I have been fortunate enough to go to many gorgeous places around the world, but Kyoto, the last stop on our honeymoon to Japan, may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Meticulously manicured Japanese gardens set against the misty mountains; thick forests of moss-covered maple trees, ablaze with fall colors. Kyoto is, in a word, stunning.
That being said, this former capital of Japan is also by FAR the most touristy place we visited on our trip. Home to over 1600 temples and hundreds of Japanese gardens, it can be challenging to figure out how to navigate the throngs of tourists and pack in a meaningful experience without going into temple overload syndrome.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Hakone, we took the Hakenotozan line train back to the Odawara station to catch the shinkansen (bullet train). While I was beyond excited to take this high-speed technological wonder, I was pretty dismayed at the expense for a one-way ticket (about ¥ 13500 or $135.00); however, our other options were renting a car to make the almost five hour drive (while simultaneously figuring out how to drive on the other side of the road and obtain international automobile insurance) or take an 8-hour bus-ride (one way) from Hakone and back to Tokyo. Given that we had a week total to explore Japan, we chalked up the expense of getting to Kyoto in a little over two hours as a mere sacrifice to the travel gods.
In hindsight, if you are making a round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, it may be worth exploring getting a JR Rail Pass. For around $290, you get unlimited rides on all JR trains, including some (but not all) of Shinkansen lines. With a round trip ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto clocking in at $260 and the fact that you will likely take several JR trains around Tokyo, you will likely wind up saving some cash with this pass. Since we were on such a limited schedule, though, I didn’t want to waste time messing around and waiting on whatever line of bullet trains that we could take with the JR Rail Pass, but if you’re going at a more leisurely pace, you may want to consider it.
Because it was such a novel experience, I LOVED taking the bullet train, happily sipping my Asahi beer and watching the Japanese landscape whiz past me at 160 miles per hour. Also, he seats recline (a lot!), so you can certainly fight off your jet lag while the bullet train hums you to sleep.
As a handy tip, Kyoto Station has tons and tons of lockers where you can stash your backpack or luggage for the day if you need to check out of your accommodations, but still want to explore the city. Justin and I did just that.... and upon our return, could not figure out where our locker was located. Most major train stations in Japan are intricate sprawling cities in their own right and Kyoto Station is no exception. We spent over an hour scrambling around the station's nooks and crannies, trying to solve the case of the Missing Locker. So if you choose to get a locker, drop a pin in Google maps and even snap a picture of a couple stores around where your locker is located so you can easily retrace your steps back to your stored luggage.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed in an AirBnB a couple blocks north of Gion, the most famous geisha district (a.k.a. TOURISTS EVERYWHERE), which cost $61.80/night. We were literally about five hundred yards from a subway station and within walking distance of several of our planned stops, like the Nishiki market and other spots in downtown Kyoto, so it worked out perfectly for us. Other places to consider may be around Kyoto Station or Southern Higashiyama, both having easy access to restaurants, bars, and public transit. Much like Tokyo, we relied heavily on public transit in Kyoto, so I would recommend prioritizing proximity to a subway station when looking into accommodations.
WHAT TO DO
Monkey Around at the Iwatayama Monkey Park
(8 Genrokuyamacho, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto 616-0022 9:00 AM - 16:00 PM daily)
This was definitely one of my favorite experiences throughout the Japan trip. On a mountain in the Arashiyama district of Kyoto live hundreds of snow monkeys, who are free to roam about the treetops. After a moderate 30-40 minute hike up, you will reach the top of the mountain, with breathtaking Kyoto laying at your feet. Even more delightful are the dozens of monkeys hanging out, basking in the sun, which you can feed while you stand in an enclosed building (turning the idea of a zoo on its head as you are essentially the one in the cage!). Pop a squat on one of the many benches on the mountaintop and observe the monkeys scrambling about. Once you’ve had your fill, you will hike back down the mountain surrounded by the gorgeous greenery. If you happen to go in autumn, like us, be prepared to be awestruck at the vivid explosion of colors that is fall foliage.
Some things to consider:
I’m in reasonably good shape and would qualify the hike up the hill as moderate. However, it seems pretty common on TripAdvisor for people to be taken aback by how strenuous of a climb this is. On the trail, there are no accommodations for individuals with mobility aids or strollers and this probably would be a rather unfun trip to carry a toddler up. That being said, wear comfy hiking shoes, bring some water, and you’ll likely be fine.
