I arrived in Kyoto midafternoon to be greeted at our accommodation by our good friend Maria. She had collected the keys from our Airbnb host earlier in the day and was excited to show me around the traditional Japanese house we would be staying in for the next three nights.
The attention to detail and effort that our host Keiko had put into furnishing and decorating the old wooden house was outstanding. We felt at home right away and made ourselves comfortable at the zataku (low table) in the living area overlooking a peaceful garden oasis.
Keiko also provided us with restaurant recommendations, biscuits, tea, breakfast and bikes for our stay, making our Japan experience and short time in Kyoto even more unique and memorable!
The Airbnb was perfectly located within four subway stops from Kyoto station and an easy 20 minute stroll from some of the best parts of the city. So, Maria and I spent some time taking in the local area and checking out the antique stores that were scattered through the small streets nearby.
If I’m honest, I think we needed more than two and a half days in the stunning city of Kyoto.
Formally the Imperial capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto is a refined historical city with a population of around 1.5 million people and thousands of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, imperial palaces and traditional wooden houses. There are no less than 17 sites listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, 24 museums, and countless buildings and streets of historical significance.
There is so much to do and so much to see that we struggled to do everything we wanted to do while we were there. But I suppose that just makes for a good excuse to go back one day!
The Arashiyama region and its famous Bamboo Grove
We visited Arashiyama and the Bamboo Grove on our first morning in Kyoto.
Located about 45 minutes west of Kyoto station, Arashiyama is a very scenic region and worth a visit if you are ever in Kyoto. During the autumn months the surrounding mountains display a beautiful array of autumn oranges and reds, and in the spring the cherry blossom trees (sakura) sprinkle the landscape with pastel pinks and whites. But you can visit the beautiful region at anytime of the year for its Tenryu-ji Temple (a Zen temple and Japanese garden), Okochi-Sanso Villa (a traditional Japanese house, tea house and unique gardens), a monkey park and the Bamboo Grove.
By the time we found our way to one of the most photographed sights in the city it was overwhelmed by hundreds of tourists and their selfie sticks. With my Fujifilm X-T10 hanging around my neck and Dan’s GoPro on a stick, we fit right in!
Traveller tip: aim to arrive at the Bamboo Grove before 9am for the perfect photo without as many tourists.
(Admission fee: free. Open 24 hours. Closest stations: Saga-Arashiyama Station (Hashidate Line and JR San-In Line and the Sagano Scenic Railway starts here))
A smorgasbord of fine food at Nishiki Market
That afternoon, we spent a couple of hours sampling the many culinary delights of Nishiki Market, a narrow street filled with more than 100 food stands, restaurants and souvenir shops. The market has been Kyoto’s restaurant supplier for hundreds of years and is the perfect place to visit if you are hungry and wanting to sample many different Japanese foods in the one place.
We sampled squid on a stick, octopus on a stick, Kobe wagyu beef on a stick, and some delicious orange juice straight from the orange it was made from.
If you’re after a more substantial meal, apparently Nishiki Warai serves some of the best okonomiyaki in Kyoto.
(Open: 9am – 5.30pm every day. Closest stations: Shijo Karasuma Station and Kawaramachi Station (Hankyu Kyoto Line))
Dan and I checked out a few of the antique stores in our area and picked up a beautiful Japanese scroll to add to our souvenir collection. Kyoto is fantastic for shopping!
Dining in Pontocho
After a quick afternoon shop in the antique stores near our Airbnb, we enjoyed some not cheap cocktails at exclusive 10th floor Ace Cafe and then a more reasonably priced beer at a dive bar called Spica in Pontocho. The contrasting bars both overlooked the Kamogawa River and were perfect for an evening drink before a night of festivities.
The narrow Pontocho alley runs from from Shijo-dori to Sanjo-dori, close to the Kamogawa River, and is considered one of Kyoto’s most atmospheric dining areas. There’s a range of dining options for all tastes and budgets, and a good chance of spotting a maiko (apprentice geisha) or geiko (fully-fledged geisha) on a Friday or Saturday evening.
Our group of thirteen people squeezed into one of the restaurants for a delicious feast of yakitori – which seems to be basically anything on a stick.
Sticks of chicken tail, beef, and seafood, and quail egg dumplings were accompanied by many beers, plum wines, and sake, which added up to an extremely long bill by the end of the night. But it was such a filling and fun night!
(Many bars and restaurants are only open after 5pm for dinner. Some are also open for lunch. Closest stations: Sanjo Station and Gion-Shijo Station (Keihan Line) and Kawaramachi Station (Hankyu Kyoto Line))
An early morning at Fushimi Inari Shrine
Having missed the perfect photo opportunity at the Bamboo Grove, I wanted to see if we could chance a photo without any other tourists at another of Kyoto’s most photographed spots. So, perhaps a little worse for wear, we were up early and out the door by around 8am the next morning.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto most famous for the thousands of vermilion torii gates winding a path through the peaceful wooded forest of Mount Inari. There are many trails leading up the sacred mountain, and plenty of stairs. You should allow 2 – 3 hours to complete the walk. However, you can see plenty of the gates and picturesque landscape if you only have time to go halfway up.
