Kyoto: temples, history & food

We only had a mere two days, three nights, to see this historically beautiful and interesting city. In hindsight this was not enough as there is so much to do and see – our days were jam-packed with temple-hopping, geisha-hunting, katsu-eating, and tasting  the obligatory sake; which left us exhausted but wanting more.

Ideally allow three days minimum to explore all that Kyoto has to offer.

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Stay

Given we had an early morning departure, we wanted stay in a hotel conveniently located by the Kyoto main train station.  Located only a 5 minute walk from the station, The Sakura Terrace The Gallery was a lovely modern hotel at very reasonable rates. This also meant that all the public transport offerings were only a short distance away, which made getting around the city super-convenient.

One thing I particularly liked about this hotel was the open air lobby located in the centre of the hotel. Each evening from 5pm the hotel offers a free ‘welcome drink’ in the lobby bar and a live acoustic session, providing such a relaxing vibe at the end of a busy day. We used the time to re-group and plan the next days activities. The hotel also had a lovely in-house restaurant which served both Japanese and western delights, at very affordable prices.

See / Do

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Open dawn to dusk with free entry, this is a must-see. Very popular with tourists, so the earlier you arrive the better. We arrived around 9am and it was a perfect time to visit before the crowds rolled in. A really peaceful place with some beautiful photo opportunities. Its only a relatively short path through the groves, but it was one of my favourite things about Kyoto …. that, and the awesome cafe we discovered nearby (see details below).

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Finding my zen

Gion

Gion is famous as Kyoto’s geisha district as well as being a beautiful historic quarter filled with old wooden shophouses, traditional tea houses, and narrow streets perfect for strolling. We set off exploring the area around 4.30pm – and it was swarming with tourists. If you prefer strolling with less crowds, then it might be worth making your way to Gion earlier in the day. It is said that Shimbasi-dori is the most beautiful street in all of Kyoto, however I would recommend just wandering and seeing where it takes you. Despite the tourists, the streets were beautiful to stroll, and again we were able to steal a few great photo opportunities.

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If you really want to see a Geisha Show during your visit, then you will need to research online before you arrive. The performances are only held seasonally and for selected dates. You will also need to buy your tickets online in advance – its hugely popular as you can imagine! Miyako Odori is one of the theatres who offer these seasonal dance shows.

Temples

Firstly, some tips on visiting the Kyoto temples:

  1. Visit the temples on a weekday (if possible).
  2. Get up and do them early!!! It may be hard to get out of bed, but its well worth it, as there will be far less tourists at the temples, making it calmer, quieter and will help you get in a more ZEN like state of mind.
  3. You will certainly not be able to see them all – there are some 1600+ temples throughout the city! Choose the ones you like the sound of and stick to seeing those select few.
  4. If you happen to be in town when the Kyoto Illumination Event is on then you are in for a real treat (it was mid April when we visited). Temples typically close by 5pm, but during the event certain temples re-open at night with beautiful light shows around the temple grounds.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine – is open from dawn to dusk, and is free to enter. This shrine was on the top of our list to see and it certainly lived up to expectations. The highlight for me was not the Shrine itself, but the path leading up to the shrine which is lined with about 10,000 or so small torii gates. The path takes you to the top of a hill with views over the city, and the whole trail loop takes about 2 hours from top to bottom. An amazing trail…….Have your camera ready!

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Tenryuji Temple – located right outside the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, has beautiful landscaped and moss covered gardens to stroll through. A very peaceful place and well worth a visit if you head out to see the bamboo groves.

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Nanzen-ji Temple – a huge temple complex located at the base of the beautiful forested Higashiyama  mountains. Surprisingly it was not busy with people and we spent a good few hours exploring the area. Definitely a place to get your ZEN on!

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Highlights of the Nanzen-ji Temple grounds:

  • Climb the Sanmon entrance gate for views over the treetops and across the city;
  • The Hojo: famous for its rock garden, where the rocks are said to resemble tigers and cubs crossing through water;
  • Discovering the large brick aqueduct that passes through the grounds; and
  • Oku-no-in: a sub-temple hidden behind the aqueduct. A hidden path follows a stream up a hill, which leads to a flight of stairs that will take you to this little temple hidden away in the beautiful forest.  There is also a tranquil waterfall just up the hill behind the temple. We only saw 2 other people visiting this quiet place!

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Kodaiji Temple – We were lucky to see this temple as part of the night time Kyoto Illumination Event. You might be inclined to skip the night events if you have already had a big day of walking and sight-seeing, but it was such a rewarding experience and definitely recommended. Try to choose a dry, clear night, and check opening times. From memory, opening was from 6.30pm-9pm.

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The laser light show @ the Main Hall of the complex tells the story of a traditional Japanese fable

Food

Katsu Kura – for THE most delicious Tonkatsu i have tasted! There are a few locations to choose from; we opted for The Cube (the mall located above Kyoto Station). This place was very hard to find. Hot tip – start in Isetan Department Store, go up to level 11F, then down the very left hand corner of the mall it becomes ‘The Cube’, keep walking down this corridor. You will likely see a small queue out front before you see the restaurant sign. Don’t be put off by the queue – it moves quickly and you can browse the menu while you wait.

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Tonkatsu – Pork fillet, breaded and crispy. Served with miso and cabbage salad, and a make your own sauce. Might not look like much here, but it’s YUMBO.

Giro Giro – an amazing modern Kaiseki restaurant. You will need to make a reservation (as it is a very small restaurant) and if you ask to sit at the bar you will be able to watch all the food being made. Absolutely everything is beautifully presented and utterly delicious, and the price is very reasonable too (we had 8 courses + beer + sake for about £35 per person). Cannot recommend this experience enough: AMAZING!!

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Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese multi-course meal, with each dish delicately and beautifully presented.

Nishiki Market – open 9am to 5pm, this food market is a good option to visit for breakfast or lunch time. A long undercover market arcade, lined with all different kinds of food vendors, you can spend your time strolling and sampling. There are also some beautiful handmade ceramic shops selling sake glasses and tea pot sets.

Coffee

% Arabica Coffee – The best coffee during our whole time in Japan! There are three cafe locations in Kyoto, we opted for the tiny but picturesque % Arabica Kyoto Arashiyama Cafe located nearby the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The cafe opens at 8am – I recommend getting up and at ’em; enjoying an awesome coffee by the Katsura River; then it’s a short walk to the Bamboo Grove. This means you come into the Bamboo Grove in the opposite direction to others, which is great as you aren’t jostling for position.

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Unbeatable morning coffee views!

Vermillion – Located near the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, this is a great little coffee bar located just to the left of the train station. A good spot to get your pre-torii trail caffeine fix, or to recharge the batteries post climb.

A hectic but amazing few days in Kyoto. We’ll be back!

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Views down the Kamo River, Kyoto

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