It costs about ¥550 ($5.50) to get in the park and once at the top of the mountain, you can feed the monkeys clementines and peanuts for a nominal fee. Any monetization for viewing or interacting with animals should raise some red flags if you’re a conscious traveler. But after doing research, I felt fairly comfortable visiting, as the monkeys are completely free to roam around the mountain and are not trained or forced to perform in any way. While I was in the park, I saw dozens of monkeys freely scattered across the mountains and the ones I witnessed at the mountaintop seemed happy and healthy. However, there are always ethical issues to consider when you’re interacting with wildlife. Do your own research and decide what you feel comfortable with.
I’ve heard this park gets crowded. Like super crazy crowded. It happened to rain the day we went and I was considering not going as so many TripAdvisor members had commented on how slippery and dangerous the hill was when wet. We decided to go anyway and, while we were unable to see the purportedly gorgeous view of Kyoto due to the weather, we basically had the park to ourselves. While I would certainly avoid going in heavy rain or any kind of storms, gray weather will likely work in your benefit. No beating sun as your hike up the mountain; no swarms of tourists to battle- just you, the cool mountain fog, and a barrel of snow monkeys.
Feel Dwarfed at the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
(Sagaogurayama Tabuchiyamacho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto 616-8394)
Located about a 15 minute walk from the monkey park lies the famous Bamboo Forest of Kyoto. Undoubtedly, you have seen pictures of the impossibly towering bamboo stalks all over Pinterest and Instagram. It’s beautiful and free, but oh my lord, was it CROWDED when we went- not quite the serene experience that is conveyed in all those gorgeous photos. If you’re looking to snap a worthwhile picture without getting 19 other people taking selfies in the frame, I’d recommend coming here early (like sunrise early) to avoid the crowds and to have a more peaceful experience.
Attend a Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony
(Many companies offer demonstrations, but for the company we choose, public ceremonies are held at 349-12 Masuyachō, Higashiyama-ku, Kyōto-shi; 10 am- 17 pm daily)
Kyoto is known for cultivating the finest “uji matcha” in the world, so when in Rome… drink matcha. And if you’re going to drink some of this antioxidant-rich superfood, why not take in some Japanese culture while you’re at it? We attended a traditional Japanese tea ceremony hosted by Camellia. Arriving at a traditional home in the Gion district, we were ushered into a room along with six other guests, by our kimono-clad host of the evening, Keiko. In fluent English, Keiko took us through the history and meaning of both matcha and the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, and then guided us through the process, step-by-step. The presentation ends with a Japanese sweet (Camellia assured me they only provide vegan sweets!) and your own hand-whipped steaming cup of matcha.
Word to the wise, if you sit at the seat closest to the door (like my blushing groom), you will be considered the “guest of honor” and thus, expected to verbally participate more in the ceremony than other spectators. Also, for the germaphobes amongst us, all of the spectators pass around and drink out of the cup prepared by the host. I was the second person to take the cup in my presentation (after Justin), but, even as a non-germaphobe, I would be pretty skeeved out to drink out of a cup after seven other veritable strangers.
Although advertised as taking 45 minutes, I believe we spent about an hour and a half from our arrival time until we departed. For around $20 a pop (for the demonstration, making your own cup of matcha, and a Japanese dessert), this is honestly something I’d normally skip to save money, but in hindsight, seemed well worth it (germy matcha bowl excluded). If you’re on an uber-budget, though, you may want to skip the ceremony and grab some matcha at one of the traditional tea houses around town (consider Nakamura Tokichi Honten in the Southeastern part of the city).
Alternatively, if you’re wanting a more luxe experience, you can book a private ceremony at the Flower location, although it will cost you three times as much as the public one (¥6000 /person) or throw in renting a kimono (from just the robe rental through a full blown photo shoot with professional hair and makeup) for ¥3000 extra on up. None of the people in my tea ceremony group were rocking a kimono, other than Keiko, so be prepared to OWN IT if you so choose. Whether or not you choose to go upstyle, you need to book your space ahead of time via their website, as our time slot was sold out well in advance (payment occurs on-site).
