Hi everyone! Today’s post is a continuation of my Japan General Observations post – I’m going to be talking about our first leg of our Japan trip, which was the city of Kyoto. We had five days in Kyoto, one of which was spent on a day trip out to Nara and Osaka, but that will be the topic of discussion the next Japan Travel Diaries blog post.
Kyoto is an old historic city full of culture and tradition; compared to the fast-paced Tokyo, it is a more “outdoorsy” and relaxing city. Apparently, there are over 1,600 shrines in Kyoto! As you’ll be able to see in pictures, there’s a lot of greenery here, which was quite different than what we saw in Tokyo. Read on to see what we got up to in this beautiful city.!
PS – I am sorry about all of the photos taken in portrait mode, especially ones that should have been in landscape. I noticed while looking at my photos that I did this a lot during the trip and I have no idea why! Also, I did not take a lot of food photos in Kyoto because I literally stuffed all the food in my face before I remembered that I was supposed to take a photo 😂
We stayed in Hotel Monterey Kyoto, which was in a super convenient location. It was about a 2 minute walk from a subway station, a 15 minute walk from Nishiki Market (a major tourist attraction), and a 2 minute walk from a 7-Eleven. It might sound weird to say it was conventient living near a 7-Eleven, but the 7-Elevens in Asia have a way more interesting selection of products than the ones in North America. They have really good breakfast foods for when you’re on the go, which were often were!
We arrived into Kyoto late in the afternoon, so we wanted to just walk around a bit and get our bearings around the city. As I mentioned, our hotel was about a 15 minute walk to Nishiki Market, a popular area in Kyoto, so we decided to check this spot out first.
Nishiki Market is a retail area that contains tightly-packed stores selling produce, fresh and dried seafood, pickled goods, souvenirs, and lots of street food. It is one narrow street and not a sprawling market that we might be used to in North America, but it spans about five blocks long. There were tons of other tourists checking the place out, but also a lot of locals buying their groceries here. We only wanted to look around and didn’t really buy anything here to eat on our first visit, but we did end up coming back to try some of the street food a few days later. Check out this dango that we had at Nishiki Market – I’ve always wanted to try dango (Japanese dumpling made of rice flour), and this one was delicious!
Having fully explored Nishiki Market, we headed off to Gion next, which was about a 10 minute walk away.
At the edge of the Gion district sits Yasaka Shrine, which was the first of our many shrine experiences on the trip. Looking back, it wasn’t one of the nicer ones we visited, but we still enjoyed looking around.
Gion is a district in Kyoto that has maintained a lot of the traditional Japanese wooden buildings you don’t see in many other place. It is also known for Geisha and maiko (Geisha apprentice) sightings! By the time we arrived in Gion, it was rainy and dark, so I figured there wouldn’t be very many people visiting, let alone Geisha – but lo and behold, the first thing we saw when we got there was a Geisha! Gion had a very different feel compared to the rest of Kyoto, partly because the look of the buildings. There are a lot of teahouses here, as well as restaurants that serve traditional Japanese meals. I mentioned in my Japan General Observations post that a lot of tourists like to rent kimonos and take photos in traditional places such as shrines and temples, and this was one of the places where we saw a lot of girls wearing them!
Around this time, our stomachs were starting to rumble, so we left Gion and headed back in the direction of our hotel to eat our first full meal in Kyoto at Ippudo Ramen. Sorry, no photos because I was starving (this is why I’m not a food blogger)! I’ve tried a few ramen places in Calgary and haven’t been all that impressed, but now that I’ve tried the real thing, I understand what all the fuss is about! With our bellies full, we headed home for the day.
On our second day in Kyoto, we planned to head off to the Arashiyama area, which has a bamboo grove and a monkey park. It was drizzling a little outside, but not so bad that we couldn’t go out to do some activities in nature.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a major attraction in Kyoto, and was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. Here, you find yourself surrounded by a dense forest of bamboo, and it’s more breathtaking than photos can ever capture – even when there is a huge crowd of tourists that take away from some of the peacefulness. We got there somewhat early, so while it was busy, the crowds were manageable. I’ve heard that it gets crazy crowded later on in the day, though! After enjoying the surroundings of the bamboo grove, we headed off to the monkey park. It’s about a 10-15 minute park from the bamboo grove to the base of the monkey park, and the walk there was actually quite scenic and pretty.
