JAPAN TRAVEL GUIDE: KYOTO
First things first, a confession: I’m not chronologically ordering my trip in Japan for you, sorry. Instead I thought I would write it up in a way that allows me to ease into the subject, as there is so much to show, share and tell you that my poor little brain might explode from documenting everything in the way that we experienced it.
My trip in January looked something like the below (and whilst I covered a fair amount of ground in just 11 or so days, there is still so so much to explore):
Tokyo - Izu - Tokyo - Kyoto - Kanazawa - Tokyo
Japan had always been on my bucket list, a place I had to see. At school, I had Japanese classes and loved them. I wish I’d kept them up in all honesty. Something about the language clicked with me instantly (I was always good at languages, looking back in hindsight I wish I’d pursued them further at school) and still to this day, 13 years later, I can remember some (basic) Japanese which I was pleased as punch to be able to put into practice, finally, for the first time.
My trip to Japan came through an invitation from Small Luxury Hotels - a company I’ve known and trusted for years as always having a pick of the best hotels around the world. If you’re wanting a boutique find in the destination that you’re heading to, SLH is guaranteed to have it. You can always rely on SLH to have the most intimate, independent boutique hotels (a hotel can only become part of the SLH collection if it fits certain criteria), I’d definitely recommend you give them a visit here and browse their amazing collection of hotels. I might also mention here my flights - as part of the SLH trip - were covered by Japan Airlines, who honestly, were brilliant. As I soon begun to realise, Japanese service is second to none and that is reflected from the moment you step on the plane. We flew Economy, which for a long flight can sometimes stress me out (I have long legs that need to be stretched and get very antsy from sitting in one spot for too long) but with Japan Airlines, the time literally flew by and I was so comfy (it was also made more pleasant by the fact that I have no one sitting next to me which is pretty much the ideal way to do Economy!).
With the SLH trip, the itinerary was to stay for a week (and to explore Tokyo & Izu only, which is where SLH has hotels) but I decided straight away that since I was over in Japan that I was going to make the most of it and so, I added on an extra 5 nights to cover Kyoto, Kanazawa and an extra night in Tokyo (just in case I’d missed anything the previous times - which turns out, I did!). So for full clarity, Kyoto - my first blog post on Japan - was separate to my SLH obligations and was an extra add-on by myself to a trip I was already going on.
I knew I had to visit Kyoto as soon as I knew I was going to. You have to.
Once the capital of Japan, it’s a city that mixes old and new Japan together perfectly. Rather amusingly, you can even visit a Starbucks in the Gion district (the traditional Geisha district of the city) - something I would usually stick my nose up at however they provide free wifi so even if you don’t go in, you can still connect whilst standing outside. And since you’re in a country where your phone’s internet does not want to ever work (or if you’d prefer not to pay an extortionate amount for data!), free wifi wherever is a blessing, even just for a minute.
I spent three nights in Kyoto. The first was a bit of a waste in truth as I left Tokyo that morning being very, very sleep deprived and quite possibly a little hungover thanks to giving the other girls on the trip a properly good send-off the night before (it was their last evening before they headed back to London - cocktails and karaoke, followed by more drinks and karaoke had to be done!). In fact, I’d quite like to forget that morning getting from the hotel in Tokyo to the bullet train. Let’s just say the fact that you can send your suitcase onto your next hotel the day before in Japan is an absolute life-saving blessing (I’ll touch upon transport/getting round etc in my Tokyo guide - I’m hoping to be in full swing guide mode by the time I do this one as there’s lots I want to cover). Anyway, back to Kyoto.
I booked my hotel for Kyoto two nights before I visited. I was all very casual about it but I just took the view that I have no idea where would be good in Kyoto so just picked something when I absolutely had to. This was my hotel - very clean, good design, pleasant rooms, small bathrooms, reasonably priced and a great location for exploring. Overall, I was happy enough and as I wasn’t planning on being in the hotel much, I didn’t want to pay through the roof for literally just somewhere to rest in the evening. What I will say too is that a three star hotel in Japan is like a normal, basic four star hotel anywhere else. I would never usually book a three star anywhere, but in Japan, you need not worry about anything! Cleanliness is in-built in the Japanese, as is being a good host. Now, having explored Kyoto, I actually realise how lucky I was with location and I’d recommend the area near Shijo station to be a good starting point for looking at places to stay. Also, I didn’t have the time to research into this properly, though I had countless recommendations from others, which was to look into staying at a Ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn - or a Machiya - a Japanese townhouse. These are stripped back in terms of hotel amenities, but make up for it with the little personal touches.
