We didn’t originally plan to go to Kyoto having been there less than a year ago, but when we had to reshuffle our Japan itinerary due to most accommodation being booked up we decided to go join Lila and Rob who were going for their first visit. For first timers in Japan Kyoto warrants a few nights, due to accommodation issues we ended up with two but it is surprising how much you can fit in. Or like us (having been there before) you can just enjoy this beautiful city.
Kyoto is very different to other Japanese cities. There are few highrisers or flashy billboard signs. It retains that old school Japanese charm and this is particularly evident in Gion, the geisha district. These days you would be lucky to spot a real geiko (geisha) or maiko (a geisha in training) but it’s a beautiful area to visit with many traditional houses, temples and shrines.
Kyoto is famous for its matcha (green tea) sweets with many shops lining Shijo-dori. Although it was a chilly afternoon, we couldn’t help but get matcha soft serve ice cream. I loved these on our last visit and have been saving myself to get one in Kyoto and it did not disappoint!
For dinner we headed to Pontocho Dori, a picturesque alley with many restaurants, some hidden down smaller alleyways. We remembered a cute little bar from our previous visit there with Mark and headed straight there. As the sun went down and it got chillier it was great to warm up with a couple of glasses of sake. For dinner, we randomly chose a yakitori place that looked good. Rather than sitting at the bar, this time we sat in a private room on tatami mats. The room had a side door leading into the kitchen from which our waiter popped out from time to time to deliver delicious skewers and Sapporo beer. If we needed anything we could just ring our bell. Another great Japanese experience and more food to tick off our list!
Before our last visit to Japan, our friends Jen and Luke, recommended that we visit the Kodai–ji Temple in the evening for the night time illuminations. We took their recommendation and loved it. The temple is only open at night in spring and autumn for about six weeks at a time and as luck would have it, it was open again during this visit. Although we were tempted to go again we decided to save our pennies, but we did send Lila and Rob. They absolutely loved it – I can still picture their happy smiley faces afterwards!
Whilst Lila and Rob were in the temple, we had a wander around Gion reminiscing about our previous visit and the worst Airbnb apartment we ever stayed in. Located on a main road in Gion it was too small for the six of us and way too noisy with its paper thin walls. To fall asleep, we would head to a small hole in the wall whiskey bar a few doors down, Angelini. There a smartly dressed young bartender would pour us Japanese whiskey into beautiful tumblers with a huge ball of ice (whilst at the same time flirting with the older woman sitting at the corner of the bar). We LOVED that place! We desperately wanted to go back and take Lila and Rob (especially Rob) but it was closed on both night. Instead, we had to content ourselves with a complimentary drink at our hotel, not bad but not Angelini.
Although it took many hours of research (mostly by Daz) we were very happy with our hotel choice, the Sakura Terrace hotel. Located a short walk from Kyoto Station, it was perfect for accessing Arashiyama (the bamboo grove) and the Fushimi Inari Shrine (famous for the thoundands of red torii gates). We ticked these two off on a previous visit, so whilst Lila and Rob headed to Arashiyama early on the train the next day we had a more leisurely morning. All four of us however started the day with Arabica coffee. This was our favourite coffee place in Kyoto on our previous visit – we went to their Gion branch every day. This time we headed to to the stall at Fujii Daimaru, whilst Lila and Rob went to the Arashiyama branch. The coffee was as good as we remembered! Post coffee, we had a quick browse at Nishiki Market – a lively food market! Last time we visited the market area we also stumbled upon cute vintage shops and a cool glasses store where I picked up a great pair of sunnies.
For lunch, Dale and I returned to Kyoto Station. The station with its modern architecture is a tourist attraction in itself and has great views of Kyoto from its 11th floor. After navigating our way through the massive building, we finally found our way to Katsukaru, a tonkatsu restaurant. Tonkatsu is a breaded deep-fried pork fillet and is so so tasty. We came to Katsukaru on our previous visit but with our evening starting as a bit of a disaster (although ending with a very fun karaoke and sochu session) I remember having to eat my tonkatsu very quickly. I really liked it but we wanted to go back and have a more relaxing meal. As with the coffee, the tonkatsu was just as delicious as we remembered.
Our hotel had a lovely onsen, knowing that it was likely to be our last onsen in Japan we were both keen to have a soak. We first tried an onsen on a previous trip to Kyoto, when we did a short day trip to Kurama Hot Spring and went to Kurama Onsen (an open air onsen). If you do not like getting naked in front of other people, an onsen may not be for you. The first time I was a little apprehensive and it didn’t help that Kurama Onsen was very busy. On this trip Dale and I put our inhibitions aside (actually Dale probably didnt have any to start with!) and embraced the onsen experience and used the onsen at every hotel where it was available. There’s something wonderful about soaking in a hot tub on a cool day and this time I was lucky and most of the onsens were not busy.
For our last meal in Kyoto we went to Giro Giro (another recommendation from Jen and Luke) which serves a modern version of kaiseki (traditional Japanese multi-course meal). Booking proved a little difficult as our hotel in Kyoto refused to do any bookings for us before our arrival. Luckily, Daz found and booked through FastJapan.com who were offering a free online concierge service (sadly when we tried to use it again for another booking it was no longer free and required a subscription). We were a little unsure if the booking actually worked but on our arrival at the restaurant 9pm they had four seats waiting for us at the bar – success! There was no menu but you could tell the chefs (who were friendly and spoke a little English) your dietary requirements. The ambience was cool and relaxed and as for the food, it was AMAZING! Beautifully served and so delicious (as well as so reasonably priced!). We all agreed that it was one of our best meals in Japan! [Note: we had a kaiseki meal at Gion Nanba Kyoto on our previous visit. This was a more traditional experience but equally good.]
The next morning we had breakfast and coffee at Lower East 9 hostel. The coffee was great and the hostel looked very cool, if we had known about it we may have stayed there instead. We then headed to Kyoto Station for our shinkansen.
As Lila and Rob didn’t get a chance to see Kyoto Station the previous day, Dale took them on a “quick” tour. We arrived with almost an hour to spare but with five minutes until our train I was still waiting for the three of them (with all our bags). As I already mentioned, Kyoto Station is huge! I later read that it’s the second largest station in Japan and overall one of the country’s largest building, so navigating proved a little challenging (especially as I had the railway passes and they couldn’t cut through the station). Fortunately, they did make back with two minutes to spare (all etiquette was broken as the three of them sprinted through the station shouting sumimasen) and with Lila, Rob and Dale still a little puffed we boarded the shinkansen to Fukuoka – our next destination!