It’s no wonder that Kyoto is often murmured in the same breath as Tokyo when discussing Japan. As the former Imperial Capital city of Japan for over one thousand years, Kyoto drips with history. Despite sharing the same letters (rearrange Tokyo to spell Kyoto), these two places are entirely different. Kyoto takes on a leisurely and traditional feel in contrast to the constant energy of Tokyo. Join me as I explore this captivating city and make my way towards Kobe, Japan’s cosmopolitan port city in this real travel itinerary. This itinerary is a segment of a series of Japan travel: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.
The Kyoto Station puts every American airport to shame. It feels like wandering through a futuristic Japanese space station– pristine, modern, complete with its own ramen floor, multiple shopping malls, vast ranges of restaurants. Sarah and I made it a point to visit the station in the morning to purchase our Kyoto day bus and subway passes. If you plan on visiting several attractions in one day, I highly recommend purchasing this pass for ¥1200 for one day or ¥2000 for two days. This will allow you to move around freely without having to worry about stopping to buy fares, particularly because the JR Rail Pass is very limited here.
With our passes in hand, we wandered through the station and settled down for breakfast in a cozy cafe (they actually had throw blankets available underneath every chair, which sealed the deal for me). I enjoyed the regional special– kujo green onion and chicken sandwich. The kujo negi is a traditional Kyoto vegetable, known for its soft texture, slightly sweet, and mild flavor. Soon after this, our third traveling companion, Jun (my family friend) met us at the platform. He had just come from Osaka, where he was visiting his obachan (affectionate term for grandmother).
Our first order of business consisted of visiting the iconic Kinkaku-ji, or the “Golden Pavilion”, which is a Buddhist temple. There is really only one place like this, and it’s an image you won’t easily forget. On the quietest of days, the soft golden walls are perfectly reflected in the surrounding pond. Brace yourself for hoards of people taking pictures all over the property. Try visiting in the early morning if you are trying to avoid the crowds. There is also the Ginkaku-ji, or the “Silver Pavilion”. If you have limited time, though, I would recommend prioritizing the Kinkaku-ji over other temples, as it is also a World Heritage site.
Our next destination was Arashiyama Park on the northwest border of Kyoto. We were lured by the promise of lovely bamboo forests and chance for a primate encounter at the Iwatayama Monkey Park. One could say I am an animal lover; I’ve never turned down the opportunity to get close to one (well, except for snakes). Arashiyama had its own distinct feel that straddled multiple elements of nature. The Hozu River is scenic and distils a sense of calm. Restaurants and souvenir shops were lined along the river, making for an ideal spot for groups to rest or regroup.
We took a short walk through the Tenryu-ji temple to get to the bamboo forest on the outer border. This beautiful temple was built in the 1300’s and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also one of the Five Mountains and Ten Monasteries system. The bamboo forest walk is quick, so do take your time enjoying the ambiance of the green, vibrant stalks shooting up into the sky. Do note that this is another very popular destination so you should expect to encounter many other tourists and may need to take your photos quickly whenever you see the opportunity.
Somehow, time had escaped us and it was already late afternoon by the time we started heading towards the Iwatayama Monkey Park. With quick strides (heart rate pumping), we crossed the Togetsukyo Bridge to locate the unassuming monkey park ticket booth. Our workout did not end here– the hike to the monkey park (located at the mountain summit) was no joke. 30-minutes of steep switchback trails had us peeling off our scarves, coats, and sweaters despite the 50ºF temperature outside.
With great effort comes sweet reward (if you like monkeys). As soon as we got to the summit, we were greeted by dozens of monkeys enthusiastically swiping snacks from each other, quarreling, huddling by the fire, and silently willing people with their eyes to give them treats. I found a comfortable spot on the ground next to a fire the groundskeeper had outside to keep the monkeys warm. It was an ideal spot, as I envisioned myself as Jane Goodall blending in within the primate community.
Sarah, Jun, and I felt satisfied with our day of sightseeing in Kyoto and moved on to a destination of the noodle variety– Ino-Ichi ramen. Ino-Ichi was recommended to us by Jun’s mother (American expat living in Japan and a foodie by all rights). This ramen-ya is known for its exceptionally clear, yet flavorful broth (a nice change from the rich tonkotsu pork broth I normally get). The tiny restaurant is located several streets off the bustle of Gion on the lower level of a commercial building. The chefs took great care in preparing our food, even using tiny tongs to gently place the Wagyu beef lightly on top of the noodles.
Jun jokes that Japanese girls have expanded stomachs because they are constantly eating. I believe this is a true condition, as I too gained a “Japanese girl” sized stomach by my third day in Japan. When surrounded by delicious food, there is always room to try more. Tsujiri Honten is notorious for its green tea collection of sips and sweet treats. It’s a popular destination in Gion, and it isn’t unusual to find a long queue at all hours of the day.
