Before coming to Japan, we heard countless times to make sure to spend a few days exploring the ancient capital of Kyoto and its thousands of picturesque temples scattered across the city.
Day 01 – Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Our train to Kyoto was prompt as usual and we arrived close to 6pm. We were able to walk to our hostel from the train station before dusk. It was dark by the time we were ready to venture out for dinner. Jon asked the guy at the front desk for a restaurant suggestion and he gave us much more. He offered to walk us to a restaurant that was nearby and order for us because they didn’t speak English there. We took him up on the offer and invited another girl at the hostel to join us.
Two minutes later we were seated on the floor around a low table with a burner in the center. We had several dishes including what was described to us as a Korean pizza, enoki mushrooms, and two cabbage omelets very similar to the street food we had found in Takayama. It was exciting to finally have a very authentic meal and we enjoyed the conversation, but the food wasn’t anything we’d want to go back for.
Day 02 – Thursday, April 16, 2015
We awoke well rested in our hostel when the sunlight came in the window. The hostel served a light breakfast which we started the day with. Kyoto is known for its many temples and being the ancient capital of Japan. However, there was one temple on the top of our priority list so we set out for it first. It was a bright sunny day and before we reached Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) we had already shed our coats. Fushimi Inari Shrine is devoted to Inari, the god of rice, and is famous for its many vermillion torii (orange gates). When we arrived, the temple was already very crowded. The temple structure was lovely, but we had come to see the gates. Fushimi Inari is built on a hill and the torii gates line many paths up the hill. The lowest gates are densely spaced and are impressive but they are crowded. We spent much effort in trying to capture pictures without other tourists in them. Our hike through the gates took us to the very top of the hill where there were less people. The entire hike took us several hours and through hundreds and hundreds of gates. There were also small shrines tucked into corners along the walk.
By the time we had completed the hike, we had worked up an appetite. We took a train into the city and walked to Nishiki Market (錦市場). Nishiki market is more of an arcade of long covered hallways than a market. The venders sold some fresh meats and produce, but mostly it was packaged groceries. We decided to find a sit down restaurant and used Trip Advisor to guide us to Ippudo Nishikiouii. Ippudo is a ramen shop, but reviews on trip advisor called it the best ramen in the city. We aren’t sure that it was the best in the city, but it was one of our better ramen meals of the trip.
After lunch we went to a coffee shop to plan the afternoon. We decided to follow the suggestion of our hostel’s owner and go to Tenryu-ji Temple (天龍寺). Tenryu-ji temple was 600Y to enter (500Y for only the garden). The temple was well maintained and had beautiful lines throughout it. However, the real highlight of the temple was its garden. The garden felt very natural. We got lucky that it was spring because many flowers were in bloom.
To the north of Tenryu-ji is a bamboo forest and a road on which you can stroll through the forest. We took our time walking through the bamboo forest and then back to Arashiyama, the nearest town.
When we arrived back at our hostel, the hostess announced that they had decided to have a takoyaki party. We didn’t know what it was, but said that we would join them. At 7:30pm we went to the lounge and found several people cooking batter on a griddle of small cups. Takoyaki are balls of cooked batter, usually served with green onions, squid, or tempura. We enjoyed trying something new, but once again it wasn’t a food that we’d want to get more of, especially for a whole meal. But it was nice meeting new people. We learned over the meal that the hostel was brand new and only opened a few weeks prior. The girl who runs it had it built so even the building was new and modern. Some of the owner’s friends stopped by and we spent the night trying to learn a little Japanese while teaching a little English.
Day 03 – Friday, April 17, 2015
The morning started out slowly in our hostel. We showered, ate, and spent some time booking hotels for the next few days. Before leaving the hostel, we purchased a one day bus pass from the front desk for 500Y. Our first stop of the day was simply to move our bags to our next hotel across town in the neighborhood of Higashiyama (we couldn’t find availability for 3 nights in a row).
Once we were settled into our new room, which was Japanese style, we caught a bus to Rokuon-ji Temple (鹿苑寺). The buses in Kyoto were fairly simple to use, but with all of the traffic lights, it easily takes an hour to cross town. By the time we arrived at Rokuon-ji it was afternoon.
