Quick Trip to Kyoto
While there’s so much to do in Tokyo itself, we also wanted to take advantage of being in Japan to see some other parts of the country. Everyone told us that Kyoto was a must-do, so we booked tickets for the bullet train and decided to spend a night there. Kyoto feels very different from Tokyo. Many of the sites are on the outskirts of the city and have beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. We tried to fit in as many sites as we could in just two days, and we had a great time seeing shrines, temples and spending time outdoors.
Saturday June 10
Tokaido Shinkansen Nozomi Train
The Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto takes two hours and twenty minutes. We bought our tickets on Thursday and got reserved seats, but you can also get unreserved tickets and take any train. We took an 8:40am train and arrived in Kyoto before 11am. There are lots of places in the station selling bento boxes for the ride, so we took a cue from the locals and got breakfast bentos before our train. The ride was so quick and easy, and it was fun to experience the bullet train. It’s pretty pricey, but given it was such a quick trip, we wanted to save as much time on travel as possible.
Sanjo-Agaru, Kawaramachi, Nakagyo-ku, Central Kyoto, Kyoto, Japan
It was a quick, 15-minute metro ride to the hotel where we stored our bags until our room was ready. The room was a bit dated and the bed wasn’t too comfy, but we spent so little time there and it was well situated, so it wasn’t a big deal.
We waked about 15 minutes through an indoor-outdoor mall to get to Nishi Market. The market was a mix of souvenirs, like fans, kimonos, dolls, etc. and delicious and bizarre looking food. It was super crowded, but we still had fun browsing the shops and trying to guess what the different foods were. It was pretty crowded walking through downtown Kyoto, and we saw a lot more English speaking tourists than we’ve seen so far in Tokyo.
As in Tokyo, Kyoto has some huge department stores with massive food halls on the basement level. We decided to grab lunch from one of the counters there, but ran into trouble finding a place to eat. In Japan it’s considered rude to eat in public, and there wasn’t any seating in the food hall so we had to wait until we got to our next destination to eat, and by that point we were starting to get hangry.
After we found a place to eat our lunch, we walked up the busy shopping street to get to the temple. The area was packed with tourists from all over, and many of the Japanese tourists were dressed in kimonos, which was fun to see. This temple is built into the side of a mountain and has a beautiful view of the mountains surrounding Kyoto. We walked through and enjoyed the view and were also befriended by some Japanese children on a school trip (the first of two such encounters).
Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka
We exited the front of the temple and walked back down Matsubara-dori Street and spent time browsing in the shops. Everyone seemed to be eating ice cream, so we obviously had to partake as well. We followed the road down to Sannen-zaka Hill, Ninnen-zaka, and Nene-no-Michi which are areas with well-preserved old buildings and lots of cute shops. We wandered around, enjoying the beautiful and interesting architecture until we arrived at Maruyama-koen Park, which was our next destination.
Maruyama-koen Park: Yasaka Shrine, Chion-in Temple and Shoren-in Temple
This park has several shrines and temples inside it, and we started out at the Yasaka Shrine, where we were lucky again to see another Japanese wedding going on. From there, we made our way over to Chion-in Temple, which is built into the hillside and is comprised of several buildings. The entry gate is one of the largest in Japan, and behind it there are steep steps taking you up to the rest of the temple complex. While the main building was under construction (and will be until 2020), we still really enjoyed exploring the area, and it was our favorite stop of the day.
From there, we walked to the far side of the park to the Shoren-in Temple grounds. We were feeling a bit temple-ed out by this point, so we opted not to pay to enter and just saw a bit of the grounds and then left. Between all the steps in the park and the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, we walked up dozens of flights of steps and were exhausted and went back to the hotel to shower and relax.
Ganko Takasegawa Nijoen
We had read that Kyoto was a good place to have kaiseki, a traditional Japanese multi-course meal, so we found a restaurant that was known for this type of cuisine. We had to take our shoes off when we entered, and we were given a menu with several set menus to choose from. The options were overwhelming, so we just chose one of the traditional menus. It was a great way to sample lots of different foods at once, including shabu-shabu, where you cook raw meat in boiling broth. It wasn’t our favorite meal, but we’re glad we did it, and the bonus was walking through the restaurant’s beautiful gardens.
Ponchoto Alley and Gion District
After dinner we walked around a bit to see some of Kyoto’s nightlife. Ponchoto Alley is a strip of restaurants with stilted balconies overlooking the river. At night they’re all lit up, which made it a pretty area to walk around. When we hit the bridge, we crossed over into the Gion District which was more lively, with lots of bars and restaurants. We walked down Shirakawa-dori, a street with restaurants lining a canal, which was also beautiful at night. Supposedly this is prime territory to spot geishas, but we didn’t see any (we did, however see a few of them together during the day, which is pretty unusual).
