Kyoto did not disappoint. The city is arguably the most picturesque city in Japan. Many tourists claim it’s their favorite city in Japan and it sure lived up to the hype that I had read so much about. As more than a million foreign visitors every year discover, Kyoto offers zen gardens, many cool temples, world-class shopping, mouth-watering cuisine, and some of the most diverse accommodation options anywhere in Japan.
While heading to Kyoto from Tokyo, for people with a window seat on the Tokaido Shinkansen, Mt. Fuji is the highlight view of the trip on a non-cloudy day. The high speed Shinkansen train from Tokyo took about 2.5 hrs. and it was the first segment utilizing our 21 day unlimited journey, JR Rail train pass. The train was so fast, comfortable and efficient. All during the journey, I thought to myself how similar fast speed train lines are not criss-crossing the major cities in the USA. It would be an ideal way to shuttle passengers between the western cities of Las Vegas, San Diego, LA, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. The train ride brought to my attention once again how America’s antiquated public transportation infrastructure is embarrassingly, so far behind most other first world countries that we have visited. If the Hyper Loop ever comes to fruition and is not just a pipe dream, hopefully Elon Musk’s vision will rectify this.
We narrowed down our choices to stay to the Gion area and to the west side of the Kama River, in the heart of downtown. The downtown area has most of the action along with the shopping and food. You can just tell this downtown area has probably lost a bit of its old world charm from the past resulting from modern development over the years. All of the flashy neon signs around were once likely hand painted signage years ago.
We elected to stay in the quieter area of Gion (Higashiyama Ward- Rokuhara neighborhood) which was oozing with atmosphere. It just seemed like a more authentic alternative place to stay, away from the shopping district. Our Airbnb was perfectly situated down the block from one of the best specialty supermarkets called Happy Rokuhara. The market sure delivered happiness to us with the most amazing and freshest prepared food, sushi and mouth watering sashimi. However, the food offerings at this market did make us a bit lazy. We found ourselves buying tons of prepared food and simply heading back to our apartment to chow down, instead of venturing out for dinner.
This Gion district is Japan’s most famous and oldest Geisha district. The area is packed with old wooden buildings and if you are lucky you can even get a glimpse of a real Geisha heading to work. It was a great place for Geisha spotting. By staying in this area, we were right in the heart of the most beautiful ancient temples and shrines that Japan has to offer. The popular and touristy pedestrian streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka (touristy in a tactful way) were lined with old wooden shops, cozy traditional tea houses, shops, and restaurants.
This quaint historic area had a very similar atmosphere and vibe as the old town in Hoi An, Vietnam. As far as I observed, it appeared as though name brands have displayed remarkable respect for Kyoto’s look and feel, and have appropriately invested in making sure that Kyoto is preserved and sustained. A good example of this is the worlds first Tatami-styled Starbucks which is located in a two-story Japanese home built more than 100 years ago. It probably goes down as one of the coolest Starbucks to loiter at for an extended period of time. We enjoyed our cup of java and headed just down the alleyway to the nearby, UNESCO World Heritage listed, Kiyomizu-Dera Buddhist temple.
The walk up the narrow laneways to the Kiyomizu-Dera temple was real festive as we had the good fortune to be there during the Blue Dragon Parade that happens 5X per year. The other temples to visit in the area were the Kenninji Temple, Koadai-ji Temple, Sanjusangen-do Temple, and Chion-in Temple. Big Doug and Flashpacking Barbie are not big temple people as we really got ‘Wat-ed’ out in Southeast Asia. However, I must say these temples along with the shitload of others that were spread throughout Kyoto were real cool to check out.
ACTIVITIES IN KYOTO –
The best way to see Kyoto is to walk or bike around. It is an extremely bike friendly city.
Some other activities that kept us busy in Kyoto included:
Kamo River – popular local hangout area. A walk and chill along the Kamo River.
Pontocho Alley – long narrow alleyway with nightlife and tons of restaurants.
Shopping Streets: Kawaramachi- dori, Kiyamachi-dori, Gokomachi-dori, Shijo-dori
Arishiyama District – located 30 minutes outside of town in the NW part of Kyoto. A good place to get more into nature. The highlight was a 20 minute hike up to Iwatayama Monkey Park where we got to hang with the snow monkeys. These snow monkey are the only breed of monkeys that could live in cold terrain for an extended period of time. The other activities in this area include a visit to Bamboo Cove and a walk around the quaint town with all its shops selling Japanese snacks.
Owl Cafe – Both Barbie and I really loved playing with the Owl’s at the Owl Cafe in Tokyo. I was cool with my single owl visit in Tokyo. However, once we past another Owl Cafe in Kyoto, I knew I was going to be dragged in by animal loving Barbie a 2nd time. So, in we went and I had a real good time staring into the trippy eyes of these magnificent creatures. The guy below was my favorite and he goes by the name of Mr. Yamashita.
Well, our time is up in Kyoto and we are now off to Osaka which is only a 20 minute high speed Shinkansen train ride south. We just got word prior to leaving Kyoto that Typhoon
Talim had hit Taiwan and was heading right in our direction in Japan. Of course, we had no clue because nobody speaks English over here and there were zero signs of any panic or concern as the Japanese are notorious for being cool as a cucumber. To add to our ignorance, all the Airbnb’s we stay in have TV’s but there is not one English speaking channel. Therefore, we were clueless. It’s just a good example that ignorance is bliss as we never worried and the typhoon fortunately steered away from our sushi eating butts.