Arashiyama Monkey Park
Arashiyama Monkey Park is a short walk from the Bamboo Grove, but it is a 20 minute uphill walk to get to where all the monkeys are, so make sure to wear comfortable shoes! It’s not a bad “hike” at all, but it was definitely a little tough in the hot, humid climate. They use a lot of pictures of monkey babies in the advertisements for this attraction, and on the way up, we were joking that we’d do all this work to get to the top, only to visit super aggressive monkeys and that there wouldn’t even be any babies. Well, there were TONS of adorable babies, and the monkeys actually aren’t that aggressive. Visitors are allowed to buy food there to feed the monkeys, but you have to do it from inside a building with bars between you and the monkeys. A huge plus of visiting this spot is that the view at the top is really nice, too.
Once leaving the Monkey Park, we headed off to our next destination, Nijo Castle, which was the residence of the first Shogun of the Edo period. We were allowed to go into the castle (with our shoes off) and the inside was really neat. Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to take photos inside, but each room had a different mural painted on the walls, including cranes, tigers, and nature scenes.
After a full day of activities, we headed off to Chojiro Sushi for a sushi conveyor belt dinner. I often associate conveyor belt sushi with pretty sub-par sushi, and while this wasn’t the best sushi I’ve ever had, it was decent – and really well priced!
Our third day was dedicated to visiting shrines all over the city! We had intended on visiting shrines throughout our Kyoto stay whenever there was one in the area we were in (which we also kind of did too), but somehow we ended up seeing most of the shrines all in one day.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple is a massive temple with a waterfall called Otowa Waterfall, hence its name which means “clear water temple”. It features a large veranda where you can view the surroundings of the temple. We didn’t get good pictures of the actual temple because it was under reconstruction, but the grounds are impressive – very peaceful and scenic!
Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion)
This is one of the most Instagram-worthy spots in Kyoto because of the brilliantly gold exterior of the temple, although visitors are not allowed inside. The temple itself was visually stunning, the grounds itself were not all that impressive, because there’s not much of it for guests to walk through.
Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion)
Our next stop was Ginkakuji Temple. While Kinkakuji is called the Golden Pavilion and is actually gold on the outside, the Ginkakuji is not silver even though it’s called the Silver Pavilion. The temple itself is not as beautiful as Kinkakuji, but it had seriously stunning views on the grounds.
All of the temples are different, but also a little bit the same as well. It’s important to remember that these shrines are not built for tourists to visit, but are visited and used by locals for praying. I don’t know a lot about temples, but I noticed that a lot of them have purification fountains located at the entrance of the temple, meant to purify yourself before praying. Visitors are supposed to take the wooden ladles laid out at the fountain, fill them with fresh water, then use it to rinse their hands. Some temples also have an offering hall where you throw a coin into the offering box, then bow once, clap twice, bow again, and then take a moment to pray. For wishes, visitors can buy wooden plaques, write their messages and wishes on this plaque, and then hang it up at the temple. They can buy charms for things such as love, health, good pregnancy, luck on an exam, etc that they take home with them.
After a long day of visiting shrines, we headed off for a meal at a gyoza restaurant recommended to us by some friends.
I have skipped over Day 4, which brought us to Nara and Osaka and occupied us for the entire day. This meant that we only had one more full day left in Kyoto which was dedicated to visiting Fushimi Inari.
You’ve probably seen photos of Fushimi Inari even if you don’t know the shrine by name. It is one of the most well known shrines in Japan, and is famous for its torii gates. Although people say it’s the temple with 1,000 torii, it is said that this shrine has over 10,000 gates! The shrine is built on a hill (Mount Inari), and it takes about 2-3 hours to get to the very top, although visitors can turn around and head back to the bottom whenever they want. Along the way to the top, there are hundreds of smaller shrines within Fushimi Inari. The shrine is dedicated to the god Inari, who uses foxes as his messengers, so you will see fox statues, fox-shaped charms, and fox souvenirs everywhere.
Because this shrine is so popular, it usually gets absolutely packed with visitors. Knowing this, we visited fairly early in the morning. The first few sets of torii were pretty packed with tourists taking photos, but as we went further into the shrine, it was just me, my husband, and maybe a few other tourists here and there – it seems like we really lucked out! The shrine was so peaceful when it was just the two of us.
We spent the afternoon picking up last minute souvenirs and snacks to bring home to family and friends. For dinner, we saved the meal we were most excited about for the last night: Wagyu beef! It was too dark to take photos by the time we ate dinner, but they sat us outside on the terrace overlooking the water, and it was a really nice vibe. They gave us slices of beef and other meats to grill ourselves, and the Wagyu beef was melt-in-your-mouth yummy.
That was it for our stay in Kyoto. The next morning, we headed off to Tokyo via bullet train, but that will be for a later post. Stay tuned for my Japan post next week, which will be all about our day trip to Nara and Osaka!