After our mountain adventures we made our way south to the beautiful Kyoto, a city full of temples and shrines thanks to its status as the nation’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794 to 1868. A smaller city by Japanese standards, it has almost 1.5 million people squeezed into a valley between three mountains, and as a result no matter where you are you’re not too far away from bright city lights or some stunning natural scenery. We were staying in Kyoto for 7 nights which seems like a while, but with Osaka to visit while we were there along with a whole heap of sights, I knew it was going to fly by.
We were staying in an Airbnb right near the Nishiki Market, which meant that when we arrived a little before check in time there was plenty to see while we waited. As we wandered, we stumbled across a little place called Sowgen – it was a sign out the shop promising ‘antiques, cafe and bar” that caught my attention. It delivered as promised – a small bar at the back of an antique shops with craft beer and a cheese platter that kept us occupied until our room was ready.
On our first full day in Kyoto we set off on a day of exploring temples and shrines. We decided to walk a couple of kilometres west to our first stop, Eikan-do temple to take in the sights along the way. It was a pleasant walk along the river, and we caught a glimpse of our first giant Torii gate along the way.
All the sights of the walk paled in comparison when we reached Eikan-do though – it was absolutely breathtaking. With a lake reflecting the gorgeous autumn leaves, a large temple complex to walk through and lookout over Kyoto, it was well worth the 500yen to get in and still one of the most picturesque spots we visited in Kyoto. I felt like we were walking around in a storybook at times!
Along the way to our next stop, Kodai-ji, we stumbled across a really small, quiet shrine that we spent a quiet moment enjoying on our own before walking past one of the biggest temple complexes in Kyoto, Chion-in, with the masses of tourist buses parked out the front. To me that was symbolic of my experience of Kyoto itself – at times chaotically busy and frenetic city, but with enough quiet spots for a moment of downtime away from the crowds.
When we arrived at Kodai-ji, we grabbed a quick snack before going in, mostly to stop me getting hangry. A freshly grilled mochi skewer and a matcha icecream were enough to keep the hunger pangs away for another hour or two of exploring. Kodai-ji was another beautiful spot with manageable crowds – it also had a small bamboo grove which was good as we never made it to Arashiyama, the famous bamboo grove in Kyoto.
After this we kept walking south towards Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka streets, two pedestrian only streets leading up to the base of popular Kiyomizu-dera temple. They would be quite quaint if they weren’t jam packed full of people for most of the day, but you can’t complain when you’re part of the problem can you! Here we grabbed some lunch and I got a great coffee from a place called Arabica. We wandered past Hokanji temple, which rises up dramatically as you walk along the sloping streets, and discovered the zaniest temple, Yasaka Koshindo, where you can write your wish on a colourful ball called “kukurizaru” and hang it up somewhere in the site. As you make your wish you are also supposed to give up with one of your greeds/bad qualities for it to come true. It seemed to be a mecca for Japanese schoolkids more than anything else though!
After this we visited Yasui Konpira-gu, which was another interesting temple. Here, you can buy a note that you write your wish on and stick to this magic stone. The only catch being that you have to crawl both ways through a reasonably small hole in the stone while reciting your wish before you stick it on so it can come true. Given Ollie and I are a lot taller than your average Japanese person we didn’t fancy our chances getting through without embarrassing ourselves, so just people watched for a while instead.
After that we walked up the hill to Kiyomizu-dera, which was just absolutely insane – there was people EVERYWHERE. We didn’t up going into this temple as it had been quite a long day and the crowds were getting to us, but was a pretty building with a nice view over Kyoto so the walk wasn’t wasted.
That night we had dinner on Ponto-Ocho, a narrow alley full of restaurants and street buskers. On this busy street you can find everything from cheap yakitori to super fancy kaiseki establishments. We walked the full length twice, trying to decide whether it was worth waiting in line at one of the super popular spots or splashing out big on Kobe beef. In the end we decided not to spend too much but I was happy with the Teppanyaki restaurant we chose, Yaruki. We had rich and tender beef, the most amazing steak tatare with egg yolk, and buttery edamame beans, amongst other things.
