Kon’nichiwa! Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan before Tokyo took over. It’s a charming city with history and culture that makes you feel like you are in traditional Japan. Kyoto’s famous for its many classical Buddhist temples, gardens, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines and traditional wooden houses. It’s also home to geisha, female entertainers often found in the Gion district. We made Kyoto our first stop on our 1 week trip in Japan. Find out more about how we spent our two days in Kyoto!
Getting to Kyoto
Knowing we were traveling between three different cities on our week long trip to Japan, we purchased the JR Rail Pass about a month prior to leaving on our trip. The JR Rail pass is worth every penny – we could use any JR line including the bullet trains. The pass made travel so much easier and cheaper! Upon arrival in Japan, we took our passes to a ticket office to get validated. Be aware – lines at the Haneda airport could be long – luckily we hustled off the plane and beat the crowd to the line after going through customs. Once validated, we hopped on the train to Shinagawa Station, from there we boarded our bullet train to Kyoto. It takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes to get there from Tokyo. The trains are clean, fast and quiet. You don’t hear people talking to one another or on their cell phones – very different than most train experiences we’ve been on. It was an easy trip to Kyoto – highly suggest getting the JR Rail Pass. (Middle photo is the train we took to Shinagawa station, and the last image is the JR Bullet Train)
Granbell Kyoto Hotel
Upon arrival in Kyoto, we checked-in at our hotel, Granbell Kyoto in the Gion Region. It was the perfect location set on a quiet side street and close to the action. The hotel was a blend of tradition and modern with a lovely lobby common area and bar. Our room was on the ground floor – which at first seemed like it would be nosy, but it wasn’t at all. If you have large suitcases, I would suggest upgrading your room to one of the larger rooms since the standard is pretty small. In addition to the upgraded room, be sure to also have breakfast included – it was fantastic! So many options – Western and Japanese items to pick from. Another great reason to stay in this hotel is that you are walking distance to a lot of the sites and close to the Gion-Shijo station making it easy to get around. We were lucky enough to also see a lot of Geisha’s in the neighborhood which was interesting to see – very authentic! Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fishimi Inari Taisha was the #1 site we wanted to see in Kyoto! It didn’t disappoint and is still our #1 site we would suggest going to tour. Inari was originally and remains primarily the kami of rice and agriculture, but merchants and manufacturers also worship Inari as the patron of business. It was easy getting to this site – we jumped on the train (JR Nara Line) and got off at JR Inari Station. Since we were up at 5am (umm-jet lag), we had an early start to our day and beat the crowds at Fushimi Inari Taisha. We hiked up the mountain to the smaller shrines and enjoyed the views and nature. To note – there are a lot of steps, so wear comfortable shoes if you want to make it to the top!
Philosopher’s Path to Nanzen-ji and Elian-do
The Philosopher’s Path is a pedestrian path that begins around Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and ends in the neighborhood of Nanzenji. The path gets its name from Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. We enjoyed strolling the path enjoying some of the shrines along the way as well as some local residence and shops. Suggest doing this walk in Fall and in the Spring with the cherry blossoms in full bloom and the leaves brightly colored.
Sunset (or day) at Kiyomizu-dera
Unfortunately, we were not able to go to Kiyomizu-dera during sunset due to some time constraints, but we were lucky enough to check out this Buddhist temple on the last morning we were in Kyoto. Once again, we were up early and walked from our hotel to get to the Temple. There were gardens, pedestrian streets (Nineizaka), a Buddhist pagoda and restaurants along the way. Since it was early most of the shops and restaurants were closed, so next time we would suggest going at sunset. The views from the top are spectacular and you can enjoy a meal or snack and the many restaurants in the area once you tour the shrine.
One of the most visited sites in Kyoto is Nishiki Market. Yes a market – it’s not like your typical grocery store. Here you can find local foods and famous goods native to Kyoto. Don’t be surprised if you see some octopus lolipops or even smell something that might not sit well with your stomach. It’s a sight thats forsure and you have to at least walk a block of the market to experience it!
