3 days in Kyoto

After the hustle and bustle of our 5 days in Tokyo, I was looking forward to taking it down a notch in Kyoto, which while still a city of 1.4 million people, is much smaller and calmer than Tokyo. Kyoto was the capital of Japan until the late 1800s and still remains a spiritual center—there are roughly 2,000 religious sites, several of which are UNESCO heritage sites. What makes Kyoto special in my mind is that it was virtually untouched during World War II, so unlike Tokyo with its gazillion skyscrapers, it feels very traditional, with low wooden buildings and majestic temples that have been around for centuries. Much like Tokyo, Kyoto is a choose-your-own-adventure kind of city: you can spend the entire time temple-hopping, you can eat exclusively in Michelin-starred restaurants, you can tour the imperial palace, you can party with the locals in all manner of nightclubs, you can go hiking in the mountains,  you can go sake- or tea-tasting, you can shop in high-end boutiques....you get the point. We tried to do a little bit of everything, but with not quite three full days, we definitely didn't do it all. (Pro tip: I'd recommend at least three, if not four full days in Kyoto if you can swing it, ideally during the week.) Here's what we did during our 3 days in Kyoto. 

Day 1

We got a late start leaving Tokyo due to some luggage issues (note to self: always bring a packable duffle bag for the way home), but once we boarded the Shinkansen, we made it to Kyoto in a little over 2 hours from Shingawa Station. (While I found the Tokyo subway to be incredibly user-friendly, Shinkansen tickets were a little more complicated; I recommend buying yours from a ticket agent versus the machine to be safe.) We took a taxi to our hotel, checked in and freshened up, and were ready for some drinks. We got incredibly lucky and scored a table at Bee's Knees, a speakeasy-style bar (look for the bright yellow door!) that's consistently on the 50 Best Bars list. The service was incredibly friendly, and the drinks were delicious, plus they were blasting '90s hip-hop; we loved this place so much, we went back there on our last night. After two rounds, we were starving, and because we hadn't yet had gyoza on the trip, Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi seemed like a good idea. The food was so delicious, I was too busy eating it to take any photos!

We decided to grab a nightcap at The Common One Bar in Gion, the traditional district. Like nearly every bar we went to on this trip, it was not easy to find—this one requires sliding open a traditional wooden door, then adventuring down a long, narrow cobblestone path—but incredibly worth the effort. The bartenders treat cocktails like works of art; there is no drink menu, but they know how to make everything to the highest standard. My first drink, a sidecar, came with a little snack of dried fruit (including my favorite, orange peel); my second—which really hit—was the most perfectly balanced French 75 I've ever had. As a bonus, we walked back to our hotel at a respectful distance behind an actual geisha, which was the perfect way to end the night. 

Day 2

If you want to give yourself a ton of anxiety, read the r/japantravel subreddit in which travelers tend to submit overly ambitious day-by-day itineraries for their trips to Japan. I saw many in which people planned to hit 5 or 6 major Kyoto landmarks in a day and were promptly put in their place by the commenters; I had (reasonably, I thought) planned for us to hit the major east-side temples on our second day, with the Golden Temple and Arashiyama on our third day. Spoiler alert: the previous night's antics—plus the 96-degree temperatures—slowed us down considerably. So, with a late start, we made it to the Yasaka-jinja shrine (where we saw a wedding!), followed by the famous Kiyomizu-dera temple (crowded but worth it for the views), and interspersed with some diversions to the Yasaka Koshindo temple, a really good matcha place, and a welcome lunch at the Park Hyatt—my body was craving vegetables and their octopus salad was like a beacon from the heavens. 

By mid-afternoon, it was so freaking hot that we could barely move, so we escaped the heat in Teramachi-Dori, the main shopping street, which is covered by an awning and goes on as far as the eye can see. Seriously, I have never seen so many shops in my life; I was actually a bit overwhelmed. I did manage to make it into United Arrows, where I bought a really cool necklace and discovered that Steven Alan still exists in Japan! We didn't make it there, but Nishiki Market is a few streets over and a great place to graze and sample a bunch of food. 

You know when you look in a mirror with a mirror behind you and see a gazillion mirrors? That's what this street felt like. 