As luck would have it, we shot some great photos and had a very peaceful walk most of the way up the mountain. Maybe the early bird really does get the worm!
(Admission is free and the shrine is open 24 hours. Closest stations: Fushimi-Inari Station (Keihan Line) and Inari (JR Nara Line))
Five-tiered pagodas, Gion and 1,001 sculptures
We continued our day zigzagging our way through Kyoto, visiting some incredible historic sites and meeting some lovely Japanese people:
To-ji Temple is one of the 13 temples in Kyōto on the UNESCO World Heritage list and contains some of the finest esoteric sculptures in the country, a collection of scriptures, traditional paintings and Buddhist statuary. Its iconic five-tiered pagoda rises to 54.8 metres, making it the tallest wooden tower in Japan.
(Entry to the grounds is free. Admission to the Main hall and pagoda is ¥500. Open every day from 9am – 4.30pm. Closest station: Toji Station (Kintestu Line))
We strolled through Japan’s prime geisha district and Kyoto’s most famous traditional neighbourhood, Gion. From Shijo Avenue, we strolled down Hanami-koji Street towards the Kenninji Temple to see if we could spot any geisha.
Specific to Gion, geishas are usually called geiko while apprentice geishas are called maiko. Geisha (literally “person of the arts”) entertain wealthy customers with traditional music, dances, and witty conversation. They also participate in photoshoots, traditional tea ceremonies and official gatherings.
While we did see a number of young women dressed in traditional kimono in Gion and throughout Kyoto, we had been told that this was normal attire for graduation ceremonies and they were likely not geisha. We had a better chance of spotting one between 5pm and 6:30pm when they are on their way to a function or work commitment.
(Closest station: Gion-Shijo Station (Keihan Line))
And then, just past Gion, we stumbled upon a great find – something that always tends to happen when we are slightly lost in a new place…
“I open when I wake up and close when I must go to sleep. When I’ve had enough the store is closed,” the sign read out the front. But, as we entered the world’s smallest museum of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) master printer Mamoru Ichimura greeted us with smiles and charm. He is one of the few successors of the Edo period (17th century) print masters and he took great pride in explaining his work and the history of old Japanese culture to us after we accidentally found his house/workshop/museum as we wandered through the streets on Kyoto.
After a quick meal of curry and rice, we walked to Rengeo-in Temple (aka Sanjusangendo) to see 1,001 Senju-Kannon statues in the 120-meter-long main hall.
The hall was originally built by Taira no Kiyamori for retired emperor Go-Shirakawa in 1164 and dedicated to the Bodhisattva Kannon. The 1,001 figures of Kannon were hand carved during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Individually carved, each of the statues has a unique face and dress and is beautifully decorated in gold. They are an amazing sight to behold, and were probably one of my favourite things in Kyoto. Sadly, no photos were permitted in the hall, so you will have to visit Rengeo-in Temple to see the splendour for yourself.
(Admission to the main hall and garden is ¥600. Open every day from 9am – 4pm. Closest station: Shichijo Station (Keihan Line))
From Rengeo-in Temple, we strolled past many other temples and shrines and up a very busy street to the “Pure Water Temple”. Kiyomizu-dera (officially Otowa-san Kiyomizu-dera) is an independent Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto. The temple is part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site and offers great panoramic views over Kyoto.
For a week during the spring, the cherry blossom trees (sakura) are illuminated from 6pm – 9pm each night.
(You are able to walk into the grounds and see the great views of Kyoto for free. Admission to the main temple is ¥400. Open every day from 6am – 6pm. The best way to reach the temple is to catch a bus. Closest station: Kiyomizu-Gojo Station (Keihan Line))
Sampling Japanese whisky, craft beer and sushi!
That evening we joined the group at a Samboa Bar, a family-owned Japanese whisky bar in Teramachi Street, and sampled some delicious whisky as recommended by the second-generation owner behind the bar. (I think Samboa Bar might be part of a chain that also has bars in Gion, Ginza and Asakusa). Maria had stumbled across it a few days earlier and I was glad that we finally found the time to visit it.
Samboa Bar was quite small, very old (established in 1918), and decorated with old bottle openers and ancient-looking lanterns. It was an oasis in the madness of the outdoor market that was Teramachi St – I fell in love with it immediately!
We also visited a very hip vinyl music store and bar serving a range of craft beer. Modern Cafe Japonica was a stark contrast to the dark and dusty Samboa Bar and reminded me a lot of any place you can find in Shorditch, London these days. We had a quick appetiser here before wandering back to Pontocho alley for some delicious sushi and tempura at Sushi Tetsu.
It was the perfect way to end our time in Kyoto, for the next day we were on our way south to explore Hiroshima.
See more from our ‘Journey through Japan’
Check out some of my previous posts about our journey through Japan and follow our journey as we venture to Hiroshima, Miyajima and Hakone!
Culture Shock: reflections on my first day in Japan
Three days in Tokyo: a tantalising taste of Japan
Journey through Japan: The Year of the (Japanese Snow) Monkey
How to onsen in Japan like a local
Follow @jacquitravels on Twitter and Instagram, and Never Ending Honeymoon on Facebook for live updates and photos. And, stay tuned for more details on the blog – this is going to be an epic journey through Japan!