Kyoto stands for tranquility, manicured gardens and a slow-paced life outside the busy streets of larger cities around Japan. And while it can also be very touristy, it does have a deeper meaning for the informed traveler. As long as you have open eyes and ears, the experience one can have in this gorgeous little town is mesmerizing and one of a lifetime!
With a 1.5m population, a rich cultural heritage and a lush backdrop, Kyoto is the perfect city to explore on foot. There are numerous Buddhist temples, all of which by the way are monuments and many of which are UNESCO sites, as well as other landmark buildings and sites (like Arashiyama) that are definitely worth exploring. As you first arrive into the city most likely by the infamous Shinkansen train, you’re taken by the slower pace you witness in contrast to the big cities. The summer can be hot and humid so it’s best to travel around autumn and spring.
The moment we settled into our hotel, we took out the map and started organizing our itineraries. With so many interesting sites to visit and so little time you have to have a good plan in place in order to avoid disappointment. Especially when temples like the Kyoto Imperial Palace can only be accessed via prior appointment.
Washiocho and Kiyomotocho
Having left Kyoto train station behind us, we started wandering around the busy streets of Washiocho neighborhood which is full of traditional shops and the Hokanji Temple. The path you can follow towards the city centre goes through Komatsucho which is full of temples side by side and a nice segue to some traditional shops like that of Leica, the camera marker, which feature beautiful wooden storefronts. And the setting gets even more captivating if you stumble upon a couple of geishas like we did!
A bit further down, near the area of Nakamocho, the central street is a bit more busy and you can find many attractions (think of the best sushi experience – see below for Sushi Gion Matsudaya) as well as cross the bridge to reach the infamous Pontocho Alley that lets up at night full of bars and other entertainment options. If you get there late at night and are craving for some good ol’ dumplings you can definitely join the queue at Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi to devour their amazing treats!
Tokiwagicho, Nabeyacho and Kyotogyoen
Along the Nakagyō ward, you will find the tiny area of Tokiwagicho which still retains something from the past. Beautifully traditional storefronts in a relaxed vibe cater for tea, takeaway food and other crafts. Apart from the landmark location of Ippodo Teahouse, where patrons enjoy a traditional timed session of tea making and drinking, one can pick up some pastries from Murakami Kaishindo (famous for their cookies which are ok) and time travel to another era and finally shop some furniture or accessories at Futaba Furniture.
As you go north, you’ll discover many residential areas with their tiny homes stacked one next to the other before reaching the neighborhood of the National Garden. If you find yourself in the morning and are in for a lengthy tour, make sure you first pick up a classic jambon et fromage baguette from LAND bakery – second to none! The gardens inside are perfectly tranquil and with lots to discover around the palace too, this place should definitely keep you busy for more than an hour! If that is not enough, then you can definitely combine that with Nijo Castle (that’s what we ended up doing) which is great if the weather allows.
Arashiyama and Philosopher’s Walk
Having seen most of the landmarks centrally in Kyoto, we venture out on a day trip around Arashiyama to witness the gorgeous and lush landscape of the countryside on an early morning. Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is great for a small hike and is one of the most Instagramable places in Japan so it’s best to get there early enough to avoid the crowds. Close by there are many different sites like Tenryuji Temple but the best spots are along the Katsura River where Hoshinoya Kyoto resides and other interesting hotels to unwind for tea.
On a different day we head up northeast to visit the Philosopher’s Walk, a pretty riverfront footpath with shops, cafes and known for its vibrant cherry blossom trees. The area is quite remote so make sure you budget for a taxi ride, which is kind of rare to find. Regardless, visiting Aoonigiri and trying their delicious and own-invented nigiri balls is a must – just make sure you have cash to pay. Next door, along the river, there is Monk, an organic restaurant focusing strictly on vegetables and very limited poultry on an experiential set menu. If you’ve booked in advance, you can enjoy one of the 5 spots by the counter and catch all the action from Chefs Yoshi and Jacob.
Nijo Castle – built in 1603, this cyprus-wood castle with extensive gardens was a home for the shogun Ieyasu
Kinkaku-ji – the gold-leaf Buddhist temple amid a very lush garden
Arashiyama – a lush venue in the countryside with a scenic bamboo forest and water vistas. Best to dedicate at least half a day here
Tenryuji Temple – a Zen temple at the foot of mountains features teahouses & serene, expansive gardens
Hokanji Temple – 5-storey Buddhist temple with some nice views from the top
Pontocho Alley – charming narrow alley with some traditional food and drink joints, that is lit during the night
Philosopher’s Path – riverfront path with some cute shops along it, as well as an amazing array of cherry blossoms when in season
Honke DaiichiAsahi – best ramen in Japan
Monk – organic food eatery (mainly vegetables and pizza) with a fixed menu, offering very limited seating. Best enjoyed when seating at the bar near the chef
Aoonigiri – cash-only establishment offering a unique dish of aoonigiri by the counter
Shinrin Shokudo – a homey and off the beaten path spot for some Japanese curry
Kurasu Kyoto – specialty coffee to go at the back of Kyoto station
Arabica Kyoto Higashiyama – anice outpost of the renown specialty coffee chain in Asia. Very busy at times due to the high tourist traffic
Hello Dolly – small charming bar with a suburban American feel to it, offering live jazz nights most of the time
Land – homey bakery offering some delicious baguettes to go