I was especially excited about our reservation at Kamishichiken Kabukai, which usually holds traditional performances but transforms into a beer garden in the summer, where the geisha and maiko (geisha in training) circulate with the guests. When we showed up, however, we were seated indoors, in a brightly lit room next to the kitchen with all of the other foreigners (and, to be fair, some Japanese people). I was not happy about it—we had been really looking forward to the beer garden experience, which looked lovely with all of the paper lanterns—but Fuji, the charming maiko who stopped by our table, did her best to smooth things over. Thankfully, the night was saved with dinner at Kyoto Gatten on Pontocho Alley, a tempura restaurant that also has incredibly fresh and delicious sushi. Since we had such good luck in Gion the night before, we decided to try Gion Niti, where we ended up in a private room because there were two real live geisha sitting at the bar and they didn't want us to disturb them (not that we would have!). Clearly the universe wanted me to have more geisha in my life, so I made sure I could see them from where I was sitting!

More intensity!

Day 3

I had really wanted to experience a traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto, so we ended up at Gallery Nichinichi, which was recommended by a friend of a friend. It was a beautiful yet unexpectedly serious experience; you get to choose two teas and a pastry, and they brew your teas to an espresso-like concentration, served in a tiny cup (e.g. it's not the douse-the-teabag situation you're probably used to). Our servers were very knowledgable about their teas, which you can also purchase to take home. Afterward, we grabbed a delightfully light and affordable lunch at Cafe Kamogawa, which felt like a little slice of Europe in the middle of Kyoto. 

Next, we headed to Nanzen-ji, also known as the silver temple, which was hands down my favorite temple of the trip. It's surrounded by gorgeous gardens (which I'm guessing are stunning in autumn) and an aqueduct, and inside, the rooms have the most gorgeous murals I've ever seen—if I ever have a home with a proper dining room, I want to hire someone to re-create them. It's a good place to start the Philosopher's Path, which is an incredibly peaceful walk along a canal lined with sakura trees, which were lovely in summer but probably mind-blowing when they're in bloom in spring. There are a bunch of cafés along the way, as well as some temples and shrines. I had Otoyo-jinja and Honen-in completely to myself; sadly Higashiyama Jisho-Ji was closed by the time I made it to the end of the Philosopher's Path, but I did make it to Okazaki, which is worth seeing if you like bunnies or if you're trying to get pregnant, as I'm assuming many of the younger female visitors were; rabbits are symbols of fertility in the shinto religion. 

Now is a good time to note that Kyoto definitely felt more touristy to me than Tokyo; I overheard people speaking French, Italian, and German, and it's a popular weekend-trip destination for a lot of Japanese people as well. I had known ahead of time that Kyoto is fiercely protective of its culture (and rightfully so), but we experienced the tourist backlash firsthand in being turned away from multiple (not full) restaurants and bars on a Saturday night, some of which politely yet firmly told us they were only accepting Japanese guests. We ended up at place we knew we'd be welcome—Goichi Pizza, which was actually quite delicious, followed by our second visit to Bee's Knees—but if you are in Kyoto on a weekend, I'd highly recommend making reservations for dinner just to be safe. 

Where we stayed

I agonized over our hotel in Kyoto but landed on the Dhawa Yura, which is in a fairly new building just to the north of Gion. It ended up being the perfect location—we could cross the river and be in the main shopping and dining areas in under 10 minutes, yet the immediate area was much more quiet and low-key. The rooms are very long and narrow and have what Sean and I call a "sexy shower" (which is open to the rest of the room, although you can close it off with blinds), but our bed was ginormous and comfortable (I think it was a California king, if not bigger). We chose not to do the daily breakfast, but we did have room service on our last morning and it completely hit the spot. Everyone who worked there was incredibly lovely, including the woman who carried our (very heavy) suitcases up a half flight of stairs. I'd definitely recommend it!

Bidet, I will miss you most of all 


Jelena Dimić said...

Oh my, Japan is on my travel wishlist since childhood and I can't believe how beautiful it looks in your photos! Can't wait to go there one day myself! Hope you had a blast in that magnificent, one of a kind country. <3


Nancy 's Fashion Style said...

My friend has been to Japan and she fell in love with the country! The food looks amazing!

Doused In Pink said...

Wow! I'm really enjoying your trip recaps and hope to travel to Japan one day! Kyoto looks amazing!

Jill - Doused in Pink

Pamela said...

What a great post, full of recommendations for Kyoto, thank you!

Laura B said...

The trip of a lifetime! I'd love to go one day!

Mica said...

it looks so relaxing here, despite the hot days! And it's nice you were able to again fit so many things into your time there. You really make the most of your travels, and always look so stylish while doing so! :)

Thank you for joining the Weekday Wear Link up!

Betsy Ramsey said...

We're heading to Tokyo and Kyoto in November and I'm taking notes from your very helpful posts! Thanks for sharing.

Betsy | NattyGal.com