Once upon a time we traveled… Last year I posted the Tokyo half of our 2019 trip to Japan, and now it has been almost two years since we were there. I have no idea when we’ll be able to travel again, but for now, at least I have the memories and photos from our past trips. It’s a bit overdue, but this is the Kyoto portion of our 2019 visit to Japan, where we barely scratched the surface of that incredible country.
ARRIVING IN KYOTO
We left Tokyo on the Shinkansen bullet train on Tuesday morning, and arrived in Kyoto 2 hours and 15 minutes later, after covering a distance of 318 miles. The real treat of this ride, aside from how cool it is to be traveling 155 miles per hour, was that we got a perfect view of Mount Fuji along the way.
While Kyoto is still a large city, it is very different and much smaller than Tokyo. It is also historically important to the country, as it served as Japan’s capital from 794 to 1868, and it is home to countless temples, shrines and other historically priceless structures. Our hotel — the Hana Touro Gion — was located in the historic Gion district, on the opposite side of river from the modern part of the city, and we felt immersed in the history and culture of the area.
We arrived In Kyoto too early to check in to the hotel, so we headed straight to Ramen Non for lunch. The place is tiny, with just a bar and maybe 6 or 8 stools. All the ramen is made to order and it is truly delicious.
WHERE TO STAY
The Hana Touro Gion is in the heart of the Gion district, is has all the comforts of a western hotel, but with a distinctly Japanese feel. We were provided slippers and yukata, to wear in the room, and the bathroom was filled with everything we could need from toothbrushes, to razors, to hair ties. I know I talked about Japanese toilets in my Tokyo post, but the one here was the best we came across, with all the bells and whistles, even a blow dryer! ???? The wood soaking tub and walk in shower was a real luxury, and the balcony was a perfect place to end the day with a glass of sake and a view of a temple across the street. Jeff and I had western beds, but the girls had their own little “tatami” room set up with futons. I will never forget this hotel.
DAY ONE – MARUYAMA PARK, HOKAN-JI
After check-in we had time to explore the Gion area. We wandered without any real plan, but found ourselves crossing the Gion Tatsumi Bridge and heading towards the Chion -In Temple and Maruyama Park.
Maruyama Park is Kyoto’s most famous park for viewing cherry blossoms. While we arrived a few weeks after the peak, we found many beautiful blossoms left on the trees. We felt really fortunate, because we knew we were late in the season and hadn’t expected to see many trees still in bloom
As we made our way back down hill we had sunset views of the five storied pagoda, or Hokan-ji, which has stood since the 1600s.
DAY TWO – TENRYUJI TEMPLE, ARASHYAMA MONKEY PARK, NISHIKI MARKET, KENNIN-JI TEMPLE
On Wednesday morning we hopped in a taxi to take us about 30 minutes to Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto — home to the famous bamboo forest, and monkey park. Tenryuji Temple and garden is along the path to the bamboo forest, and home to many blossoming trees and a beautiful zen garden to wander.
The bamboo forest is beautiful and other-worldly, but also extremely crowded. We’ve traveled pretty extensively and this was one spot where the number of selfies (and the length of time people were taking to do them) was almost unbearable — they were blocking the path by sitting in the middle of it, selfie sticks in the air, and taking multiple poses without any consideration for others. I can certainly appreciate wanting a photo, but I wish people were a little more self aware! While the forest is beautiful and I would hate to leave it off the list of stops in Kyoto, I’d really recommend coming at the crack of dawn to beat the crowds.
Walking back down the path from the bamboo forest, we came across this little Shinto Shrine — Nonomya Jinga. It was the shrine where Imperial princesses spent a year preparing to become High Priestess of the Grand Shrine of Ise.
Many shrines offer these little wooden plaques (ema), where you can write your wish or prayer.
A short walk from the bamboo forest is the entrance to the Arashiyama Monkey Park. The hike to the park is about 25 minutes and is fairly steep, but well worth it.
