Tokyo, I’m so sorry: if I had to play favorites between the places I visited during my Japan trip, Kyoto would have to be my favorite. Not saying that all big cities are the same, but there’s something about living in New York City that tends to make me favor smaller or rural locales as my favorite vacation spots. I also love visiting places that are old and rich in history and imagine what lives were like long ago. Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 through 1868, so it is most definitely steeped in history.
The city’s many monuments and attractions, which includes thousands of shrines, are a bit spread apart. And since it’s probably impossible to be able to hit all of them in one visit, it’s important for you to make list of all the spots you want to hit ahead of time. Kyoto is also a well known tourist city, and people from all over the world flock to this destination all year round. So if you want to get those good instafodder shots, you better be an early riser.
GION SHIRAKAWA and PONTO-CHŌ
When I think of Kyoto, I think of a Geisha all decked out in the most expensive and exquisite kimono walking down Gion Shirakawa or the Ponto-chō. So Gion was definitely number one on my list of places to visit. Although sadly I didn’t see any geishas while I was there, I did get to dress up in a Kimono and use Gion as the perfect photo backdrop. If you’re planning on doing this, be sure to pick a kimono rental place that’s not too far from there. I went to Kimono Rental Wakazura and paid about $45 for the rental and up-do. Putting a kimono, even the simpler yukata, is a pretty elaborate process that I am pretty sure you cannot do yourself. So I thought just the experience of putting it on alone was totally worth it.
Gion is also the center of the night life and there are tons of bars and snack-type of restaurants, like Chao Chao dumplings that are open until late.
FUSHIMI INARI-TAISHA (伏見稲荷大社)
It is said that Fushimi Inari hold about 10,000 tori gates, and the experience walking through them is surreal to say the least. You have the option to walk 2.5 miles to get all the way to the top, which will take you about two hours. Though I did not do this as I didn’t think that was necessary to experience the beauty of the shrine and toris.
This is one of the places that you definitely want to get to super early if you want to get good photos. We planned to get there at 7:30 a.m., but ended up arriving later because of some train snafu. Although there was already quite a bit of people at 8 a.m., it was still manageable. However, let me tell you guys that when left the shrine at 9 a.m., a HUGE crowd of tour group was waiting at the entrance. So arrive late at your own risk.
Save your appetite and don’t eat before your visit, because there are tons of yummy food vendors right outside the shrine. You can find anything and everything from takoyaki to onokomiyaki.
Arashiyama is another one on the list that I probably should have gone to early. Alas I did not heed my own advice and I got there around noon. As you can see from my photos below, the crowd situation is not optimal for taking photos. Although if you’re looking to get photos of just the bamboo groove (without you in it) you’ll probably do just fine as there’s some creative angling that can be done.
The path of the bamboo groove itself is not very long and it will take you less than 15-minutes to traverse. But there are a few attractions around here, like the Ōkōchi Sansō garden. The entrance fee is ¥1000, which includes a cup of tea and a snack provided at the end of your walk.
When you’re done exploring Arashiyama, exit through the north side as there are a few cute shops and cafes down that way. We took a break at Sagano Kaede Cafe (さがの楓カフェ) on our walk back to the train station and got some yummy shaved ice there.
Gosh how I wish this could just be my house and backyard. The houses are beautiful, of course. But my most favorite part about this place is the well tended Japanese garden. Unless this happens to be your first stop of the day, which is unlikely, you’ll probably have walked a whole lot before you get here. Tōfuku-ji has lots of great nooks for you to sit, rest your feet, and enjoy the humming of the cicadas for a bit.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN KYOTO
So, like I mentioned, there are tons and tons of things for one to do in Kyoto. I could probably go on and on about it. Here are a few more must do, including one that was on my list but I sadly did not have time to visit:
- Shinkyogoku Shopping Street – great place to find souvenirs, chotchkies, and snacks. I got myself a hat and a cat clutch (of course) here. You’ll also find a claw machine arcade, which the Japanese peeps seem to really be into.
- Yaya Kimono Shop (やゝ • ヤヤ) – I bout three vintage kimonos while I was in Kyoto and I regretted not buying more. The prices range from ¥2000 (about $20) to hundreds of thousands Yen. My kimonos are currently still sitting in my closet, awaiting for me to turn them into long jackets. Soon my darlings, soon!
- Gekkeikan Ōkura Sake Museum – pretty cool spot where you can learn the history of sake and how it was made. You also have the option to do a tasting. If you google this online, you’ll find guided tour offerings for upwards of $40. I suggest you skip that since the entrance fee is merely ¥500 and the placard are in Japanese and English. If you’re a sake connoisseur, you might want to make room in your suitcase to bring some back. You’ll be able to find collector items in here that you won’t find elsewhere (my friend Jess learned that the hard way).
- Tōji Temple (東寺) – Engineering buffs will love this spot as the super tall shrine is built without the use of any nails. #SKILLZ
- Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺) – The shrine walls are completely coated with gold. Need I say more?
- Kamo River Banks – the stretch between Sanjo Dori and Shijo Dori (on the west side of the bank) makes for a relaxing walk. This is also were I found a dude walking his giant bunny on a leash, so be on bunny-watch if you walk here.
- Kiyomizudera (清水寺) – This is the one spot that is on my list that I did not make. Let me warn you that it will involve a lot of walking, but you will be rewarded with a great view of Kyoto at the top.
EAT EAT EAT!
Japanese food is on the top of my list of favorite foods, so you better believe I went hog wild while I was there. I said sayonara to burgers and REFUSED to eat anything that was not Japanese. I could safely say that there was no food I ate that I didn’t like while I was in Kyoto. Here are some of the spots I visited:
- Katsukura (名代とんかつ かつくら 三条本店) – I was in katsu (fried cutlet) heaven! I would not come here if you’re not into fried meats, because that’s pretty much all they have LOL.
- Vendors outside Fushimi Inari – there were so may options for what to eat, it was a bit of a sensory overload. I would recommend walking the entire street to see all the offerings before you commit to a meal, lest your regret your choice and want something else (and your full tummy can’t take it).
- Sagano Kaede Cafe (さがの楓カフェ) – Super cute spot to get snacks and desert outside of Arashiyama. It’s a great place to people watch too as you’ll see people in rickshaws going up and down the street.
- Hanamakiya (花巻屋) – Kyoto is supposedly known for udon, so I had to make sure I got some while I was there there. It was a really hot day when I visited the restaurant and the cold udon noodles really hit the spot.
- Sushi no Musashi (寿しのむさし) – OMG if I could eat at a sushi conveyor belt restaurant every day, I would. Half the fun is watching the dishes come your way and deciding from afar which one you want.
- Harves Grocery Store (ハーベス 京都店) – since pretty much every train line goes by the main Kyoto station, it became our de facto daily transit hub. This grocery store in the station was a great find and we stopped by there pretty much every day to get train and hotel snacks.
- Chao Chao – a great late night place to get some snacks. Their dumpling flavors were pretty inventive and a lot of them had cheese in it, which I totally did not mind.