We shared two parfaits amongst our group of three (which was more than enough) and basked in the warmth of the restaurant, letting moments of weariness seep in. The street of Gion is a cheery place, with many souvenir shops selling tea, delicate figurines, geisha dolls, and of course, cat paraphernalia (Japan loves cats). I always make a point to buy genmaicha (brown rice green tea) from Tsujiri Honten and enjoy it at home when I think of Kyoto. If you have an extra hour, take a quick walk to the Jam Hostel Sake Bar (yep, a hostel and a sake bar) to sample regional and artisanal sake from around the country. My personal favorite? The yuzu sake!
The next morning in Kyoto was equally as beautiful; the sounds of marketplace vendors opening their stalls sounded just as familiar as if I had been living there for years. We set out to explore the Nishiki Ichiba market in hopes I might find something to appease by bottomless “Japanese girl” stomach. This is no ordinary shopping arcade; this is a mecca of ingredients, fresh produce and meat, and street food. Come hungry with an open mind and you will not be disappointed. Be sure to follow Japanese eating etiquette and detour to the side while eating.
Mochi plays a special role in New Year’s activities and in the days leading up to the 31st, it is traditional to partake in mochi-tsuki, a ceremony to make mochi (rice cakes). Just outside of the Nishiki Ichiba market, Jun got roped into pounding mochi (much to our delight). On the note of New Year’s, you might also see many households and shops displaying their kagami mochi, “mirrored rice cakes” which are two pounded rice cakes stacked on top of each other with a daidai (Japanese orange) balanced on top.
Our next stop was Fushimi Inari, known to many foreigners as the “red gate shrine”, another iconic landmark in Kyoto. Throughout the shrine, you will notice fierce messenger foxes, some depicted with scrolls in their mouths. If you are up to the challenge, summiting the top of the shrine can take about 2 hours. Luckily, there are many rest stops, bathrooms, and opportunity for breaks along the way.
Another special feature of Kyoto is that its naturally soft well water has the ideal components for making the perfect tofu. It is worth trying fresh tofu here, as there is nothing else that rivals its silken texture. After Jun departed for Osaka, Sarah and I found a restaurant in the Kyoto Station that specializes in tofu. We purchased a comprehensive lunch set with tender tofu soup, yakitori-style skewers, and even tofu matcha pudding for dessert. It was utterly delicious and one of my most favorite meals in Japan. With full stomachs, we boarded the outbound train towards our next destination, Kobe.
I have mixed feelings about Kobe. It feels juxtaposed between times and cultures; heavy Chinese influence with a metropolitan vibe. While there are many modern looking structures and Harborland (the port area) is a nice area to walk around, I found that there wasn’t a lot I wanted to do. Sannomiya area does have a “China town” area with a festive feel of street vendors calling out over their steaming pots of dumplings and meats. Unfortunately, I felt disappointed by the lack of options, as almost all of the vendors seemed to sell the same items. While it was a nice change to eat Chinese food, I resolved it would have been better to stick to Japanese cuisine.
Sarah and I spent the rest of the evening wandering through the streets of Kobe and peering into any shops that piqued our interest. It was in Kobe that we first discovered Sanrio’s cranky cartoon egg, Gudetama, who became our beloved mascot for the duration of the trip. It probably takes a degree of weirdness to appreciate this little fellow, but I hope you find him as amusing as I do.
Our hostel was located in a quiet area near a massive shopping arcade and pachinko (Japanese pinball gambling machine) parlor. We ducked into the arcade and discovered a bowling alley on the top floor. With a lot of broken Japanese and pantomiming (none of my conversational Japanese knowledge involved bowling terminology), we bought ourselves a frame and squealed with delight as our shoes came down a chute with a press of a button. Why can’t all American bowling alleys be this advanced?!
After our game of bowling, we were lured in by the shiny lights of the arcade. ¥1500 bought us two hefty baskets of game coins, with a special gift (folder with an anime character on it). Even between the two of us, our baskets of coins were impressively heavy. Like moths drawn to the light, we spent our next hour and a half playing a mermaid coin pushing game. It was like the brilliantly blue lights, congratulatory sounds of winning actions, and unexpected prize balls had me transfixed. It felt like time had stood still; by the time our coins had run out, I was genuinely bummed I did not have more to play.
Although Kobe did not have as many heritage sites as Kyoto, it was a welcome contrast to playing the part of tourist and visiting important landmarks. In Kobe, it felt that we bumbled around as students might– aimlessly wandering from one place to the next, stopping whenever something caught our interest. Strangely enough, it felt like just the right kind of break and carefree fun nestled between our days of busy activities.
Make a Monkey Friend: Iwatayama Monkey Park, Kyoto
Follow Your Nose: Nishiki Ichiba Market, Kyoto
Try Eating: Tofu in Kyoto
Cultural Immersion: Pachinko
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