As we made our way up, we passed by a few tips and warnings about the monkeys. ????
We fed the monkeys peanuts from inside this enclosure and we could not get enough of interacting with them. They were so adorable and truly fascinating. I’ve seen monkey’s in zoos, but never this close. It’s really incredible when they make eye contact with you and reach for the peanut, with their little humanlike, fur-covered hands.
We had to tear ourselves away from the monkeys eventually, and hopped in a cab to Nishiki Market, which is a traditional food market in central Kyoto.
We are not super adventurous eaters, but if we were, this would definitely be the place to go. These are octopus, stuffed with quail eggs. Nope, we did not try them. Many foods that are sold at the market come on sticks, or look like finger food, however there are signs everywhere that say “no eating while walking” as it is considered rude in Japan. People don’t even walk with a coffee or a drink in their hand.
After lunch and back in the Gion neighborhood we were off to the Kennin-ji temple, which was just a short walk from the hotel.
Kennin-ji is a Zen temple founded by the monk who introduced both Zen Buddhism and tea cultivation to Japan upon returning from China. Constructed in 1202, the temple is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. It is truly beautiful, and via the tour we learned much about the architecture and history of the temple. The karesansui garden (Japanese rock garden) was totally sublime and peaceful. The rock gardens are meant to give a feeling of water and mountains using the rocks and sand.
DAY THREE – NARA, TODAIJI TEMPLE, FUSHIMI INARI TEMPLE
Early the next morning we caught a train out of Gion Station, to the city of Nara, about 35 minutes away. Nara’s most famous landmark is the Todaiji Temple, which was constructed in 752, and is one of the largest wooden structures in the World, and home to Japan’s largest Buddha.
This is the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) that houses the great Buddha — the largest Bronze Buddha in the world which is nearly 50 feet tall.
While the Great Buddha itself is awesome (in the truest sense of the word), I also really loved these statues of the Guardian Kings, Komokuten, and Tamonten, especially their expressions.
Before leaving the temple we had our Goshuinchou stamped and calligraphed as we’d done at the other temples and shrines we visited.
Another thing that makes Nara so special are the sacred deer, that roam freely through the town and prod tourists for crackers. We simply could not get enough of them.
AND these deer love crackers so much, that they walk up to you and bow in order to receive a cracker as an award.
We could barely drag ourselves away from the deer, but it was lunchtime, so we fed our deer friends the rest of the crackers and headed to Udon Kamaiki for a fantastic lunch of udon noodles. Look at the girls weilding those chopsticks and managing to eat the never-ending udon.
After lunch, we hopped back on the train and headed to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, back in Southern Kyoto. According to the Japan Guide website, “Fushimi Inari is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, resulting in many fox statues across the shrine grounds. Fushimi Inari Shrine has ancient origins, predating the capital’s move to Kyoto in 794.”
The distinctive red torii gates are found throughout the shrine and lead up the trail that takes around 2-3 hours to hike up and down again (we only made it part of the way since we arrived later in the afternoon).
Just outside of the shrine itself is a short market street, with lots of great street food, and plenty of souvenirs. Despite the “no photo sign” here this guy actually said it was OK to take one. Maybe because we bought some of the Nikumaki Onigiri (bacon wrapped rice balls) from him.
Back in Gion, the streets were the most crowded we’d seen them. It was Friday night and apparently the weekend visitors had started to arrive.
After take out from the 7-11 eaten on our balcony (they have amazing food at the 7-11 in Japan — for real!) we headed out for a night time walk of Gion, and our timing could not have been better (keep reading!).
One of Kyoto’s riverside restaurants from the other side of the river. I believe this one was called Namisato.
As we made our way back to the hotel, we were stopped at a crosswalk and Grace tapped me on my shoulder. “MOM!” she said to me in what was meant to be a whisper but was SO NOT A WHISPER. I turned around and right behind me was this beautiful Maiko, who smiled gently at me, just before she shuffled off quickly in her super high shoes.
