPARKBUTMAKEITFASHION. The chance to get relatively up-close-and-personal with the monkeys makes the trip worth it. Don’t get too close though, since there are a few rules. For instance, you’re not supposed to stare the monkeys in the eyes, or crouch while taking pictures. You can feed them, but only from behind the screen in the rest area at the top of the mountain. It’s a wild experience, to say the least.
Oh, and this is where I learned that not all Japanese toilets are made equal.
I ain’t sayin’ she’s a Gold Digger
Kinkaku-ji, otherwise known as the ‘Golden Pavilion’, is a famous temple in northern Kyoto. The nickname is well earned, since the the temple is covered in REAL gold. You can’t get too close to this impressive historic UNESCO World Heritage Site, but you can get fabulous views of it and the pond it overlooks. I’d recommend hitting the temple, the bamboo forrest, and the Monkey Park in the same day, since you also have to travel a bit outside the city’s center to reach all three. Uber or taxi is probably your best route to Kinkaku-Ji.
Gion + Higashiyama
Kyoto’s historic district, Higashiyama, is an incredibly quaint place to just get lost. I visited this spot twice during our visit. The first afternoon was still a major battle against the Golden Week crowds, but I went back around 7:30 AM the next day and it was so peaceful.
The streets wind up through the hills and showcase classic Japanese architecture. Here, you’ll find various famous temples (including my favorite Hōkan-ji, although I’m positive we barely made a dent in some of the temples you should see here), but you’ll also have the opportunity to run into a major cultural aspect of Kyoto: Geishas. Sure, you’ll encounter hundreds of women dressed up as them, but the Gion area in the ward is home to authentic Geisha.
Yasaka Koshindo Temple
Out of all the temples we saw, I would say this is the most unique. After doing some research, I realized that the colorful balls are actually little monkeys. Long story short: worshippers write their wishes on the monkeys, which they hang on the small pagoda. The temple itself is an ode to the Koshin deity, which is represented by the classic three monkeys who “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.” Hence, yes, the monkeys. Congrats, as you now have a new fact to whip out at your next dinner party, kids! You can find this temple in Higashiyama.
Ichiran: Order up! Ichiran was a fascinating culinary experience, and for some reason, reminded me of Waffle House. Anyone? Not only do you order your meal from a ticket machine outside, but you sit in your own private stall. The servers simply lift up the window, toss your food into your stall, and slam it shut. Despite the wait to get in, it was a lot of fun to experience, and the ramen was delicious. Don’t have too much FOMO, NYC-based friends, since there’s an Ichiran in BROOKLYN.
Kyoto Beer Lab: Craft beer at it’s finest! Praise be! Kyoto Beer Lab is a very tiny spot in the Kamisannomiyacho area. Think of it as a microbrewery, with tons of interesting options on tap (the Blueberry Pie and Oatmeal Stouts were fab.)
Fortune Garden: Fortune Garden is a French restaurant with ultra sleek vibes. Truffle fries? Yup. Tasty cocktails? YUP. A rooftop? Allegedly, but closed for the season. This spot’s great for a quick drink, or if you’re looking for some mid-day apps to share.
“Izakaya Restaurant”: Forgive me here, will you? The name of this restaurant is in Japanese, and I can’t find an english translation. Either way, this Izakaya is tapas style, so plan on ordering a bunch of small plates to share! Everything we had was delicious, but keep in mind some plates are cold (sorry, I’ll probably have to pass on the ‘beef reticulum tempura’ though…) The sake selection is great, too. We ended up here due to the proximity to the Airbnb.
Ode on a Japanese Coffee Bean
It’s no surprise that I love a good iced coffee. On most days, I’ve consumed enough coffee to single handedly power a small nation. I know, I know: it’s no wonder I have trouble both sleeping some nights and unwinding in general, but I love coffee for more than just the stimulation – I enjoy the taste and even more, the experience of a nice coffee shop. Give a girl a good cup of coffee and she can take over the world, so they say.
Moving on…. If you love coffee as much as I do, then you are in for a real treat if you visit Kyoto. The Kyoto coffee scene is amazing and I visited four spots worth getting on your radar.
1. Walden Woods: For the aesthetic and the dedication to craft coffee.
2. %Arabica : %Arabica is technically a chain, but the sleek vibe, a killer iced latte, a barista that was super knowledgable about the NYC coffee scene, and this specific location in the historic district helped %Arabica earn a spot on this list.
3. Nittodo Kyoto Cafe: Nittodo is a small store in the historic Higashiyama District, which will remind you of a slightly more artistic Muji. They have a small coffee bar towards the front of the store serving up “Kyoto Coffee”, where you can grab an amazing iced latte before carrying on through the rest of Higashiyama.
4. FabCafe Kyoto: FabCafe is another chain in Japan, but the space in Kyoto is a perfect -not to mention, large- space whether you’re looking for a quick caffeine pick me up, a bite, or a place to sprawl out and conquer some work (IDK maybe you’re working remotely!)
Thanks for sticking with me for this leg of my Japan journey! Stay tuned for two more upcoming posts: Osaka + Nara.