(68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto 612-0882; open 24 hours)
You’re going to see plenty of shrines and temples just walking around Kyoto. However, if you’re going to go out of your way to see any, I’d recommend seeing the famous Fushimi Inari shrine, dedicated to the Shinto god of rice. This shrine consists of thousands of torii gates winding up the mountain’s two and a half mile path, some of which date back to the 8th century. All of the torii have been donated by a company or individual over the course of hundreds of years, with the name of the donor and the year inscribed on each gate. Walking through the tunnel of torii, it’s impossible not to feel the centuries of history and spirituality of Kyoto.
Much like other places we visited in Kyoto, this place was incredibly packed. I would recommend either going fairly early (see a theme here?) or, alternatively, walking further along the trail until the crowd thins out. Walking to the summit takes about two to three hours and most visitors only make their way a quarter or so up the mountain. Justin and I opted not to do the entire trail as we were on a pretty tight timeframe, but I definitely regret not having a more quiet introspective time amongst this awe-inspiring maze of torii gates.
Take a Day Trip to Nara Park
(469 Zoshicho, Nara 630-8211, Nara Prefecture; open 24 hours)
From Fushimi Inari, we took a day trip to Nara Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site chock full of natural beauty and ancient temples, just a little over an hour away on the JR Nara Line. Some 1,200 sika deer, once believed to be the messengers of the gods, roam free in the rolling hills of the park (and all over the city of Nara). The deer are technically wild and are not contained in the park by any means; however, there are mnay vendors selling crackers that you can feed to the deer for ¥150, leaving them little incentive to leave.
While the deer were certainly cute (if not aggressive little deviants) and the massive green expanses of the park were nothing short of picturesque, the highlight of the park is the Todai-ji Temple, with its main hall, the Big Buddha Hall, laying claim as the largest wooden structure in the world (even though this reconstructed version from 1692 is only two thirds of the temple’s full size!). Stand in the shadow of a 50-foot bronze Buddha (one of the largest in Japan) and, if you’re feeling plucky, wriggle through a hole in the base of one of the temple’s pillars the size of the Buddha’s nostril. Allegedly, if you make it through, you will be granted enlightenment in your next life; YOU’RE WELCOME, REINCARNATED JESSICA! The park itself is totally free to enter, but you will be charged around ¥600 to enter Big Buddha Hall, with other parts of the temple charging additional fees (I’m sure you could see the entirety of the temple for well under ¥2000).
WHERE TO PLAY
(Pontocho dori, Nakagyo-ku; opening times vary)
This alleyway and its distinctive Old War vibes, which runs parallel to the Kamo-gawa River, is Kyoto’s more polished answer to Tokyo’s lovingly named “Piss Alley” and has served as Kyoto’s dining and nightlife district for over 500 years. Restaurants, bars, and food stalls are crammed into this alleyway, where no modern architecture or signange is permitted and your options range from the low-end yakitori stalls to high-end establishments where you need generations-old “connections” to get in. Since this is a night-time destination, most places don’t open here until 17:00 or so.
Amongst the many bars in the Pontocho Alley, Justin and I stopped in Hello Dolly (4jyo Noboru Pointchodori Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; 18:00-1:30 Tuesday through Saturday,18:00-12:30 on Sundays, and 19:00-1:30 on Mondays), a whiskey-forward jazz bar that overlooks the Kamo-gawa River. Open since 1939, this bar has a dark and sexy retro flair, the kind of place you might expect Don Draper to be sitting in the corner, pensively sipping a whiskey neat. While our weekday visit meant we missed the live weekend jazz show, our bartender carefully selected a Coltrane record, lovingly displaying the album cover behind the bar for all to see. I often judge a place by how I’d feel if someone took me on a first date there; Hello Dolly DEFINITELY passes the first date test. Consistent with the slightly fancier atmosphere, expect to pay around ¥1000 or so for a drink.
In a common theme of our trip, Justin and I were dressed slightly frumpy upon our arrival. While we weren’t treated poorly, I felt a bit embarrassed to be flanked on one side by an older Japanese gentleman wearing a power suit and, on the other, by a beautiful young woman dressed in an elaborate kimono. Note to self: don’t dress like an American hoosier when in Japan.
