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So, our whistle stop tour of Japan began with Kyoto. We only had a couple of nights so we were going to have to pack in as much as we could.
It didn’t get off to a great start. We got to Kyoto station in good time (of course the train wasn’t late, this is Japan) and with a bit of confusion, found the train we needed to get near our accommodation and we set off to find where we were staying. I knew that it was going to be a bit of an odd one, in that you turned up to a location and then someone had to meet you to take you somewhere else 10 minutes away, so we were prepared for a bit of fun.
The maps were useless and we were really confused as to where to go, but, being in Japan, a lovely lady cycled by and knew where we would be looking for so directed us down there.
We were surprised to find that the note on the door simply said phone this number or come find someone at a location defined in another bad map. Firstly, for foreign tourists this is no good – our phone’s don’t work on the Japanese network. Secondly, when we found the place, we’d actually passed it on the way, so it was all a bit odd and annoying that you didn’t get sent here in the first place. Especially tiresome considering we had some heavy bags with us – thank god we’d dumped off one rucksack in Tokyo. The lady was very sweet and she just walked us back up the main road (that we’d already been up half of) and then dropped us off with another lady who took us to the apartment. This all worked out as well over an hour of faffing – not even close to a 10 minute walk, we were knackered!. Oddly this one was booked through booking.com. I would have expected it more if it was airbnb.
But we got there in the end and had another cute little studio. We even had a fantastic pair of slippers each to use. I think you can agree they make up for all the hassle.
Much of the day had disappeared now, so by the time we got sorted and headed for town it was getting pretty late. Already we were finding Kyoto a little tougher to negotiate than Tokyo, simply because things weren’t as slick and modern. The train tickets took a bit of working out, but once you got it sussed you were good to go. I rather liked the Kyoto metro, it was a bit older and had a kind of retro feel with green velvet and chrome.
The train took us straight into the main shopping area of town. We got out of the train station into the basement of one of the departments stores. Many Japanese department stores have a food hall in the basement and they are a sight to behold. I have never seen anything like. I so want to come back to Japan with a bit more money and spend a week buying something different each day from one of these food halls. And all the food is so utterly beautiful.
The west side of the river, where we were is quite modern and is mainly a shopping area. The river is very wide and it really opens up the space. Despite the cold people were sat by the river – lots of couples especially.
You can also quickly see a contrast with Tokyo, in that there are some stunning old buildings.
There’s a little area of alleyways that I’d be warned not to eat at as they were crazy expensive but it was lovely wandering about having a nose and you were sheltered from the freezing wind which was biting.
We went for a quick drink, to plan our next move (never a good idea) and spent some happy hours chatting to an aussie guy who lives in Kyoto and a Japanese DJ who had lived in Perth. I now have some hot tips for some Japanese music.
When we left the pub (ok, I confess, it was a Hub – but better the devil you know!), it was pretty early – about 9ish, but we soon discovered that Kyoto restaurants mostly shut down quite early. So, we didn’t get to go to the sushi place I was after, but the restaurant we did go to was fan-bloody-tastic!
It was in the undercover area where much of the Kyoto shopping is in but was decorated in a kind of relaxed and trendy yet somehow traditional style. I wish I could leave it as a recommendation but so many restaurants don’t show their names in English. If anyone did want to know, I could direct you pretty easily (I never forget the location of a good restaurant). By this point we knew to give anything a go and went for a rice bowl covered in sashimi and fish roe. Divine and also filling. I never thought I’d say it, but the taste of fish roe that’s popped onto your rice is sublime.
So we ended our first night in Kyoto well fed and watered.
The sun is shrining
The next day was a true blessing weather wise. It warmed up considerably and was beautiful blue skies all day. Exactly what we needed for a day of full on exploring and it was great that the bitter wind had gone.
We got a couple of trains down to south Kyoto to go to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. You literally stumble out of the station straight into the shrine which is handy. It’s a huge site, though you can’t tell that straight away. The shrine is mostly famous for it’s many, many, many torii orange gates.
These stretched all the way up the mountain and it takes a few hours to do the trail at pace. We’d already been at the place a couple of hours when we reached a sign saying ’40 mins to the top’ sign so we decided that instead sitting in the traditional wooden cafe, looking down the mountain with some hot sake was the way to go. I am a sake convert I must say and hot sake really is the business on a chilly day and especially when nursing a chesty cough as I was. The best medicine indeed!
