Part 2 of Japan: Kyoto in Two Days
This fall I spent 12 days in Japan with my best friends from college. You can read the overview of our trip here, Part 1 on Tokyo here, Part 3 on Naoshima and Teshima here, and Part 4 on Hakone and Tokyo here. Scroll to the bottom for the tldr on where we stayed, what we ate, and what we did.
Last year when I came to Tokyo for work I took a short weekend trip to Kyoto and absolutely fell in love with the city. I was there in mid-November, during peak leaf season, and it was stunningly beautiful. I knew I definitely wanted to go back since my friends hadn't been.
We had a somewhat late start packing up and leaving our Airbnb in Tokyo, grabbing a cab in pouring rain to Tokyo Station. We activated our JR passes for the first time, and then hopped on a Shinkansen to Kyoto. The trip is about 90 minutes and super easy -- you can see why it's one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan, and the world.
We arrived at Kyoto Station around lunchtime and checked into our Airbnb near the Gion neighborhood, which is full of beautiful old buildings in the eastern part of the city. While Kyoto's subway is still miles ahead of San Francisco's pathetic public transportation, it's nowhere near as complete at Tokyo's subway, so we wanted something centrally-located for our short time there.
The Airbnb was stunning -- the owners are clearly architecture enthusiasts who bought a 100 year old building and renovated it to feel bright and modern inside, the perfect blend of Japanese and Western design. It was ideal for the three of us, with plenty of space to spread out, and the most heavenly bathtub/shower room looking out on a small garden.
The Airbnb clearly attracts people who appreciate design, as evidence by the guest book which was filled with beautiful handwriting and drawings:
The house has a small vestibule where you leave your shoes, and a stool for taking them off:
Once we dropped our bags, we quickly headed over to Ryozen Kannon, an 80 foot high war memorial:
From there, we walked over to Kiyomizu-dera for sunset. The highlight of my trip last time, this beautiful lodge is situated high on a hill above Kyoto, with a magnificent view of the city. To get there, you walk slowly up a winding path filled with souvenir shops, ceramics for sale, and matcha ice cream stands, finally bringing you up to the gates at the entrance.
Very sadly, the building was under construction, so the view of the structure itself wasn't great. But the vista over the city was gorgeous at sunset, and remained my personal favorite spot in Kyoto.
For dinner, a quick Foursquare search brought us to Yanagikoji Taka, a casual spot hidden behind Kyoto's main department stores on a tiny alley. The restaurant was filled with Japanese after-work diners eating yakitori (grilled meat skewers) and drinking sake in the tiniest building imaginable (you climb a ladder to get to the second floor tables).
We did the sake tasting and got a ton of incredible meat and veggie skewers, all for like $15 a person. We loved this spot.
The new morning we headed to Arashiyama for the famous bamboo grove you might recognize from the cover of Lonely Planet. It's an hour bus ride from central Kyoto to the western edge of the city, or about a 25 minute cab ride (around $25-$30).
Honestly though, I wouldn't recommend going unless you're willing to get up at 6 AM to beat the crowds. When we finally got there at 11AM, it was so completely full of people wielding selfie sticks in the relatively small space, it wasn't particularly enjoyable. It was definitely our mistake not getting an earlier start, but for us wasn't worth the two hour round-trip bus ride to get there:
The best photos we got were essentially in the parking lot next to the exit:
Once we ditched the selfie stick crowd in the bamboo grove, we walked about 30 minutes north to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, a Buddhist temple filled with 1200 stone statues. It was a striking spot, and very peaceful compared to the bamboo forest:
From the temple, we grabbed an hour-long direct bus back to the center of the city, where we had a tasty lunch at Okakita, where the udon with shrimp tempura hit the spot. I think we missed typically long lines by visiting mid-afternoon -- apparently it's pretty popular.
Then we grabbed a taxi up to Kinkaku-ji, Kyotos' famous "golden temple." This is considered one of the prized sites in all of Japan, and attracts visitors from around the world. Completed in 1397, it was rebuilt in 1955 and is a stunning sight, covered entirely in gold leaf in the middle of a pretty lake:
The last time I visited I came mid-day and was overwhelmed by all the tourists, but this time we came closer to sunset and it was much more peaceful. The gold really shines at sunset.
Also, last time I attempted to walk and take the bus, and it took forever -- the temple isn't anywhere close to downtown. This time we took a taxi and it was much more efficient.