The next morning we were up bright and early to head to Fushimi Inari Shrine, the place I was most excited to visit in Kyoto. Its famed for the thousands of orange torii gates covering the trails leading up to the main shrine. All the gates have been donated by companies or individuals, and the markings on the back denote who made the donation, with the size of the gate correlating to the amount of money donated. It was a really beautiful (and challenging!) walk up, and I was glad we had gotten there early to enjoy it while it was relatively quiet as there were throngs of people heading up by the time we got back to the bottom 3 hours later.
After this we walked across to Tofukuji, a temple with gorgeous gardens. We made an impromptu stop along the way at a Komyo-in Temple. This was relatively small and entry was on the pricier side (1000 yen), but it was delightfully peaceful once we were inside. After the mid-morning crowds at the bottom of Fushimi Inari, it was lovely to just sit in complete silence in the beautiful zen garden and contemplate the experiences we had had on this trip for a little while.
We were a bit tired once we got to Tofukuji, but we went into both the temple and the garden complex, which had separate entry fees. I thought the garden part was worthwhile, however the temple was very similar to the one we had just visited except with more people so that part wasn’t as great.
That afternoon Ollie had a nap while I explored the area around our Airbnb. I managed to find a coffee shop I had wanted to visit, Weekenders Coffee, at the back of a carpark and had one of the best iced lattes I have ever had. I also found a patisserie called Liberte, couldn’t decide what I wanted and bought three patisseries – fairly standard behaviour. All of them were delicious though, so it was worth the calories.
After wandering aimlessly for a while, I woke Ollie up and we went for a food adventure in the basement of a Department store down the road, Daimaru. It sounds odd to be excited about a food court in a department store, but it was actually amazing. They had everything you could imagine from tempura, bento, gyoza, fresh fruit, bakeries, sashimi and everything else under the sun. There was even an ‘aroma melon’ (aka rockmelon) which was going for 12,000 yen or about $150AUD! A popular wedding gift apparently. We got a bunch of different things and some local beers and had a picnic on our Airbnb floor as there didn’t seem to be anywhere else to actually sit down and eat. After that we ducked back out to a craft beer bar around the corner, Kyoto Ichijoji Brewery which was good but as with most craft beer in Japan very expensive.
The next morning we went for brunch at small traditional coffee shop called Smart Coffee, where we had some delightfully fluffy pancakes and french toast. After that I walked up to the park surrounding the Imperial Palace, stopping at a small boulangerie called Grandir along the way to pick up an irresistible looking matcha muffin which I ended up eating while watching some amateur baseball in the park. The walk up Teramachi Dori to and from the park was actually really lovely, filled with lots of small boutiques and artisan shops – one I went into even insisted on sitting me down with some buckwheat tea to talk about their products! On the way back to meeting up with Ollie I also picked up a Taiyaki from a small shop on Sanjo Dori around the corner from Smart Coffee that some Japanese students we met earlier in the day had recommended.
That evening we visited Nishiki Market, a narrow street that spans five blocks lined with restaurants and street food vendors. You can get everything from fresh sashimi to icecream, and even a tiny octopus stuffed with a quails egg if your heart desires it. I ended up eating a yakitori sandwich – Japanese fast food? – and a pork bun, both of which I enjoyed thoroughly. Obviously I also had to finish it off with an icecream – matcha with sprinkles.
That evening we visited the Forever Museum of Contemporary Art in Gion, as they had a special Yayoi Kusama exhibition. I was particuarly excited about this, as I had wanted to go to Naoshima to see the public art there, especially the famous pumpkin, but we didnt end up having time, so it was great to see some of her work right here in Kyoto. We also got some time to wander the street of Gion as well, although we didn’t catch a glimpse of any geishas.
Finally, we capped off the night at a great bar we stumbled across, Forum, which had some awesome Japanese and U.S. craft beer, the best we found on our trip. We also spent some time there perusing the several floors of local artwork, including some that was in the making while we were there.
Last but certainly not least on our Kyoto hit-list was the Kinkaku-Ji, or the Golden Temple. A 40 minute bus ride out of central Kyoto, this is one of the most popular sights to see in the city. On the morning we visited we arrived about 20 minutes before it opened and there was already a good crowd of people there waiting for the gates to open. It is quite a short visit once you get inside, but there is no denying that the gilded temple with the sunlight bouncing off it and the reflection shimmering in the water is pretty stunning. Definitely another one to arrive at early though if you are planning a trip!
And that was our Kyoto experience! A jam packed schedule but I wouldn’t have it any other way.