If Tokyo is the NYC of Japan, then Kyoto is the Washington DC or Boston. It’s full of charm by the way of over 2,000 temples and shrines and gorgeous green landscapes.
Kyoto provides a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. It’s so open; therefore there is this element of discovery and feeling of free reign here.
I’m not going to pretend to know even a small bit of the intricate history of Kyoto. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to fit it on this page, nor would I want to rob you of learning it first hand by traveling here. The range of religion, culture, empire, and nation that have touched Kyoto spans centuries.
What I do know is that this place is magic in all its simplicity. There are no words to describe its allure, and no photos that can capture the feeling here.
If you are looking for that classic Japanese charm and age-old traditions, Kyoto is your spot.
SAKURA TERRACE THE GALLERY
My family and I were in Kyoto for three nights and stayed in two different places. The first hotel we stayed at was Sakura Terrace The Gallery. It’s a modern boutique hotel with a cool aesthetic. The lobby is al fresco and has streams and waterfalls running throughout. Amenities include a public bath, free tea and coffee and one free drink from the bar each evening that can be enjoyed by the fire pit.
GION RYOKAN Q-BEH
For the last night, we decided to stay in a ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese Inn. Think bed and breakfast, only instead you sleep in a Japanese Tatami room on top of a comfy mattress pad on the floor. Guests also have to take off their shoes at the entrance and are provided with yukatas (summer kimono made of cotton). We slept on the tatami floor alongside each other with our matching yukatas, making it one big wonderful Japanese sleepover. We stayed in the Gion Ryokan Q-Beh and it’s definitely an experience I recommend.
Japan is a place after my own heart—they LOVE their ice-cream. And in Kyoto, you can find soft-serve shops on almost every street corner. Popular flavors include matcha (green tea), tofu milk, cherry blossom, lavender and even bamboo flavored.
Located on a long and narrow shopping street, you’ll find over 100 food stalls with all types of weird and wonderful Japanese delicacies. Half the time, I honestly didn’t even know what I was looking at. But I don’t know about you, I am more likely to try something if I don’t know what it is. It’s part of the fun.
We found a low-key restaurant in Gion called Gion Tanto, specializing in Okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a traditional Japanese savory pancake. It’s considered to be Japanese comfort food—often compared to pizza or omelets. This restaurant had an authentic ambience. You took your shoes off at the entrance, sat on the floor and each table in the restaurant had an iron griddle to keep your dishes warm. It was our first time trying Okonomiyaki and we were very much satisfied.
By day, it looks like a normal Japanese side street. But in the evening, Pontocho becomes a magical place – the sort of street you might have imagined before arriving in Asia. Traditional lanterns light up the street and signs to izacayas (Japanese pubs) and restaurants invite you in.
ARAYASHIMA BAMBOO GROVE
Located on the western outskirts of the Kyoto lies Arayashima, a suburb with multiple sights worth seeing.
The first thing we did was head to the Arayashima Bamboo Grove. Here you walk a 200 meter long trail surrounded by a canopy of bamboo stalks. I seriously have no idea how people take those iconic photos where they are standing alone surrounded by only bamboo. I went on a Saturday afternoon and there were swarms of people. Regardless, the bamboos do provide a sense of calmness even amongst the crowd. It’s kind of like walking through a chlorophyll-colored dream, just with a bunch of tourists attempting to take a photo for Instagram.
Along the bamboo trail, we spotted a sign for Okochi-Sanso Villa. What used to be the estate of actor Okochi Denjiro, is now a sight that is open to the public. The main house overlooks the city and its teahouse is an open-air gem. But it’s the gardens here that are the most stunning. We followed a route that offered views for days. Also, at the end of the trail we got to enjoy a matcha tea and Japanese dessert in this outdoor teahouse.
After exploring the grounds, we headed to Tenryuji Temple. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was a very crowded place. But here, the gardens made up for that with its lush greenery, koi ponds and pruned bonsai trees.
ARAYASHIMA KIMONO FOREST
This spot isn’t as well-known as the others. Instead of trees, fabric is encased in these transparent pillars. These fabrics are dyed in different colors and are normally used for kimonos.
However, the best time to visit is at night when the poles are lit up. During the day, it’s pretty much what it looks like here—just rows of fabric-encased poles.
IWATAYAMA MONKEY FOREST
It’s about a 30-minute hike up a mountain to reach the monkeys, and with the heat and humidity of Kyoto, it was kind of brutal. But once we got to the top, we were greeted by over maybe 30 or so snow monkeys roaming freely.
I could’ve literally watched these monkeys for hours. They were so interesting—their mannerisms and personalities were so human-like.
For instance, there was this family of monkeys—a mom, a dad and their baby. The mom was trying to take a nap and the baby kept poking the mom to play. However, the dad noticed and literally grabbed the baby’s hand and scolded him for bothering the mom. The baby eventually obeyed and the dad went back to massage the mom to sleep. Because he knows how it goes—happy wife, happy life.
This area is known as the entertainment center of Japan. It is also the place where many go to catch a rare sighting of a Geisha scurrying through the streets. There are a number of teahouses in the area where Geishas perform traditional tea ceremonies. However, many of the teahouses are exclusive. Only those with connections and money can afford them. And we had neither. HA.
On one of the evenings, my cousins and I went looking for a bar in Gion. We stumbled upon one called Vileneve Pub and Bar and decided to go in. We were the first guests of the night, so we were treated to drinks and an array of snacks by the bartender. Although there was a language barrier, he really made us feel at home.
He then surprised us and whipped out four microphones, two touchscreens for selecting music and hooked them all up to the TVs in the bar. In an instant, we were in full Karoake mode and spent the night singing our little hearts out with our new Kyoto friends.
Now, it usually costs $30-50 per person to rent a Karoake room in Japan. But at this bar, we got unlimited Karoake along with our own personal bartender, and multiple rounds of drinks for four people for the total price of…wait for it… $50. Best night ever.
RENT A YUKATA
It’s common to see people visiting the temples and shrines dressed in full Japanese garb. Kimonos and yukatas can be rented for the day in many stores around the city. I didn’t rent one simply because I am cursed with the body heat of a werewolf. But my cousin rented one, so I just lived vicariously through her.
Here’s a tip though, in the summer when its 90 degrees F and 100% humidity, make sure you ask to rent a yukata, not a kimono. A yukata is the summer version of a kimono—breathable fabric and not as many layers underneath. My cousin mistakenly rented a kimono because it was cheaper and she ended up having to brave the heat with 5 layers of fabric. She was definitely a trooper. I on the other hand would have melted.
FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA
This Shinto shrine is probably one of the most impressive shrines I’ve seen in Japan so far. Ten thousand orange torii gates arch over a 2-hour long scenic trail which leads up to the sacred Mt. Inari. Each gate was donated by an organization or individual, whose names you will find inscribed on the back of each one. There are also many little rest stops, restaurants and shops along this bright orange maze.
The first time you come to Kyoto is really something. You don’t need to google all the history to understand its cultural significance. You just feel it. The hundreds of sites throughout the region are right out of a storybook and there is no shortage of stories or history to fill its pages.
A city packed with treasures, Kyoto has a certain mystique and reverence that transports you to a different time and will most definitely leave you wanting to come back for more.