Outside the pavilion, we ordered sesame ice cream, which I decided is my absolute favorite flavor (and the prettiest color):
From the Golden Temple, we headed downtown for some shopping while we killed time before dinner. The massive Muji in the BAL department store is worth a visit, just because it's so much better than the versions in the US. And on my last visit I discovered Kawataki, a gorgeous kitchen store filled with ceramics and cooking utensils:
We were excited to have a reservation at Giro Giro (sometimes called Guilo Guilo), which came highly recommended as a fun, affordable place to try kaiseki, the traditional, multi-course Japanese meal.
However, the meal didn't wow us, and it stretched on for almost three hours. Plus the restaurant was filled entirely with Americans who appear to have all read the same NYT article. That said, the presentation of the food was beautiful, and it was an inexpensive way to try kaiseki:
The next morning we had breakfast at home and then stopped by Arabica, a trendy coffee shop near our Airbnb that delivered with excellent coffee:
From there we hopped on a subway to Fushimi Inari, a few quick train stops away from our Gion station.
I'd visited the famous gates on my last trip, and knew getting an early start to beat the tourists was advisable. The crowds at the base of the mountain can be intense, but once you start climbing your way up, they tend to drop off.
Unike the bamboo "forest," which was a short 10 minute walk from end to end, Fushimi Inari would take you a solid two hours to climb from start to finish. The stunning red gates (apparently there are 10,000 of them) wind their way up the entire mountain and back down.
The mountain is significantly above sea level, and the climb is no joke. If you're devoted to climbing the whole thing, you should definitely wear workout clothes and bring a backpack. We made it about an hour up the mountain before we decided to head back.
Luckily, Japan's obsession with vending machines means we picked up the Japanese version of gatorade about an hour up the mountain when we thought we would fall over from sweating so much.
Once we had our fill of the gates, we hiked back down the mountain and got back on the subway, taking it up toward the center of town.
All of us were looking for beautiful ceramics during our time in Japan. Earlier this year I noticed in this design blog's living room tour, the owner said she got her ceramics in Kyoto, and she linked to a shop called Sfera.
There weren't many photos online, so we were stunned to discover a big store full of truly incredible ceramics. There were all quite expensive, but I scored a deal on a floor model with a chip on it, so it's worth asking if they have any discounts available. There were so many pretty things I would have loved to have brought home:
After we got our fill of ceramics, we hit up Kyoto's famous Nishiki Market for browsing and snacks. Several blocks long, the covered market is filled with every kind of snack and grocery shop you could imagine, from more traditional candy to crazy looking seafood. It's worth a visit even if you aren't hungry:
At this point our feet were killing us and our dinner reservation wasn't until 9 PM, so we headed to Chao Chao Gyoza for an afternoon meal to tide us over.
I have dreamed about their gyoza since my visit last year. Our favorites were the ginger and pork and the cabbage gyoza, although all of them were incredible. (And in case you were wondering, because I was: the internet says gyoza are the Japanese interpretation of Chinese potstickers, and there are some subtle differences between the two.)
Saving room for dinner proved really hard:
After a short rest at the Airbnb, we walked to Yakitori Hitomi for one of the best dinners of our trip. It came highly recommended by friends and guides to Kyoto as the best place to find yakitori, or chicken skewers.
This restaurant is famous of serving up all parts of the chicken, from the more traditional breasts and thighs, down to everything from ovaries to hearts to livers to testicles. The boys were bummed some of those delicacies were sold out by the time of our 9PM reservation, and declared the heart was the best thing they ate all night:
While we had a great time in Kyoto, I think we could have done it in two nights and one full day, instead of two. I think an ideal itinerary would have been eating at Chao Chao one night, doing Fushimi Inari the next morning, and spending the afternoon at the Nishiki Market and the Golden Temple. I would do Kiyomizu-dera at sunset, and close the visit with dinner at Yakitori Hitomi.
We had a great time in Kyoto, but we were excited to leave for our next destinations: Naoshima and Teshima.
Where we stayed: this Airbnb in Gion
Where we went: Ryozen Kannon (big Buddha), Kiyomizu-dera, Arashiyama bamboo grove (too crowded), Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple), Muji in the BAL department store, Kawataki (kitchen wares), Fushimi Inari (orange gates), Sfera (ceramics). Plus, I suggest: Nijo Castle and Sanjusangendo