Upon arrival in Kyoto, we headed to Pontocho Alley just across the river to eat some dinner. It’s a narrow alley packed with restaurants on both sides offering a wide range of dining options from inexpensive yakitori to traditional and modern Kyoto cuisine, foreign cuisine and highly exclusive establishments that require you to know the right person. To note – there are some restaurants that don’t have an English menu so pick wisely! It’s a little overwhelming (especially on your first night in Japan) to stroll this street, but we braved it! Some of the restaurants told us they didn’t have space and we took it as they didn’t want us English-speaking ladies in their restaurant. We then learned after being at other restaurants, that if they don’t have a seat available at that moment they tell you there is no room. You can ask to wait and they will kindly accept.
Musashi Sushi Kyoto
It doesn’t look like much from the outside (or inside), but this conveyor belt sushi (kaiten-zushi) restaurant is FANTASTIC and very affordable! We tried a variety of rolls, sashimi and of course saki and beer! The space was filled with mostly locals on onside and then some tourist in our area…very few though! Suggest coming to Musashi Sushi for lunch – which is a preferred time to eat sushi by the Japanese.
Just about a 30 second walk from the Granbell Hotel is Tarokichi. We had a long day of touring and wanted to find something close since we were exhausted. Time change still wasn’t settled in on Day #2. (Waking up at 4am and bedtime by 8pm.) We were lucky enough to get a spot at Tarokichi! It’s a yakatori restaurant with delicious varieties of meat/poultry to choose from including some vegetables side dishes. We sat at the bar and enjoyed a meal with a Geisha sitting next to us….felt like we were in a movie! If you stay at the Granbell and need a close food option, head here!
Nokishita711 (gin bar)
Across the river, we found a hip, quant “unusual” gin bar – Nokishita711. The owner is the bartender and he makes craft cocktails using different gins from all over the world. The bar itself is decorated with foliage, currencies and anything else visitors put up on the wall. The best part of the bar is that there is no cost to the drinks. You pay what you think the cocktail costs. First time experiencing that !! He basically doesn’t charge anything for his creations, but they are sooo good that you can’t walk out of there paying nothing. Highly suggest Nokishita711 !
Ichiran Kyoto Kawaramachi
On our last day in Kyoto, before getting on the train we wanted lunch so we decided on Ichiran Kyoto Kawaramachi. Ichiran was quite the experience – you order at a vending machine outside, get a ticket, go sit down inside at seats that are like cubbies. Once seated, you mark on a piece of paper your preference on spiciness, vegetables and extras and then a window opens and a chef takes your paper. Window closes and you wait. Minute later the window opens, drink is served and then about 2 minutes later your ramen is delivered. It was such a unique experience we would highly suggest everyone going. The ramen was delicious too – not your standard top ramen. hehe! Video of experience HERE.
% Arabica Coffee
There are a couple % Arabica coffee shops in Kyoto, but we went to the one in Higashiyama. It was such a lovely shop with delicious coffee and almond milk! Great atmosphere too. If you are looking for a boutique coffee shop – head to % Arabica!
Shopping in Kyoto
One of our favorite parts of traveling is buying clothes, accessories or shoes abroad. We don’t waste our whole day shopping, but we typically find an area with cute boutiques and spend one to two hours looking around. In Kyoto we stumbled upon some local curated boutiques and home shops in the Nakagyo Ward. First sign of a good area – an Aesop. We feel in love with Evam Eva which was right across the street. Great staples – sweaters, coats, dresses and cardigans. Walking out of Evam Eva and go right,and you will find some great stores! A couple blocks away from this area is the big shopping mall where you will find your main brand designers…we didn’t spend much time there, just checked out Zara (standard). Buying local curated items is our thing so thats why we stick to boutiques!
Places we didn’t get to check-out, but wERE on our list:
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove: A bamboo forest about 45 minutes from Kyoto
Yakitori Hitomi: Yakatori restaurant locals love, highly suggest making a reservation
Yakitori Torito: A stylish yakatori restaurant