Long time no… blog? My last post dates back to August when my husband and I went to NYC. This February, we had the time of our lives in Japan. We had this trip booked since last August and come February this year, China was in the middle of the Covid 19 outbreak. A few days before we were due to travel, an outbreak was reported on the Diamond Princess Cruise which was docked on the port of Yokohoma. Our decision to travel did not come lightly. Our families were pressuring us cancel our trip. We did our research then and saw that the number of cases (minus the cases on the Diamond Princess) in Japan were quite low at that time. Taking various precautions including buying surgical masks, hand sanitisers and anti – bacterial wipe (easily accessible back in February), we decided to embark on our trip.
We managed to snag returned flights to Tokyo for 300 pounds each via Aeroflot. Yes, I am aware that as soon as you read “Russian airlines”, you immediately think “dodgy”. A google search shows that Aeroflot is safe airline and the only thing dodgy was the transfer at Moscow where the queue for transfer was every person for themselves. Queues? Non existent… In fact, you have staff members randomly creating queues within queues. We found these deals via Jack’s Flight Club.
Our trip saw us make 2 stops in 2 major cities in our 13 day trip (2 of which were spent traveling, so it was 10 full days) – Tokyo and Kyoto. We stayed in Tokyo for the first 4 days and then made our way to Kyoto via the Shinkansen. As a foreigner visiting Japan, we are entitled to purchasing the Japan Rail Pass which allows us unlimited travel on the bullet train (except on Nozomi and Mizuho) for the duration purchased. We purchased a 7 day pass. Before jumping on the Shinkansen to Kyoto, we had to first activate our JR pass which we did so in Tokyo JR station. Upon activation, we also reserved our seat on our journey (you can reserve a seat up to 24 hours before you intend to travel. You want to make the effort to reserve your seat – trust me. This is not my first time to Japan and last time, I had to stand for 3/4 of the journey from Kyoto to Hiroshima). Prior to your journey, keep an eye out for food stalls selling Ekiben. These are bento boxes which are designed to be consumed on the bullet trains and every region has their special Ekiben which can only be purchased at the Shinkansen stations.
An introduction to Kyoto
Okay, enough of my blabbing about my journey to Kyoto. Did you know that Kyoto was once the capital of Japan? Tokyo became the capital at 1869 when the imperial court relocated to Kyoto. Other facts you may or may not know about Kyoto:
- There are 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites scattered around Kyoto
- Kyoto was saved as a target for the atomic bomb in WWII after the US Secretary for Way Henry Stimson had his honeymoon at Kyoto and argued that the city had cultural importance
Kyoto for me is a must travel destination to see “old Japan” and to fully appreciate the country’s heritage, tradition and culture.
Must do List
We planned 4 days and nights in Kyoto. Due to our time restrictions, my mandatory must see lists are:
- Fushimi Inari Taisha
You would recognise this shrine for the rows of red Torii gates from the base of Mount Inari all the way up to the summit. Not only is this location insta famous but it was also featured in the film Memoirs of a Geisha. Fushimi Inari is a Shinto Shrine dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of Rice. Throughout the shrine, you would see many fox statues which are believed to be Inari’s messengers. The Torii gates along the trail are all donated by corporations and individuals with prices starting from 400,000 YEN for a small gate and increases to 1,000,000 YEN for a large gate. We went to this shrine twice because the first time, it rained… actually it bucketed. As we wanted to take photos and also to hike up the top, we decided to come back the next day which was forecasted to be sunny.
To photograph this location, there is no need to get here early as there are literally thousands of these gates. However, if you want to photograph at the “thousand gates” which is by the entrance, you might want to get to this location early.
This region is famous for the Bamboo Forest. We got here at roughly 7:30am and there were only a couple of people there. This place is known to attract huge crowds during the day. When we got to the Bamboo Forest, it was silent and it was pure bliss.
We went back a couple of hours later and it was definitely more crowded. However, we discovered an area labelled as the “bamboo trial” which barely had anyone there. If you cannot be bothered to wake up early, I highly recommend going to this trial for some photos.