A Maiko, is actually a Geisha (or Geiko if you are in Kyoto) in training. Geisha are trained for years in the Japanese arts, and work in the ochaya (teahouses) as entertainers — singing, dancing, playing music, etc. You can tell a Maiko from a Geisha by a few things, the most obvious being the length of the obi on the back of her kimono. Maiko’s obi are long, like the one below, and Geisha’s are much shorter. Maiko’s also have the red collar, as opposed to white which is reserved for the Geisha.
You can tell that this is a Geisha (Geiko) because of the white collar and shorter Obi.
As we came upon this teahouse, the door opened, as a limousine pulled up, and we stood quietly as the Geisha thanked her clients and said goodbye. At one point she knelt on the floor and bowed with her forehead completely touching the ground, as the ochaya mistress looked on.
We must have been out at the exact right time for the Geisha’s and Maiko’s to be coming and going from the teahouses, because after we spotted the first one, they were seemingly popping out at every turn we made down the narrow alleys of Gion teahouses. And just to be clear — we weren’t out stalking them! We had been told that actually seeing a Geisha was extremely rare even in Gion, because they travel at only certain times are are really good at being elusive, so apparently we got lucky. I will tell you though, they walk FAST, and we wanted to be respectful and keep our distance. Luckily my camera can shoot really well in low light without a flash.
DAY FOUR – GINKAKUJI, NAZENJI, AND PHILOSOPHER’S PATH
Our last morning in Kyoto, we took a local bus up to Ginkakuji Temple (the Silver Pavillion, below). This was originally a villa built for a shogun, in 1482, and later became a Zen temple after his death.
After leaving Ginkakuji, we followed the Philosophers Path (on the right, below), which is known for winding its way along the stream lined with cherry trees, and past many historic temples and shrines.
This is the wooden sanmon (gate) leading to Nanzenji Temple, and below that is the walkway to the temple itself.
Sadly, we did not see any of monkeys of the scary variety here.
This is a large and beautiful aqueduct that passes through the temple grounds.
I wish I knew the name of this restaurant where we ate, because the food was delicious. No one spoke a word of English, but we managed to order what we wanted thanks to the pictures on the menu. It seemed like a family run place, with food cooked to order and excellent service from a very friendly elderly woman.
After all of the time spent in temples and shrines, we were off to check out the newer part of Kyoto, and changed hotels so that we could be close to Kyoto station for our early train the next morning. When the concierge at our hotel told us we needed to check out Bic Camera (an electronics store), we were slightly skeptical. However we could have spent hours in this place! The store has seven floors of electronics, including a half a floor of games and these Gashapon, which are the little capsule toy vending machines. After a few tries I finally secured a miniature shiba dog with a pink donut around his neck.
Some people get excited about Japanese Sushi, but we get excited about Pork Tonkatsu. So that is what we wanted for our last dinner in Japan. Katsukura is located on the 11th floor of the Kyoto Station mall. Here, your katsu comes with a little bowl of sesame seeds, that you mix with one of their sauces and grind up into a paste for your katsu. So delicious.
Early the next morning, we began our long journey home, starting with the Shinkansen back to Tokyo, then a train from Tokyo Center to Narita Airport, and and a 12 hour flight to Los Angeles where we stayed over for the night (hitting a fun restaurant in Malibu), before the last leg of our trip — a 5 hour flight to Boston.
I’ll end this blog post by saying that while I have loved every place we visit in a different way, Japan was truly a gem. The culture is so different from ours so, some things seemed strange, but many made so much sense. Despite the crowds of people in Tokyo and Kyoto, there is also a sense of peace, calm, and order. I do feel like we barely scratched the surface, and I know we will be back to see the more of this incredible country.
We took the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Kyoto. Because we were only going to Kyoto, we did not do the Japan rail pass. If we had one more destination, the rail pass would have made sense, but it wasn’t worth the cost for adding just one city outside of Tokyo.
