We started our trip in Tokyo, and headed to Kyoto as our second stop. Tokyo is “new Japan” and Kyoto is “old Japan.”
Places to go Kyoto:
Kyoto used to be the capital many many years ago, and it’s still the home of thousands of temples and shrines, and it’s where the few remaining Geisha’s still live and work.
The government encourages people to dress up in traditional dress by offering discounts to restaurants and shrines for those wearing Kimonos. So you see a lot of people you could easily confuse for Geishas.
Getting there from Tokyo is easy via the Shinkansen high-speed train. Getting train tickets was also easy – we went to the station on the day we were leaving for Kyoto and just purchased tickets there. Trains leave about every 20 minutes so it’s not hard to get on one of them. As I mentioned in my “tips” section, be sure to send your luggage ahead of you for an easy ride. If you’re feeling flush, take the “green car,” which is the first class cabin on the train – you get assigned seats, more room and more comfortable seats.
As in Tokyo, we started off our visit to Kyoto with a guided tour from “Tours by Locals,” and asked our guide to help us get to some of the sights at outlying areas that we were interested in seeing. We started the day at the “Golden Shrine” (really called Kinkaku-ji), which is one of the most visited shrines in Kyoto. There were tons of people there, but our guide told us it was “practically deserted” by local standards and that the best time to go is in the morning.
After that, we went to Arashiyama Monkey Park, which is an area where you can hang out with monkeys and watch them interact with each other. It sounds random, but is the most captivating thing ever. To get there, you hike through a bamboo forest, walk along a gorgeous river, and once you reach it, there’s the most spectacular view of all of Kyoto. I was hesitant to go here (monkeys aren’t really my thing), and I’m so glad we did.
The Nishiki Market in Kyoto is worth a visit. It’s a long hall filled with food shops, gift shops and other shops where it’s a little unclear what’s for sale. Like the fish market in Tokyo, there are tons of food stalls here so it’s a great place to visit at lunchtime.
There’s a scene in the movie version of Memoirs of a Geisha where the main character is running through a shrine with thousands of orange gates, and it happens to be the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine. You could easily spend the day here as it’s set in the hills and there’s a walking path that takes several hours to do completely. Along the way there are vending machines and tea houses, so you won’t go hungry or thirsty.
The Gion District is where the Geisha’s still work. This is best to visit at night as it’s fun to people watch and there are a lot of restaurants and bars to pop into in this area.
There are so many temples and shrines to choose from, but another to put on your list is the Sanjusangendo Temple. It’s home to 1001 statues of the goddess of mercy, that are life-size and date back to the 1200s. It’s an amazing sight to see and well worth a trip. There’s not much else to do by this particular temple, so it’s good for a day when you’re feeling low energy and just want to see something cool. They don’t allow photos to be taken here, and they’ll take your camera if you get caught trying.
Things to eat and drink in Kyoto:
The food scene in Kyoto was a little harder to navigate than Tokyo’s. There are tons of Michelin-starred restaurants there, so if you have the budget it’s easy to dine well. It was a little more challenging finding good, reasonable places. We just popped into a few restaurants that looked popular and had decent meals, but none I’d say are “must do’s.” That said, there were a couple of stand-outs:
Kappo Sakamoto: Gion Sueyoshicho, Higashiyama-ku | 1F EF Bldg., Kyoto 605-0085 – is a kaiseki (many small plates) restaurant in Gion. The chef/owner speaks perfect English (which he learned while living in San Francisco and helping to found local-cult-favorite Blue Bottle Coffee) and spent a long time chatting with us as he cooked our meal. We felt like we visited the home of someone local who treated us to course after course of delicious food. We mentioned that we were planning to buy some chopsticks while we were in Japan, and the chef sent us home with a couple of sets from the restaurant as a gift. I can’t recommend this place enough. We also had our hotel make reservations for us here a few weeks before we arrived.