Bell ringing is part of the ritual at most shrines we visited, as is throwing the money. There was also some ceremony going on here where they were playing the most incredible traditional music and doing some chanting. It was interesting how different it is from the South East Asian temples I’m more familiar with.
So Inari, in the name of the shrine, is the god of rice and foxes are believed to be his messengers, hence the statues and also the foxes faces which people decorate and tie on as offerings. People had done some really impressive and cute drawings – lots of anime style of course.
The shrine is actually a complex with various buildings and areas sprinkled about – there’s a bamboo forest, some housing and when we walked back from round the west side of the complex we came across a little garden full of peach and plum trees which delighted me, as at this point I thought I was going to miss cherry blossom season.
The railway children
On our way back into Kyoto we had to change trains at the main station. Although we’d been through here before we hadn’t really notice what an amazing building it is. The main atrium area is stunning. You can also go all the way up to the 11th floor to the Sky lounge, where they have a lovely terrace called the ‘Happy Terrace’. *Sighs* you have to love Japan.
As we left the main terminal building in search of our connection we were accosted by a bunch of young school kids, maybe 8 or 9 years old. They came up and asked us if we had the time. We thought they wanted to know the time but they wanted our time to chat to them as they were out with their teaches on a tortuous trip out to talk to English speakers. They were so sweet. Mark, cheeky bugger, said well only if you can tell us where the station we need is. They were pointing downstairs and Mark was then ‘you can take us?’ – bless their cotton socks they nodded enthusiastically and started to lead us down till their teacher had a heart attack and was like ‘no, no’. Then the teacher had a change of heart (once it had recovered) and obviously decided it would be interesting for them, so I started down the steep escalator with the kids following me like the pied piper, only to more cries of ‘no’ – the kids aren’t allowed on the escalator – we were leading these kids astray big time!! Anyway, they sweetly escorted us through the shopping centre just outside the station, to the appropriate place and even helped us buy the right ticket. In return we talked to them on the topics that they’d pre-planned to discuss with their days subjects. I think a fun time was had by all. Such a bunch of sweet and charming kids!
Once in town I managed to locate the market I’d been recommended and that was truly to die for. Apart from the fish eyeballs – I could live without them maybe. This is clearly where people go for their quality ingredients.
After seeing all the quality goods in the market we stopped off for a cheap junk food experience in a First Kitchen.. I’d seen these about Kyoto and was intrigued. This was again a Japanese twist on Western food and was cheap and cheerful. They have really nice toppings on burgers – i can’t remember exactly what but something like brie and mushroom. However, they did have the one thing in my entire Japanese experience which I found unpleasant. With your fries you choose a topping. I went for cheese thinking of cheesey chips (mmm – the best english pub food!) but in fact what you get is a bag of fries which you shake, thus coating your fries in a dust of your choice. The cheese dust on fries basically tasted like crushed cheetohs. It just wasn’t working for me. But, although mid afternoon this was essentially our breakfast so we were starving so the food was gratefully stuffed.
We crossed over the bridge for the first time and as we headed east you could see the nature of the place changed slightly. There were lots of tea shops, Japanese sweet shops and high quality souvenirs. We turned down into the streets of Gion, the old temple and Geisha district. The streets here are surprisingly quiet with all wooden buildings and the odd amazing looking yet discreet restaurants. We did actually see a Geisha here, who quickly scooted between buildings. She walked alongside us for a while but there was no way I was going to photograph her in this quiet, private environment, it just seemed wrong but I was super excited to having seen one as I know it’s not a guarantee when you visit.
By this point I was starting to fall for Kyoto. It’s delicacy, it’s prettiness, personified by the Geishas. As we carried on past Gion, through an incredible temple and further east I just got further gobsmacked by how delightful Kyoto was. Touristy, indeed, but done in a very class way which is very rare and difficult to do. There were the human rickshaws, even female ones here – how fit???
The narrow streets are filled with charming shops selling all kinds of treats. Lots of Japanese sweets – this is the souvenir of choice for the Japanese it seems, specialist Sake shops and shops selling things from the Studio Ghibli films. There was also lots of ornament and craft shops, but of things you’d never seen before, rather than the usual tourist tat. .
While wandering this lanes we came across a group of Geishas (do they have a name I wonder – like a muster of storks or a rabble of butterflies). They, strangely to watch, had their camera phones out as they were taking a picture of a dog in sun glasses and a hat (of course!). As they were taking photos and seemed relaxed and almost giggly, Mark asked if it was ok to take their picture which they were more than happy with.