(138-9 Saisekidori, Shijosagaru, Saitocho, Shimogyo-ku; 20 pm-2 am, every night but Monday)
Imagine you had this friend, a kind of eccentric French dude with a handlebar mustache, who was really into steampunk and magic and cool cocktails (... and for some reason, you kind of have a massive crush on him despite the fact that sometimes he wears a top hat). Imagine said friend moved to Kyoto to open a French-magician-in-the-1920s themed bar. L’Escamoteur Bar, meaning “The Magician” in French, is exactly that, with the bar’s owner and our bartender for the evening, Christophe, taking its name quite literally. The bar boasts an old-school-looking machine used to infuse drinks with smoke (and a bit of a magic); a hidden passageway… to the bathroom; and random levitating bowler hats, making this place an absolute must for any mixology or design fan. We went on a Tuesday night and had to wait about thirty minutes outside the bar until some space cleared up, but my goodness was it worth it. The drinks were unique and delicious; the waitstaff were beyond friendly; and this may be the best atmosphere of any bar I’ve ever been to. While you definitely pay for the ambiance and fancypants drinks (about $15 a cocktail), your trip to Kyoto is incomplete without a cocktail from here.
WHERE TO EAT
Kyoto was instrumental in making tofu a staple in Japanese cuisine, so unsurprisingly, Kyoto was almost as awesome for vegans as Tokyo. There were so many more places I would have loved to try, but here's where we had our best eats:
(〒605-0074 京都府京都市 東山区祇園町南側５２８−６; open from 11:30-20:30 every day but Tuesday)
Justin and I stopped here on our first night in Kyoto, after a day of getting slightly lost in Hakone, riding what seemed like eleven different types of public transit, and both battling a nasty cold. We were a bit grumpy upon entering this relatively nondescript restaurant, which quickly changed once we experienced what was likely the best meal of my trip. There is an English vegetarian menu (which happens to be all vegan), where you can choose from several varieties of soups and your desired level of curry in your dish. I selected the vegetable tempura curry donburi, a curry-based soup with rice and udon noodles and topped with crunchy vegetable tempura, at the highest level of curry-ness. The broth was SO deeply flavorful and the thick udon noodles were delightfully chewy. Paired with an Umeshu Highball (shochu, a Japanese liquor, infused with plums, which immediately needs to make its way to the United States), I can’t imagine a more perfectly Japanese, comforting dish. If you’re in Kyoto, get thee to Mimikou.
(68 Sagatenryujisusukinobabacho, Ukyo-ku | Within the premise of Tenryu-ji Temple, Kyoto; 11 am- 13 pm daily)
Hidden in the garden of Tenryuji temple lays a restaurant, Shigetsu, serving Zen cuisine. Not only is shojin ryori cuisine animal-product free by nature, it is also highly prescribed, with each meal consisting of five tastes (salty, sweet, sour, bitter, spicy), five colors (red, white, black, green, and yellow), and five cooking methods (frying, boiling, preparation in hot oil, steamed, and raw). While making your reservations for this restaurant (which are required), you can choose from various lunch sets ranging from six dishes (costing around $30) up to nine dishes (costing around $70). We hesitantly elected to save some cash and go with the six dish set, including preparations of gluten, fresh tofu, pickled and fresh vegetables such as bamboo shoots, spinach, daikon, seaweed, green peas, and fruit for dessert.
To get to the restaurant, you need to pay about a ¥600 entrance fee to the Tenryuji's gardens. Had we not went to the restaurant, I doubt I would have previously felt compelled to pay money to see some landscaping, but oh my word, am I glad I changed my mind on that front. This is single-handedly the most gorgeous place I’ve ever been, with a pond quietly reflecting Kyoto’s mountains, stones artfully scattered throughout, and a breathtaking amount of greenery lovingly displayed. This place is so obviously designed to foster contemplation of the unbelievable beauty of nature.
Luckily, Shigetsu’s decor is minimal and focuses on the views of Tenryuji's gardens, provided by the restaurant’s floor to ceiling windows. While the views are stunning, the lunch set is equally as good. The food is meticulously prepared and displayed and the care and consideration taken is evident- the sesame tofu, so delicate and creamy, is the food of gods, and the texture of the glutenous dumpling was mind-blowing. Definitely a pricy lunch, but well-worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience.
(407-4 Zoshicho, Nara; open Mon-Sun 9:00am-4:30pm)
Nestled in Nara Park is a slightly worn-looking restaurant, run by a sweet older couple. After seating us, the older woman provided us with an English menu, with a clearly marked vegan option of udon in broth, rice, pickles, sesame tofu and green tea. She happily took our order and within five minutes of sitting down, we had a steaming plate of deliciousness in front of us. After spending time outside in the chilly November air, I can’t imagine anything better than slurping up the savory udon broth, while watching the Nara deer dash around outside the restaurant. This definitely is more akin to eating in your grandma’s living room than an upscale dining experience, but with delicious’ reasonably-priced lunch sets (¥1100) that are obviously proudly and lovingly-prepared, I highly recommend stopping at this place if you decide to trek to Nara.