Don’t forget to explore around the area. The main street is full of quaint shops selling souvenirs and bits and bobs. It is also a HEAVEN for Matcha lovers like my husband and I. There were so many shops selling Matcha soft serves and you can easily get one for 300 YEN. Our other highlight is the Miffy bakery which is full of cute Miffy shaped baked goods. Other must visits are around this area are:
- Tenryu-Ji Temple which is a UNESCO Zen temple with one of the finest garden in Kyoto. We did not make a visit this time but I did make the visit 5 years ago
- Kimono Forest: an installation by the Arashiyama train station. Very colourful and the installation lights up at night
- Go for a walk around the river
3. Gion/ Kiyomizu Dera
Around the same area is the Gion District and Kiyomizu Dera. We arrived in Gion very early to photograph the area without people. Gion is Kyoto’s Geisha district and is surrounded by traditional wooden houses, upscale Japanese restaurants and boutiques. Centred around Gion is Hokanji Temple which features a 5 story Pagoda. The instafamous street is on Ninenzaka. Walking around Gion transports you back to olden Japan, or in a Ghibli film. However, please be respectful of residents who live there and respect their privacy. Furthermore, since the end of 2019, photographing geishas has been outlawed due to disrespectful tourist who photograph them without their permission and in some cases, chasing them and tugging on their kimono all for a photo. There is a fine involved for anyone caught.
Approximately 15 minutes walk away up the hill is Kiyomizu Dera – a Buddhist temple literally translated to “pure water temple”. Dating back to 780 when it was founded, the temple is known for its viewing platform which benefits from cherry and plum blossoms during Spring and Autumn leaves during Autumn as well as Kyoto in the background. We did not go into the temple as by that stage, we were “templed out”. We did however photograph at the main structure up the front.
4. Kinkaku-Ji – The Golden Pavilion
A Zen Temple in Northern Kyoto, the temple features a 2 floor pagoda completely covered in gold leaf. Another of Kyoto’s UNESCO world heritage site, the temple was completed in 1397 which served as a retirement village for aristocrat Saionji Kitsune. Upon his death, his will specified that his villa is to be turned to a temple. The temple is surrounded by a zen garden and is most beautiful to photograph during golden hour just before sunset when the sun lightly hits the pavilion, radiating a golden glow.
Where we stayed
We stayed at Suzakukan Suzaku Crossing where the price we paid (150 pounds for 3 nights) far exceeds the value of our stay. Our hotel room had everything – 2 very comfortable double beds, a very sizable bathroom (with a Japanese toilet!), a balcony and a small kitchenette. Most nights we went to the nearby supermarket “Life” for our dinner (the ready to eat range in Japanese supermarket are AMAZING) so this kitchenette came in handy.
One drawback is the location. The hotel is near buses but buses do not come as frequently. The nearest subway station is Nijo Castle which is 20 minutes away. To get to most locations early, we took cabs.
Where to eat
Kyoto is an absolute heaven for Green Tea and Matcha lovers! There are many small cafes selling Matcha soft serves for approximately 300 YEN but the best tea houses are:
- Tsujiri Gion
- Marukyu-Koyamaen : a quaint tea shop serving premium matcha products from Kyoto. This is the cafe where I had some of the best Matcha ice cream (so creamy!), cake and Matcha latte. The cafe also has a beautiful zen garden at the back for you to enjoy
- Life supermarkets: the selection of ready to eat meals are HUGE. Everything from Sushi, to Sashmi, Tempura, Noodle and rice dishes – whatever your appetite craves, they have (providing it is Japan food)
My tip in Japan is that no bowl of ramen, noodle dish, rice dish etc should cost more than 1000 YEN unless you are looking for something fancy. Both my husband and I are very simple eater – we like cheap tasty food and we like a lot of it.
Thank you for reading my guide to Kyoto. I have nothing but amazing memories of this city the two times I have visited. As a result of Covid 19, the tourist numbers have definitely dropped. At the summit of Mount Inari, we met 2 Australians who said that Fushimi Inari is generally crowded even at the summit which takes 2 hours to hike up. I also arrived to an empty Gion at 9am and I have read from multiple bloggers that you should arrive at sunrise in order to get a clear shot. When it is safe to travel again, I would not hesitate to recommend Kyoto to anyone looking to explore outside of Europe. It is a city that I may not go back because I have seen a lot of it from my 2 visits but as a country, I will definitely be back over and over again.
Safe safe and safe healthy xx