Here’s me taking a photo of Mark, taking a photo of the Geishas.
And here, rather fabulously, is the dog with glasses which had caught, quite rightly, their interest.
The shrine with a huge buddha that we stumbled on, was unfortunately shut, but it was still a sight to behold, looking down over you.
As the sun went down, there were people scattered about on the higher ground to take sunset shots over the old city and also this temple was very popular. It’s obviously a big thing in Japan, everyone wanted their shot of it.
Mark even made a friend….
Just when I didn’t think anything could get any more lovely, the sun went down, and some young piano music prodigy started playing as a back drop to the light festival they had around the park we were in. Seriously? Disney counted have made it more enchanting. I had adored Tokyo whole heartedly and hadn’t expected Kyoto to blow me away so much but then they are very different places so I don’t think it’s even possible to compare, but I was smitten.
Everything is lit up beautifully at night, not just for the festival, from the temple lanterns to the big tree in the park.
We walked back in the dark through streets we hadn’t yet been down to cross over the next bridge along from where we’d come over on earlier in the day. That’s one of the nicest things about Japan being such a safe place, you’re freer to explore, even if it’s dark. There were lot of interesting buildings and quirky shops and although quiet at the later hour, just full of atmosphere. We even saw the narrowest and strangest public toilet I’ve ever seen.
We stopped for a quick drink and a sit down – we’d been on our feet most of the day and were properly knackered. This poster in the pub amused me – oddest mixture of ideas I can imagine.
We were plenty early enough for a good dinner experience but we were a bit unsure what to go for. The place we’d been heading for which is where you choose your meat and have it cooked for you, was closed, which was a bit gutting as we’d been told it was amazing.
In the end we opted for the Watami Cafe for an Izayake style meal.
You take your shoes off on your way in and put them in lockers. You then get slippers (always love that) and go and sit,virtually on the floor, but there is a little step, with your legs under a low table. There was soothing music playing in the background and the lights were dimmed.
We then ordered lots of small dishes – some tender beef, an octopus and leek pancake, some dry noodles which softened when you put them in the sauce. I also had the BEST ever pudding. I really thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I’m not sure of the description exactly as the menus weren’t in english but it tasted like a Green tea trifle. Not a combination you’d think of but fabulous!
That pretty much ended our Kyoto experience, we packed a fair amount in, in our short time but I so wished we’d done more and definitely would have loved to have stayed longer. It’s also somewhere I’d really like to do on a bigger budget. There are some really interesting places to stay and the full formal meals at many of the restaurants are pricey but would just be so worth it for the experience as well as the food. It’s such a special place but it doesn’t take itself completely seriously and is nice and laid back too.
A few random observations and notes:
We saw a lot of young girls in Kimonos, much more than we’d seen in Tokyo so we thought perhaps the young girls wore more traditional dress here, which did seem odd. However, we learned that actually it’s a bit of a tourist thing – the Japanese girls coming from Tokyo, or elsewhere in Japan, or even girls of Japanese heritage from the USA, rent the Kimonos for the day to wear around – it’s kind of a Kyoto experience. You quite often saw a young girl dressed up but her boyfriend in his jeans and tshirt. We even saw one boy dressed up but he looked pretty unimpressed with the whole experience, bless him!!
I saw this offering at the Irani shrine and thought it was some kind of juice but later discovered it was Sake. You can get this in the usual 7’11 and I gave it a try. It’s quite nice and good for sake beginners I think as it has a bit of sweetness to it. It’s funny drinking alcohol from a carton with a straw!
Around the streets of Kyoto we saw a lot of vending machines. In fact there’s a lot of vending machines all over Japan but although cigarettes are common in other countries, seeing beer in a vending machine is funny. Apparently there are even vending machines that will send you a chilled bottle of wine and a couple of glasses. God, I love this country!!!
Salami with cheese
Japanese food’s not always as sophisticated as you would think but they just KNOW – this is a well tasty on the road snack/emergency breakfast!
I have no idea what this character is supposed to be but saw this little fella all over the place:
Kyoto is where my love of all things matcha became obsessional. Mixing to of my fave things – i so want a light up green tea ice cream.
A couple of tips for travellers:
– There’s a large post office on your left when you walk out of the main Kyoto station where you can get cash with a foreign card.
– The trains don’t run that late and are not as frequent as in Tokyo but are of course on time.
– You need to work out on the wall charts which station you are going to, and it will show you the cost and you buy a ticket for that amount.