Rokuon-ji is also known as the Golden Pavilion. We weren’t familiar with Rokuon-ji before coming to Japan, but our hostel recommended it and we started to notice the name on lists of popular attractions. There is a 400Y entrance fee which lets you wander around the grounds; I didn’t see anyway to actually enter the temple or golden pavilion. Inside the grounds is an impressive pond with the golden pavilion as its centerpiece. A viewpoint across the pond was crowded but offered the best photographs. This was also the first time in Japan that school children asked to have their picture taken with us. The rest of the grounds were lovely and nice to walk through, however there didn’t seem to be as many flowering planets as the temples we visited on the previous day.
From Rokuon-ji we walked to Ryoanji Temple (竜安寺). Ryoanji looked close on the map, but the walk took about 30 minutes. Ryoanji (500Y) is famous for its zen garden. The zen garden is adjacent to the temple and is viewed from a walkway along the temple building. The garden is a small rectangle of groomed gravel with 15 stones “expertly” placed throughout it. I think that Jon and I had been excited to see the zen garden, but were a bit let down let by it. I didn’t really ‘get’ it and wasn’t particularly impressed with its design or size.
When we left Ryoanji it was mid-afternoon and we were hungry. We didn’t think there was anything close to the temples, so we decided to take a bus across town and towards our next temple destination. The bus was once again slow and hunger was nagging at us so we jumped off the bus near a train station and stopped in McDonald’s. We had been hoping to find more unique foods at McDonald’s in Japan than we see in the United States. There were some differences in the menu, but nothing too crazy. I think one sandwich had shrimp on it, and Jon ordered a sandwich which came with a hardboiled egg on top. For 30Y we ordered sakura (cherry blossom) seasoning for our french fries.
Our aim was to make it to Kiyomizu Temple, but we were still far from it. We took a train and then started a 2km walk to the temple. It was pushing 5:30 and we had read online that the temple closed at 6. Rather than push ourselves for a few minutes of sightseeing, we decided to abandon our plan and turn back to the hotel.
For dinner we walked to Pontocho Alley. Pontocho Alley is known for being a nightlife area of Japan. What we found was a very narrow but quaint alley lined with bars and restaurants marked by hanging Chinese lanterns. The restaurants were a bit pricier than we had wanted to see. Using Trip Advisor to guide us, we ate dinner at Agotsuyu Shabu Shabu Yamafuku. The restaurant served shabu shabu, a hot pot meal with fish broth and named for the noise made when the pot is stirred. Only pork was available and it was accompanied by lettuce, spinach, tofu and sauce. The shabu broth and the pork were very good. At the end of the meal we had the option to order noodles to make in the left over broth, which we did. However, even with the noodles we didn’t feel full when we left. As with many other Japanese restaurants, the wait staff is very attentive, but this was the first time we noticed the waiter bowing to us when leaving, and continuing to bow in the street after walking a whole block away.
When we left the restaurant, Pontocho Alley was very quiet. Before turning in for the night, we walked down the next street over, Kiyamachi Street, which we found to be crowded and the full of the nightlife we expected on Pontocho.
Day 04 – Saturday, April 18, 2015
We awoke to the nicest weather we’d had during our time in Japan. Check out time was at 10am, but we were able to leave our bags at the guesthouse while we went out for the morning. We started walking towards Kiyomizu Temple (清水寺), which we hadn’t been able to see the day before, and kept an eye out for breakfast along the way. We stopped to eat at a Japanese curry restaurant which was very similar to the CoCo Curry Houses we had eaten at with our friends. By the end of the meal we both agreed that CoCo Curry was the better restaurant of the two.
When we got to Kiyomizu Temple it was already very crowded. At a few other temples in Kyoto we had seen women wearing traditional kimonos at a few temples, but more than anywhere else they were at Kiyomizu. The only reason I can guess for the formal dress is that it was Saturday so perhaps more local people were out for the day visiting temples.
Near the entrance to Kiyomizu is a tall, red pagoda. To go further into the complex there is an 300Y entrance fee. Inside the temple area are some more shrines overlooking the city. The only area of note for us was a shrine which seemed to be dedicated to love and which had English signs explaining what everything was. There was a statue of the love god with his rabbit messenger, two stones which when walked between with your eyes closed would bring relationship luck, and many different shrines to pray to.
On our way out of the temple we stopped for ice cream. We had seen ice cream, and particularly green tea soft serve, throughout much of Japan but it had been too cold for it. This time Jon tried green tea and soy milk swirl while I had the purple sweet potato. Both were nice but won’t be replacing chocolate in our freezer anytime soon.
We retrieved our bags and caught a train to the nearby city of Nara.