Getting around Kyoto was easier than I thought it was going to be. I’ll admit, the getting around part daunted me before I visited Japan as I had no idea what to expect and imagined myself being completely lost and befuddled all the time. But if you fear that too, don’t. It all makes total sense once you’re there, I assure you. By the end, I was a pro-tourist in Japan. The easiest way to talk about the transport in Kyoto is to compare to what I know best, and that’s the transport in London. Kyoto does have an underground, however it’s essentially just two lines (imagine if we just had that in London) which doesn’t serve all the spots in Kyoto (like it we only have the Central & District Lines in the city) so it’s good, but not the only way you’ll be getting around. As I didn’t use it all that much, I only paid as I travelled (I think the most expensive one way trip I did was £3.30 so it’s definitely an affordable option) but you can buy a Kyoto Pass for the bus and underground. But that being said, the most convenient and time-saving method is taxis. There’s plenty of them in Kyoto. Some drivers have a good command of English, one showed me his rather impressive collection of international bank notes he’d received over time from international customers and he could relay them all as he flicked through each note - something tells me he’s had a bit of practice. All I had from him was a 5p… I did end up getting taxis quite a lot but I think my most expensive journey was perhaps £22 and that got me to the farthest point I needed to be (the bamboo forest). So, in all honesty, budget £40 on taxis each day and you will probably find you don’t even come close to maxxing. Also, walk. You will walk a hell of a load whilst here - I think I actually did some damage to my foot whilst here as I walked so so so much. But it’s by far the best way to get acquainted with a new turf so I’d strongly recommend you invest in a good pair of shoes and get marching! There are buses too which I only used once - it was very crowded and you get on at the middle but pay at the front when you get off. A little stressful so was only experienced once!
Finally, before I get on with sharing with you my recommendations, a few tips and pointers I found useful to know whilst on my discovery.
Always good to have cash on you (for taxis etc), if you can’t find a bank (and I don’t remember seeing any hole-in-the-walls, don’t worry, they have plenty of Family Marts around the city which have ATM's inside. But on that note, if you’re a Monzo user (as I am for international travel), these don’t work in the ATMs here, so your best bet for withdrawing from one of those is at a Post Office
there’s no rubbish bins anywhere, so bear this in mind. The mentality of the Japanese is that you take your rubbish home - something in London you can’t imagine, and yet the streets of Japan are spotless
no need to tip in Japan, it’s not a thing
when buying something, the norm is to place your money on the little tray on the counter rather than hand directly to the server (something I only really realised after my trip, but they didn’t mind at all)
language barrier is very much a thing so if you need any assistance, head straight to the tourist centre in the train station - LIFESAVERS
buy a guide book beforehand - I like the Monocle guides - as this gives you plenty of knowledge which you can read up on whilst on the plane. I like the little insights to the culture and history that these guides give, you learn a lot in a short amount of time
Shops/eateries don’t open early in Kyoto - the average is around 10/11am so breakfast can sometimes be a struggle. Grab something from 7 eleven or find somewhere that’s open by researching ahead of time
Oh - and if there’s one thing you should take away from this blog post (I mean, hopefully there’s a few things BUT) it’s that, when abroad and out of wifi/internet, you NEED to download an app called maps.me - a downloadable map which allows you to navigate around offline. It has its moments, I won’t lie, but it honestly saved me so much time and also allowed me to plan my routes and generally helped me get around, so for that I’m eternally grateful (even if at times, it under-estimated the walking distance!)
Right, I think I’ve spoken enough, don’t you? Sorry for the waffling, but once I get started I find it difficult to stop as there’s so much that keeps flooding back to me from this trip. I’d be wandering and see something useful and remember saying to myself I’d make a mental note to put in the blog post because I want these posts to be as useful as they possibly can be. Travelling can be a minefield, especially somewhere like Japan. For many of us, it’s a completely new culture to get acquainted with and that can be a little daunting. Also, if you’re like me you want to see/explore as much as possible so that can mean spending hours pouring yourself over the internet - blog posts/online round-ups/guides - to consume as much information as you can only to switch your laptop off feeling completely overwhelmed. When I was doing my research for Japan, I found a lot of online articles and blog posts lacking in detail. For something as mind-bogglingly different as Japan, I want to know everything before I go so I’m armed with it all, hence why I’ve waffled somewhat remarkably in this blog post.
I hope you find these guides to Japan of use. If you do, then I’ve succeeded in setting out what I intended. And that’s all I want for these kind of posts.
Without further adieu, your checklist for Kyoto awaits…
WHERE TO VISIT
Nishiki Market - known as 'Kyoto’s Kitchen’, you can find anything you want here to eat! The delicious to the downright peculiar and questionable looking. There’s also a handful of little shops selling Japanese gifts, ceramics and knick-knacks which are certainly worth a peruse.