Whoever said that Japan has no vegan street food is a dirty, dirty liar. Justin and I ate SO much amazing food from random street vendors all over Kyoto. From yaki onigiri (grilled crunchy rice balls) topped with mitsutake mushrooms (which, by the way, the vendor told us was the food of samurais, and thus, obviously health food) in the market of Arashiyama to charcoal-grilled tofu and miso sauce yakitori in the market by Fushimi Inari to yakimochi (grilled mochi) from a street vendor along the river, Kyoto was impossibly stuffed with vegan-friendly street food. A must-stop on all Kyoto travelers’ lists is the Nishiki Market (Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; 9:30 am- 16 pm), a five block span packed with food stalls, shops, and restaurants peddling every type of food, drink, and ware imaginable. This market is a vegetable and fruit lover’s dream come true, but even for the more fattypants amongst us (cough, cough- me) can find a treasure trove of foodie delights, like black sesame tofu ice cream. If you have any type of dietary restrictions, don’t be shy to ask vendors about ingredients of dishes or how certain things are prepared; everyone that we spoke with happily helped us figure out what we can eat. Trying all the street foods was one of my favorite memories of Japan, and it would have been silly and wasteful to miss out on such a culturally significant portion of a trip, simply due to embarrassment!
WHERE NOT TO EAT
(543 Asakura-cho, Nakagyo-ku (at Tomino-koji), Kyoto; dinner Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday 17:00-22:00 pm; 11:30am-2:30pm, 5:30pm-10:00pm)
Upon hearing about an upscale all vegan shojin fusion restaurant, we quickly decided that Ukishima Garden would be our allotted “fancy” dinner while in Japan. The interior of the restaurant is modern and clean and seems to largely leave the focus on the food. Upon our arrival, we ordered the prix-fixe seven course meal (about ~$65 a person). While the food was plated beautifully, it was wildly inconsistent. “Fusion” in and of itself is not really a theme and Ukishima Garden seemed to be realllllly stretching in this department, with Italian, French, and American influences thrown into random dishes. Furthermore, while some of the dishes were super flavorful (I did particularly enjoy a seafood-reminiscent soup), the majority of them were pretty bland and forgettable. Although the bland flavor could arguably be chalked up to the dishes’ alleged shojin roots, the unbelievably poor service was unacceptable. Long spans of time would elapse without seeing a server and when one would appear long enough for us to order a glass of water or wine, they would again vanish, without any trace of said water or wine. Ultimately way too expensive for a disappointing experience.
Veg Out Vegan Cafe
(448 Inaricho, Shomogyo-ku | Kamogawa Bldg.1F, Kyoto 600-8133; Tue-Sun 8:00am-9:00pm)
As I mentioned in my Tokyo post, Japanese people seem to rely more on typical lunch or dinner-type foods for breakfast than our Westernized diets. Therefore, imagine our initial delight to find a place that not only served vegan food, but BREAKFAST. Upon arrival, I was impressed by the location of the restaurant, with the clean, airy space overlooking the Kamo River. I had heard they sold out of foods at times, but arriving around 9:30 or so, I figured their stock should be in pretty good shape. However, almost every single item on the menu was sold out, basically leaving us with the options of some sort of sweet potato muffin and toast (as in one piece of bread) with kidney beans on it. Justin and I both ordered the bean toast and split a sweet potato muffin. It literally took about thirty five minutes for them to bring out a pre-prepared MUFFIN (after Justin inquired about it) and another fifteen minutes or so to bring out the bean toast (which again, was a slice of Texas toast, with some kidney beans on it). Both of the items tasted fine, but I’m not sure what’s the point of having a restaurant if you’re so ill-prepared that you’re unable to offer the vast majority of the items on your menu. Veg Out seems to have great review on Happy Cow, so maybe we visited them on a super off day; our experience was so weird, though, I’d be remiss not to mention it.
And that about wraps up our experience in Kyoto- what about you guys? I’m curious to hear if other people have figured out a way to beat the crowds of tourists while still seeing all the go-to-sites. Let me know about your tips and tricks below!