The Ritz Carleton Bar: The Ritz is an easy call as a place to get a drink in just about any city, and in Kyoto, it oozed old-world charm. The bar was cozy and mens-club swanky. We dressed up and had drinks here. You could also have dinner either in the bar area or in their similarly cool lobby-lounge.
Issen Yoshoku: This is a spot for Okonomiyaki, which is a savory Japanese pancake (it’s actually more like a crepe that’s filled with a bunch of savory things). There’s only one item on the menu – their version of the pancake, and beer to drink. The decor is funky (lots of ancient erotic drawings and life-size mechanical statues), but it’s a fantastic find little find and great for a cheap meal.
Going to an Onsen at a Ryoken:
To really make our trip to Japan feel like a honeymoon, we decided to spend a few days in the mountain town Hakone. Hakone is famous for its local hot springs, and many of the hotels in the area have their own onsens (private and public baths) that are filled with water from the hot springs. We stayed at a ryoken, which is a traditional Japanese hotel, called Gora Hanaougi . Staying at a ryoken is a wonderful way to immerse in Japanese culture.
At check-in, you’re treated to a cup of tea and afternoon snacks. Then they provide all the clothing you’ll need for your stay. We were given “formal” robes for dinner, informal pants and a top for hanging out, and slippers to wear (you check your shoes with the front desk upon arrival). As long as you’re inside the ryoken, there’s no need for any western clothes.
Each room had a private onsen on an open-air deck, and ours looked out into the mountains. Our favorite way to end the day was with a bottle of sake, in the onsen, watching the sun set.
Our room came with breakfast and dinner, both of which were simply amazing experiences. The breakfast was a traditional Japanese feast, with tons of tasty things served in little dishes. The presentation was worth the price of admission alone. Dinner is an elaborate 10-course meal, served in a private room.
During the day, we went into town to visit the Hakone Open Air Museum . We took the “cable car” down the mountain from our hotel and spent the afternoon exploring this space – if you’re into sculpture, it’s something to definitely put on your list. There’s a lot of hiking in the area, and a few other museums to visit as well.
It’s worth noting that the ryokens expect you to leave for a few hours during the day so that they have time to clean your room and prepare the place for afternoon tea and dinner. The public hot springs (which are only public in the sense that hotel guests can use them) are open in the early morning and late afternoon, but not during the day. You should also know that many of the ryokens do not permit people with tattoos to use their public onsens. Going to the onsen is the main reason people visit Hakone, so it’s worth staying somewhere with a private onsen if you have a tattoo (and it’s more romantic anyway). Bathing suits also are not permitted in the public onsens.
Hakone is easy to get to from Tokyo – there’s a “Romance Car” that goes directly there from Shinjuku station on the JR Railroad line (there’s nothing particularly romantic about this train, Hakone is just a popular couples destination). You can get tickets on the same day in the station (although we heard weekends were busier times to travel) and we didn’t have any trouble with language issues. We preferred to have reserved seating and requested that when we bought our tickets.
While you can take public transit all the way to a lot of the ryokens from the train station, we found it easiest to just take a taxi from the last stop (which is Odawara) to our ryoken. The system makes sense once you’re there, but it’s confusing on the way in because of the cable car portion. To make things really easy, we sent our bags from Tokyo to our hotel in Kyoto and just took an overnight bag to Hakone. You don’t need a lot with you since you’re given clothes to wear the whole time you’re in the ryoken.
Because the ryoken provided such a large breakfast and dinner, we never felt the need to eat out anywhere at lunchtime, we were still stuffed from breakfast! We did pick up some snacks at the train station – the train stations in general are a great place to get snacks. The Open Air Museum does have a cafe, and it’s a pretty spot to stop for a cup of tea or a coffee.
I’d highly recommend going to a ryoken while visiting Japan – the old-world set-up allowed us to really experience the culture, and not having a few fast-paced exploration days was a needed respite from touring.
All words and images by eLLe PHOTOGRAPHY.
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