Japan was on my travel checklist for a long time. I have always been attracted by this country. When I was younger I was a big fan of Mangas (a style of Japanese comic books and graphic novels, typically aimed at adults as well as children.). I also practiced a martial art called karate Shotokan that originated from Japan and I studied at University their business cultural etiquettes. This year was the opportunity to go visit this amazing country. I was looking forward to the cultural shock.
The first stop of my trip in Japan was Kyoto. Only 3h away from Tokyo by train and first time jumping on the famous bullet train which speed can go up to 603km/h but the maximum operating speed is 320 km/h.
Here is my experience of Kyoto.
Some of Japan's oldest tradition such as tea ceremony, flower arranging, and geisha schooling are said to originate from Kyoto
Kyoto was Japan's capital city and home to emperor's resistance from 794 to 1968
Nintendo originated from Kyoto
Where to stay
I stayed in Kyoto at Suzuki guest house. It is a very lovely traditional house with an outdoor terrace, a common area and the bedrooms upstairs. The hosts were a very friendly couple, very helpful and can give you advice on things to do as soon as you arrive. They keep the place very clean and tidy. You'd sleep in bunk beds that are very spacious and comfortable. The place is located in a very quiet area close-by many grocery shops, restaurants and easy access to bus and metro. I had a great experience staying there, it was like feeling at home.
Things to do
Fushimi Inari Taisha
I guess this is the most famous landmark of Kyoto. This is a Shinto shrine or temple dating from 711 A.D with its famous traditional red torii gates. The walk is about 4 km up the mountain with small shops along the way where locals sell food and beverages. This temple was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake by the Hata family in the 8th century. You will see many stone foxes while exploring the shrine. They are considered the messenger of the god Inari. If you are a photograph, I'd recommend going there very early in the morning as it gets very crowded already from 10 am.
Once you finished to visit the temple, go check the food stands and shops to get some souvenirs.
Stroll around Gion
Gion is known as Geiko/Geisha district because of its reputation of Kyoto's largest pleasure district. In the mid 18th century, that's where Geishas who act as hostesses were in teahouses catering for visitors. Today it is an entertainment district with many traditional restaurants and tea-houses dating from 17th century, but also exclusive establishment for geisha entertainment. It is definitely worth a stroll in this old town as it gives you a sense of what the city looked like couple centuries ago. If you go there just to see the Geishas, I wish you good luck, it is very rare to see them.
I stumbled upon this temple by chance and I am glad I did. For 1000 JPY you could visit this historic Zen Buddhist temple considered one of the five most important Zen temples of Kyoto. From the wooden floor to the zen Japanese garden, it is a sanctuary within the city, far from all noise pollution. It felt great to visit it after a long day walking and just take a moment to refuel.
Kyoto International Manga museum
I realized a dream by going to visit the manga museum. It looks like a big library with walls full of shelves with any manga you can imagine, or that you have ever known. People would go there as a normal library to read or rent books, others, tourists like me, would go to visit the exhibition and get down memory lane. You also have the opportunity to get one of the manga artists to draw your portrait according to your drawing style preference.
From Kyoto, take a day trip to Arashiyama to:
Feed the monkeys at Iwatayama monkey Park.
Located on Mount Arashiyama, you will have to climb for 1o minutes by walk, before reaching the park inhabited by Japanese macaque also known as snow monkeys where you can see them roaming freely. They are used to Human presence and are very friendly. You will have the opportunity to feed them, but only through the fenced windows from the little cabin where you can buy peanuts or sliced apples to feed them. Be aware that some are very greedy! Once at the top you will also be able to enjoy a panoramic view of Tokyo.
Visit the Bamboo Grove
Arashiyama main attractions are close to one another, it is easy to do everything by walk. Otherwise, you still have the choice to hire a rickshaw to take you around.
The forest of bamboo is something unusual to see for a westerner, it is worth seeing it. Be aware that it will be packed with tourists unless you manage to go there very early in the morning.
Visit Tenryu-ji temple
A UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built in the 14th century. It used to be ranked as the largest Zen monastery in Western Japan.
Go visit a cat café
It is pretty unusual in occidental countries, although it's becoming more popular now.
But the lifestyle in Japan is so busy and fast that people barely have time to take some time off. The apparition of cat cafés have proven that spending couple minutes in company of furry companions helped to reduce stress and anxiety, lowered blood pressure, boost immunity and more.
How to get around
I was staying in train the district nearby Nijo Castle and it was very easy to get around Kyoto. You can pick your preferred method depending on the type of traveler you are.
I enjoy walking when I arrive in a city I don't know. Getting lost is the best way to get to know the city and get familiar with the landmarks. It is also a great way to remain active and work out during your holidays!
The second method if you are tired of walking (which I was after 2 days walking between 10 and 15km every day!) is to rent a bike. The guest house I stayed at offered us to rent their bike for 500 JPY per day which is the equivalent of 4,50 EUR a day or 4,80 USD. There are cycling paths all around the city. However, it is not allowed to cycle in some areas of the city. So pay attention to the signs.
Finally, the metro is the third option you can use to get around the city. If you own a JR rail pass you can use some JR lines for free as it is included in the price of your pass. You just need to show it to the station staff every time you go through the gates.
What to eat
The street food is the best in Japan. It is cheap, tasty and filling. From ramen noodles to sushis or local treats, it is an obligation to try as many dishes as you can when you travel to Japan. I believe street food is part of the culture of a country and what makes its identity. Visiting the country without tasting any street food would be a pity.
If you go to Kyoto you need to stop by Menbakaichidai, a fire ramen restaurant. Trust me you will have a blast. It is a small restaurant owned by a family who welcomes you as soon as you get in and set you up before your fire ramen experience. They were very friendly and can give you tips on great things locals enjoy to do in Kyoto.
Try the sushis
It is mandatory to try the sushis once in Japan. no need to comment more on that!
Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcade
Two parallel running, covered pedestrian street packed with restaurants and shops that sell day-to-day clothes and goods. This is the perfect spot to buy some souvenirs at a reasonable price tag. If you get hungry, stop by Tapioca Belize to try one of their very tasty crepes with interesting flavors. I tried the sweet potato crepe and I was pleasantly surprised.
if you are looking for a more traditional old Kyoto atmosphere, this is the perfect spot. There, you will find a wide range of handicrafts, specialty foods and a range of souvenirs including the famous Kiyomizu-yaki pottery. Furthermore, this district has kept its traditional feel with its wooden buildings, stone paved and narrow streets. Very charming by night.
Overall, Kyoto is an amazing city. It's a human size city easy to get around by train or bikes. I really liked the mix between modern and traditional. And the old town of Gion is a very photogenic area to visit to see the houses dating from the Edo period (16th century) and the Geiko/Geisha walking down these streets are images that cannot be erased from my memory. It was a great experience overall. I really fell in love with this city.
Next Stop of this Japan travel guide is Osaka!