Getting around Kyoto: From Kyoto Station to Gion, we took a taxi. While we could have taken the subway, it was just easier with the luggage. Note though that most taxi drivers in Kyoto do not speak any English, so you definitely want to have your destination printed out in Japanese to hand to the driver, or have your hotel call the taxi for you and give your destination.
Kyoto does have a subway system, but we didn’t really need to use it, as most places were either walkable, or were far enough away that a taxi was a great deal faster. There is a great bus system though, and we found that the 100 bus hit a lot of the important stops in Gion.
We took a train to Nara and Fushimi Inari out of Gion station. I actually found the train station in Gion more confusing than some of the huge stations in Tokyo, believe it or not, but the staff working there were very helpful, and pointed us in the right direction, even with the language barrier
I am a planner. And this was a big trip, but a short one — just eight days on the ground in Japan (4 nights tokyo, 4 nights in Kyoto). So I really wanted to do my homework in terms of how we were going to get around. This spreadsheet helped with that, and it was an invaluable resource for us. It also lists a lot of restaurants and activities that came up in my research, but that we didn’t get to.
Definitely carry cash. A lot of restaurants, taxis, etc., do not take credit cards, and you will most definitely need to use cash every day. It can be difficult to find and ATM, but you can usually find them in a Family Mart. It’s a good idea to replenish your cash if you see one, and before you run out and are desperately trying to find an ATM that will accept your US bank card. Also, while I don’t usually bother to get foreign currency prior to leaving home, in this case we did get a few thousand yen so we had it.
Rent a pocket wifi. We were told that Verizon wireless was not very reliable in Japan. Even if it were, with four family members, the international plan would be $10 per day per person, or around $320. Instead, we rented a pocket wifi through Japan Wireless, and for around $80 for the entire trip, we could connect all our devices and have fast wifi throughout the day, no matter where we were. There are many other companies from which you can rent pocket wifi devices, but JW was definitely the least expensive, it worked flawlessly, and even came with a portable charger so that we could charge the battery if we were still out at the end of the day. You need to pick up the device at the Post Office in the airport when you arrive, but they provide step by step directions here. (It’s not at all as complicated as it sounds.)
Don’t worry too much about the language. You will find that a lot of people do not speak English. However, we didn’t find that to be problematic at all. The subway (and lots of other) signs ARE in English, and you will also find that many restaurants have an English menu. For the most part, you can get by with basic phrases like please and thank you. As I was told my my friend in Tokyo, “When in doubt, just smile and bow.” We did a lot of that.
Be sure to download the Google Translate App as well. It will actually scan type and translate it for you. It’s not perfect, but it is reasonably accurate, and great for checking food labels in the 7-11!
Hotel rooms can be expensive for a family. We often use AirBnb when we travel, but I really wanted to stay in hotels for this trip, given how totally unfamiliar we were with Tokyo, it’s size, and the language barrier. However, finding a hotel room that can accommodate a family of four is very difficult in Tokyo, and if you find one, it will be either far out of the Center (Disneyland does have some!), or very expensive. In Tokyo, we ended up with two rooms that were right next to each other, and it worked out great, though it was definitely quite a bit more expensive than even in Paris. That said, we were there in April, at the height of tourist season, so other times of the year will likely have better prices. Our Kyoto hotel had two western twin beds, plus a tatami room with two twin futons. It was perfect.
Check out YouTube before you go. There are tons of helpful YouTube vlogs that you can use to familiarize yourself with Japan before you go. It helps to know what to expect in terms of getting around and different aspects of the culture so that you won’t be caught off guard and can jump right in and enjoy your trip.
Cristen Farrell is a photographer based in Andover, MA, North of Boston. Cristen specializes in families, high school seniors, newborns, children and life events. She will capture you in a natural and authentic style, and you will have have fun along the way! Pre-Covid, traveling with her family was Cristen’s biggest joy, and she looks forward to doing so again as soon as she can! Reach Cristen via the contact form on this page. Don’t forget to follow Cristen Farrell Photography on Instagram, too!