Kyoto: Quick Guide + Photo Journal
This month marks our half-year Japanniversary. We made it to six months! Time seems to pass so quickly here...perhaps because we're living in the future? When I started Nomad in Nihon I had intended to post every week, but the blog ended up taking a back seat to wedding planning. With the wedding now behind us [insert nostalgic sigh], I am finally catching up on content that I've been dying to share: photos from our Kyoto trip!
Kyoto was a bit of a dream for me. I grew up visiting the Japanese gardens in Fort Worth, and those trips shaped my initial vision of Japan as a small child. Coming to Kyoto was like being in a real, large-scale version of that Texas garden. So, perhaps the best way to describe Kyoto is to say that it's the Japan of your imagination: sprawling moss, Technicolor maples, swaying bamboo, gleaming temples and bubbling rivers. It's everything I ever wanted Japan to be.
David and I were pleasantly surprised to find that Kyoto is quite English-friendly. Nearly every restaurant we encountered had an English menu available (even if none of the staff spoke it)! In Tokyo we are rarely ever approached by Japanese, but the locals in Kyoto were striking up conversations with us - in English - on buses, in elevators, everywhere! Not only is the city magically beautiful, but its people are warm, welcoming and friendly. You can't really want for more.
Side note: while back in California for our wedding last month, I tragically lost my iPhone - and with it, all my travel notes - in the Pacific Ocean. So, I will do my best to recall our September trek to Japan's former capital from my notoriously bad memory. Rather than a full-fledged guide, I'm listing out the must-see or must-do if you are planning a visit here. We'll be returning to Kyoto in 2016, so I promise to provide a future round-up of everything you need to know - including restaurants!
Hotel accommodations in Kyoto run on the pricey side, so we opted to rent an apartment through Airbnb to make our stay more economical. However, if I could do the trip over again, I would choose to stay in a hotel or ryokan (Japanese inn). The main reason for this is that I would have preferred to be in a more central location. Unlike Tokyo (which you can traverse rather quickly by train), the public transit system in Kyoto consists mainly of buses. We spent what felt like HOURS on buses everyday traipsing across the city. While some of this is unavoidable, our rental was a bit further from the action than we realized - which meant a lot of bus transfers and time-consuming journeys. Irregardless of the type of accommodation that you choose, be sure to do your homework on its location.
My favorite area in Kyoto was Arashiyama, so when we return next year I'd like to stay close to that district (I have my eye on Hoshinoya - a modern Japanese inn that chauffeurs you by boat!).
See + Do
The Kamo-gawa (Kamo River) for strolling, cycling, running and dipping your toes. The river is flanked on both sides by very wide paths, making it a great location for uninterrupted long runs (so hard to find in Tokyo!). Another reason to visit: the restaurants lining the Kamo-gawa's banks have open patios where you can enjoy a meal overlooking the water.
A day trip to the mountain towns Kurama and Kibune for a scenic hike and an unforgettable dining experience. If you need further convincing to embark on this day trip, know that it's unlikely you will encounter any tourists here. Do I have your attention now? Just 30 minutes by train from Kyoto, start your journey in Kurama (birthplace of the Reiki practice) at Kurama-dera, a mountaintop temple. From here, hike to the little ryokan town of Kibune, where you can parktake in the kawadoko experience. Kawadoko involves dining on a tatami mat-covered platform that is suspended above a rushing river (yes, it's as enchanting as it sounds). Be forewarned: it's unlikely that you'll want to return to Kyoto once you've caught a glimpse of Kibune's fairytale-like ryokans. Leave room for dessert and coffee or tea at Kibune Club before you leave.
A visit to the temples and shrines for an education in Japan's history. There are more than 1,600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto shrines in Kyoto, and it's hard to go wrong with any of them. We tackled a few of the heavy-hitters: Tenryu-ji, Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavillion), Kiyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari-taisha (the 10,000 Torii gates). All were positively awe-inspiring. On our next trip, we plan to also cross Nanzen-ji and Koke-dera (the Moss Temple) off the list.
A ride on the Sagano Scenic Railway for unbeatable views of the Hozu-gawa (Hozu River) as it winds through a forested ravine to the countryside bordering Kyoto. The one-way ride lasts about 30 minutes, and you'll have the option to make the return trip by river cruise. Be sure to purchase railway tickets in advance so you can secure your desired departure time and train car (I recommend the open cars for an optimal viewing experience) as they book up quickly.
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove to enjoy Mother Nature's music as the towering green stalks sway back and forth in the wind. It is the most peaceful and serene sound. Plan your visit early in the morning (it's accessible 24/7!) if you want the place to yourself. Photos simply don't do it justice - this place is magic.
The Okochi-Sanso Villa for an impressive traditional Japanese home and expansive gardens. This hillside villa - the former estate of a silent film actor - offers foliage for every season and superb views of Kyoto. I couldn't get enough of the impossibly green moss-covered grounds here. Don't forget to hold on to your entry ticket: the entrance fee includes matcha tea and a sweet treat at the property's tea house, nestled against the bamboo grove.
The Philosopher's Path to follow in the footsteps of a famous Japanese philosopher. This stone walkway lined with cherry trees (dying to see this in the spring!) follows the beautiful Shishigatani Canal. The path is said to have been used as a place of daily meditation by Nishida Kitaro, a professor of philosophy at Kyoto University. Along the way, you'll have the option to pop into a number of cafes, galleries, shops, and of course - temples.
The streets of Ninen-zaka & Sannen-zaka to see a charming, beautifully restored Japanese neighborhood. Think stone-paved streets, old wooden houses and traditional Japanese shops and restaurants. Enjoy getting lost here.
Good to Know
Get an early start at the temples and shrines. Kyoto is a popular tourist destination for travelers from all over the world, so expect crowds - BIG ones. Avoid the barrage of selfie sticks by visiting temples or shrines when they open. You can access many of them as early as 5:30 AM during the summer months. Watching the sun rise over Kiyomizu-dera is an experience I won't soon forget.
The best way to see Kyoto is on two wheels. Our Airbnb rental included a pair of cruisers, which we used every day of our trip. There are bike rentals available throughout the city, and special parking lots for cyclists. Kyoto's wide streets and sidewalks make for a pleasant cycling experience (riding on sidewalks is the norm in Japan).
Always carry cash - a LOT of it. Most restaurants and shops won't accept credit cards (we couldn't even use our credit card at the local grocery store!).