Fushimi Inari-taisha - OK, confession: I didn’t love this. I’m putting it in here because I wanted to discuss and give you my personal opinion (and I’m not alone in this one). Chances are you will have seen the torii gates on instagram - bold orange gate after gate, it’s instagram gold-dust, sure. But it’s crowded and totally spoilt. Even if you get there - as I did - at 9am. Hordes of people, everywhere, the magic of finally visiting a place you’ve seen so much is instantly lost. I stayed for 15 minutes and got out quickly. So, if you must see it for yourself (which I totally get) then do, but go early, by 8:30am I’d say if you’re wanting a quick in & out visit. Otherwise, you can do the walk up the mountain as the gates continue up there (and is a lot more secluded as people don’t tend to do that) which takes a couple of hours I think.
Gion - the traditional Geisha district which looks like it belongs in another era. Chances of spotting a real Geisha are quite slim because it’s become such a tourist spot that the Geisha shy away from the cameras but you might get lucky. Chances are you’re actually seeing a tourist dressed in traditional kimonos (which can be loaned around the city) but alas, you never know!
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest - A famous sight that’s worth seeing. Go early and you’ll have peace and quiet to get the shot. If you head further into the forest you might just be lucky enough to see monkeys swinging from the trees! It’s magical. Also, if it had been open early in the morning and I’d had the time, I would have visited the monkey park to see what it was like (I can’t comment as I didn’t get to see). If you’ve been - let me know!
Golden Pavilion - there’s not much to do here, a walk around the lake to spy the Golden Pavilion is all there is to do. But it’s a beauty. You won’t be alone but do what I do and work the angles to make it look as though you’ve got the place entirely to yourself.
Nijo Castle - I ran out of the time for this, but it’s certainly one to visit if you can. And if you’re visiting during cherry blossom season, a stroll through the gardens is a must.
Kiyomizu-dera - the morning I visited this temple was the day it snowed which made it all that bit more magical. Certainly worth a visit to experience a beautiful Japanese temple.
Philosopher’s Path - an absolute must in gorgeous weather and especially during cherry blossom season.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
Honke Daiichi Asahi - a decades old ramen place which attracts a queue of fans every day. Staff are super lovely and ramen is hearty, filling and delicious.
Ryori Ryoken Tempura Yoshikawa - for fans of tempura, get yourself here (though do expect to eat a lot of tempura). The building itself has housed the traditional ryoken and tempura restaurant since the end of WWII. There’s only the 11 seat counter to eat at, all surrounding the head chef who deep fries fresh ingredients right in front of you.
Nishitomiya - my heaven: a croquette shop. Eat in with salads or takeaway and munch on the go. (A non-related but useful tip: there’s a very good pharmacy across the road should you be needing one
% Arabica - coffee lovers get their fix here. There’s a few small shops dotted around Kyoto - the one in Gion is always busy.
Bar Rocking Chair - owner-bartender Kenji Tsubokura was titled world bartender of the year in 2016. A must visit bar.
Weekenders Coffee - a tiny coffee stand in a parking lot.
Ippudo Ramen - metres from the entrance to Nishiki Market is Ippudo (yes, the same Ippudo that is now globally famous). Good, proper ramen for less then a tenner.
Cafe Rhinebeck - Japanese don’t really do breakfast like Westerners, so if you’re craving something sugary and well, western, head to Cafe Rhinebeck for a good stack of fluffy pancakes, American-style. I know, not Japanese at all. But I guarantee you won’t regret the blueberry pancakes.
For the best mochi of your life, you need to head here - a small shop on the street corner that does the best mochi, you’ll be going back for seconds. Thank you in particular to my insta-pal Erol for this recommendation!
A few others for your list that I didn’t get to try but was recommended:
Kiln - a Japanese style bistro that’s located on the second floor of a very random looking building. Communal style table seating giving an informal vibe.
Wife & Husband - I really wanted to visit here but couldn’t fit a trip in. A coffee shop that also caters for picnics by the river.
Pontocho Alley - a street lined with restaurants which come alive at night. You’ll be spoilt for choice here. Some have English menus and some only accept Japanese speaking guests.
Hafuu Honten - apparently good for kobe beef steak - next time!
Teuchi Soba Kanei - strongly recommended by my friend for lunch near Arashiyama. Apparently the best soba in Kyoto.
A DAY TRIP TO NARA
So not technically in Kyoto… but well worth a morning visit, which is exactly what I did! A 45 minute train journey from Kyoto station is Nara. I don’t know much about the city - I could research it but I didn’t experience it so I feel there’s no point - because I was there for one thing only:
These greedy little goblins are some of the most fearless bambis I’ve ever come across - they will literally head butt you for snacks. But once you look into their cute doe eyes, you’ll be parting with your pennies and buying them some snacks which they’ll gladly take off you.