Sunday June 11
We were warned that this Kokyo landmark gets super crowded and to go early, so we arrived around 8:45am. The area by the main shrine was already mobbed with people and tons of school children. The website has a free audio guide you can listen to, so we spent about 25 minutes walking around the shrine, learning about its history. We wish more of the shrines had audio guides available, since we wanted to learn more about what we were seeing.
When we finished the guide, we started the ascent up the mountain, through the hundreds of tori gates. It was absolutely packed, but we had read that the crowds would thin out as we got higher, so we tried to get through the crowds as quickly as possible. Soon enough we pretty much had the trail to ourselves. It snakes up the mountain and there are smaller shrines, nice views of the city and other stops you can make along the way. There’s a shorter loop and a longer one, and we decided to do the long one. Both loops get pretty steep at times. We didn’t make too many stops, so it only took us an hour and fifteen minutes to do the entire loop. We were really glad we did the whole thing, since the quiet parts higher up were definitely the best part. We can understand why it gets so crowded, since it’s one of the most unique shrines we’ve visited.
Arashiyama Monkey Park
It took about 45 minutes to get to our next stop by train, so we stopped for an early lunch along the main strip in Arashiyama before going into the monkey park. This too had a pretty steep walk up hill (only about 20 minutes) until we reached the main part of the park. There were wild monkeys everywhere, and we had such a fun time watching them play and run around. We even got to see a couple of baby monkeys too! The walk down was shorter, and again took us through beautiful forest. In all, we spent just under an hour here.
Arashiyama Bamboo Path
The Tenryu-ji Temple is right in this area too, but we had enough temples and decided to skip it. We walked back through the main part of Arashiyama until we got to the Bamboo Path, which is a pretty path through a forest of bamboo. It was super crowded and part of it was being harvested, so it wasn’t as picturesque as we had hoped but still a really cool and unique experience.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
We had to take two busses to get to our next stop, but it gave us time for a quick nap, which we really needed by this point. The Golden Pavillion is pretty out of the way from all the other sites, but we totally understand why it’s worth the trek because the building and the surrounding gardens were absolutely gorgeous. It used to be a villa belonging to the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and it was turned into a shrine after his death. It was a pretty quick stop, but well worth it.
Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi
By this point we were exhausted and hungry, but many restaurants were closed (it’s also common in Tokyo that restaurants close in between lunch and dinner). We were lucky to stumble upon a gyoza (dumpling) place and even luckier that there was no line. While we waited for our food, we read that it’s been rated as one of the top gyoza restaurants in all of Japan, and the food did not disappoint. They had a huge variety of flavors, and also a chocolate dessert gyoza which was delicious.
Shinkansen to Tokyo
We had reserved seats on the 6:40pm train to Tokyo, but the first three cars of every train are unreserved, so we could just get on an earlier train. The sun was just starting to set, which made for a beautiful ride back.
On every trip we share our rose (highlight), thorn (lowlight), and bud (what we're looking forward to).
Rose- Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine (Becca), monkeys (Josh)
Thorn- being hangry (Becca), underwhelming cuisine (Josh)
Bud- karaoke (both)
If you go, things to know…
How much time? We weren’t able to take any time off work, so we had to fit everything into one weekend. We got to do most of what we wanted, but both days were very full so having a third day would have been nice.
What else is there to do? There are some other shrines that are popular to visit, and there is an Imperial Palace in Kyoto as well that we didn’t get to.
How does Kyoto compare to Tokyo? Kyoto has a very different feel to Tokyo. The downtown area was pretty congested with people, and there seemed to be more tourists than we see in Tokyo (this may be because we were only in the touristy areas, whereas we spend a lot of time in the business district in Tokyo). Outside of the city center, Kyoto feels much quieter and has a lot more nature, which was refreshing.
What to pack? Good walking shoes! We logged 30k+ steps each day, and there was lots of up and down the mountains. It was quite hot the first day too, so come prepared if it’s summer.
When to visit? It seems like Kyoto is a big destination for fall foliage, so that would be a pretty time of year to come as well.
What else is useful to know? As in many of the train stations in Tokyo, there are tons of luggage lockers in Kyoto Station. We wish we had known that earlier so we could have left our stuff there the second day to pick it up before our train back to Tokyo.