for 5 days, 5 nights | in August | 30-33 C, occasional rain
This was the first stop on our 13 day stay in Japan. And I've just got to start by saying, travelling by Shinkansen, the ultra speedy bullet trains, is an absolute pleasure. Not only do they gently rock tired eyes to sleep, they are timed like clockwork at every station and offer vast perspective of the countryside and densely populated cities along the way.
We stayed at the New Miyako Hotel across the road from Kyoto Station on Hachijo Dori (Dori = Street). It was an excellent location for using trains and buses on day trips, eating at the station's abundant selection of good restaurants, and walking to Gion for shopping, Geishas and more food. It is also very reasonably priced (about 15,000 yen per night) and the room as clean, and not too small (by Japan standards!).
Kyoto is a beautifully serene place when you get to the right places. In between, it's dominated by concrete apartment blocks, car parks and unkept children's playgrounds. To experience this serenity, the key is to walk. We walked upward of 10kms each day, busing or traming to a temple site, then walking our way back to the hotel. Kyoto is flat so it's not at all strenuous and there are cute suburban lanes in the back streets riddled with gorgeous flower vendors and grocery stalls.
Gion is a place to explore night and day. We had 5 nights in total in Kyoto and spent 3 of them in Gion. If you're lucky you'll see Geisha's in the early evening before they go in for the night. Stroll down the covered market street off Shijo Dori which is filled with market stalls and shops - if you're into patterned stockings or hair clips then your retinas will have much to rest upon. Wander down the riverside, under the lanterns and soak in the atmosphere. As the light goes down more and more people emerge and Gion really comes to life.
For the shoppers, there are two big department stores on the main Shijo Dori intersection which will keep you busy. There is a street running parallel to the undercover market that has a few designer clothing shops hidden away. Some really cool stuff in all of them. I particularly liked Anocoloe.
I know it sounds bizarre, but spending time in the train station is a must. Our other 2 nights' meals were had at Machiya and Ton Katsu Wako which are both top rated eateries on Trip Advisor. There are 11 stories of shoes, bags, clothes, sports and children's wear, restaurants, cafés, beauty salons and cosmetics in the Station building. And that's only one area. Down underneath the high rise there are plenty more stores to visit.
Shrines and temples
There are a tonne of temples in Kyoto, so you need to pick out the ones you want to visit and aim for those. We didn't get to all we wanted too, but the ones we did were magnificent examples of religious architecture.
Rokuon-Ji Temple (The Golden Pavilion) dating back to 1397 - This was my favourite. The temple is cast in gold foil on lacquer. It glistens in the sun, surrounded by the most zen of gardens and ponds.
Ryoanji Temple dating back to 1450, rebuilt in 1499 - The Rock Garden at Ryoanji is the epitome of zen. We sat and looked over the garden towards it's oil boiled clay walls that have, over time, seeped and created the most gorgeous textural pattern and colours. The white gravel is racked in an effortlessly perfect way, surrounding just 15 rocks. Inside, the hard wooden floors within the temple are incredibly soft under foot and the traditional Japanese artwork surrounds the meditation rooms. One of my favs.
Ginkakuji Temple (The Silver Pavilion) dating back to 1482 - This temple has beautifully tranquil gardens and Ginsyadan (sand garden). Unlike the Rokuon-Ji, the Silver Pavilion is not actually silver, but similar in that it too is guarded by a phoenix mounted high above the temple's roof.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple, founded 798AD, buildings established 1633 - The stroll from the Ginkakuji Temple to this one is the best walk in Kyoto. It winds down along a river, under a canopy of trees and alongside quaint residential housing and tiny streets. If you are into pottery, then the road leading up to the Temple will be right up your alley, and there are (I think) better shops on the road leading left and away from the Temple. The Temple itself is huge and very impressive. There is not a single nail in the entire structure. It's best seen in Spring (March/April/May) when the surrounding Cherry Blossom trees are in flower.
Eating and drinking
Vending machines. I have never seen so many in my life! There is literally a cluster every 30 metres so you will not be short of hydration as you pound the pavement.
Super Dry has themed bars across the country & these are great for a beer - one of the few actual bars we found. About $5 for a beer.
I have found my new port in plum liquor. It is slightly sour, but sweet and just delicious. Best served on the rocks.
The Nekokaigi Cat Cafeis not for everyone but I loved it. See my cat cafe post here.
In the Gion district Pontocho alleyway is packed full of places to eat. We chose two small restaurants down there for meals, which were very good. The choice is endless so best to stroll and see what menu pictures or plastic food display catches your eye!
Ton Katsu Wako on Level 11 of the Kyoto Train Station. It just does pork Katsu. And it is excellent. I had the "Pork fillet with a pot" for $15, a hot pot of egg and pork Katsu. Miles had the 150g Pork Fillet with cabbage and miso meal set. Yum!
Chiyada, down the bottom of the station specialises in okonomiyaki. A mix of meat/seafood and noodles cooked and then combined into a sudo-omelette. This was one of my favourite meals and I loved the hot plate in the centre of our table keeping the okonomiyaki hot as we devoured it.
Other foods I loved in Kyoto: Chicken meatballs, eggplant with miso, tonkotsu ramen with garlic oil, and yakitori. And for sweets, there is nothing else quite like black sesame ice cream. Yum! Green tea and vanilla soft serve swirled together is also pretty dam good. The Japanese call ice cream 'Soft Ice'.
Another delicious treat was this warm crunchy scone filled with melting vanilla ice cream from a stall in the covered street mall off Shijo Dori. Oh it was epic, and random!
After two failed attempts of trying to stomach smelly pickles, slimy squid sashimi, and other daring flavours, we steered clear of bento boxes. Not up my alley, but definitely worth a try as very traditional.
Kyoto is definitely worth the 2 hour Shinkansen ride from Tokyo.
Tips for travelling in Japan
Buy a JR Rail Passbefore you leave for Japan (7, 14 or 21 day options) and allow two weeks for it to be delivered (mine came within days)
There is not a great amount of English spoken by locals so be prepared with hotel and place names on your phone or written down to show people when you ask for directions. Having data available on your phone to use google maps is essential
Expect everything to be in Japanese characters, rarely supplemented by English. You work it out, eventually but it is challenging and at times ordering food at a true local is a lucky guess