Kyoto and Nara


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Asia » Japan » Kyoto » Kyoto
September 21st 2014
Published: September 22nd 2014
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Day 1

We left Kanazawa at lunchtime and arrived in Kyoto about 2 hours later. We managed to easily navigate our way through the station to catch the subway and then managed to choose the correct exit at Shijo station (pure skill of course, nothing to do with luck).

After checking into our home for the next 6 nights we (I) sat down with the Lonely Planet to go through my temple / shrine shortlist and assign days for each area of the city. After planning our next 5 days we went for a walk.

Our hotel was on Shijo-dori, near Karasuma-dori, which is the main shopping areas in Kyoto. This meant that after only about a 5 minute walk we ended up surrounded by malls and shops on either side of the street. We came across a McDonalds and Scott decided it was the time to try the shrimp burger. We ordered a meal (with grape Fanta) and sat down amongst the school and university students doing their homework. McDonalds was actually fairly expensive in comparison to what you can get for the same price elsewhere in Japan – it cost about 720 yen (7AUD) for the large meal which was only a little less than our lunch for two had cost the previous day.

From McDonalds we ventured to the basement level of the first mall we came across to check out the food area. After wandering around for a little while I came across some yummy looking pastry things which were being cooked as we watched. I ordered a chestnut filled one (chestnuts are in season) which was absolutely delicious.

After wandering around for a little while and deciding that I definitely do not have enough disposable income to shop for clothes in Japan we returned to our hotel. While I uploaded a blog Scott researched dinner options in our area. He found a review of a small yakitori restaurant nearby which sounded pretty promising.

We set out just before 8pm to try and find the yakitori restaurant. We found it with no problems at all despite it being hidden down a little alley and having no English sign. Fortunately there were still a few seats at the bar right in front of the yakitori grill. We were handed an English menu and proceeded to order a selection of skewers and grilled
Kiyomizu-deraKiyomizu-deraKiyomizu-dera

Super excited about this temple!
rice balls and some sochu to drink. We stayed away from ordering the raw chicken dishes though…

The food was amazing and the atmosphere was great. Yakitori restaurants are my favourite style of Japanese restaurant because of the atmosphere and food. We had a great night and decided to return again before we left Kyoto because it was so delicious (and because I had forgotten to put the SD card in the camera!).

Day 2

For our first full day in Kyoto we set off for the Southern Higashiyama area which includes the famous geisha district of Gion. It took about 30 minutes to walk from our hotel to the starting point for the Lonely Planet walking tour Kiyomizo-dera.

Kiyomizo-dera is one of the 17 UNESCO listed sites in Kyoto. Most of the current temple dates from about 1631 to 1633. There was some restoration work in progress when we arrived and one of the buildings was covered in a large makeshift shed, but fortunately the main hall was still open.

The main hall has a huge veranda which juts out over the hillside. The temple was incredibly busy with mostly Japanese and a few foreign students. A lot of the Japanese girls were dressed up in kimonos and quite a few of them seemed more interested in taking selfies than looking at the temple! Some of them were even wearing the traditional white makeup of the geisha (which the geisha wore to reflect candle light while entertaining in the days before electricity). The brightly coloured kimonos looked lovely and we enjoyed trying to take sneaky (or sometimes not so sneaky) photos of them.

After the main hall we explored some of the smaller buildings in the temple ground and then made our way towards the exit to continue on the walking tour.

The next stage of the walking tour was along the main streets in two of the restored neighbourhoods Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka. We didn’t need a map that much – we just followed the hordes of people! The streets were lined with traditional Japanese style wooden houses, a lot of which had been converted into food or souvenir shops. We ventured down some of the little alleyways leading off the main streets where it was slightly quieter but just as pretty.

Before we ventured into the next temple Kodai-ji, we stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants nearby. Unsurprisingly the meal was quite expensive – I liked my food (rice with tempura) but Scott wasn’t so keen on his chicken and egg dish.

After lunch we walked up the stairs to Kodai-ji which we only admired from the outside as the entrance fee was a little steep. From there we wandered to Maruyama Park which includes Yasaka Shrine and Chion-in.

As we were wandered through the park we were descended on by a group of high school students from Tokyo who were on a school trip to Kyoto. They were hunting foreigners so they could practice their English. They had a number of pre-prepared questions which they ran through with us. We clearly answered the “what kind of Japanese food do you like?” correctly when we responded with karaage (amongst other things) as they all got excited! After they were finished with their questions we had to sign our name and write a little comment on each of their sheets. We were paid for our time with little origami cranes and a group photo.

After exploring the park some more we headed to Chion-in. We entered the temple walking along ‘nightingale floors’, i.e. floorboards that squeak so intruders can’t sneak up on you. Large sections of the temple were undergoing restoration so there wasn’t a lot to see.

After Chion-in we headed to Shoren-in which was just nearby. Again we opted not to go inside this temple, instead admiring it from the outside. There were lovely old twisted trees out the front of the temple whose branches had been propped up to allow cars to drive underneath.

After Shoren-in we set off for Shirakawa-minami dori which runs alongside the Shirakawa river. The street was lined with restaurants and hotels where geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) trained guests but the buildings on the northern side were demolished during World War II to prevent the spread of fire should the city be attacked.

Nevertheless, the street was lovely with nice shady trees along the river and traditional houses on one side. From there we made our way towards Hanami-kouji dori which is the main street in Hanamchi, Gion. This street is apparently one of the best spots for spotting maiko, particularly in the evening. We decided to head home instead of fighting the crowds and return one evening when the chances of spotting maiko are better.

That night for dinner we headed to Donguri for dinner. Donguri is a chain restaurant which is famous for okonomiyaki; when we arrived they were actually full but we were told that there should be room in 20 minutes. When we returned we ordered an okonomiyaki each as well as edamame and a few grilled rice balls as well as some drinks. By the time our food arrived we were absolutely starving. The food was delicious, though the spicy sauce which came with a warning was far from spicy!

Day 3

The following day was Friday so we decided to head to Nara to avoid the crowds that flock there on the weekends.

On the way to Nara we stopped off at Fushimi-Inari Taisha which was about a 15 minute train ride from Kyoto station. Fushimi-Inari Taisha is probably one of the most popular shrines in the Kyoto area and the station was conveniently located right out the front.

Fushimi-Inari Taisha is one of about 30,000 Inari shrines scattered across Japan. A pathway, lined with thousands of red torii, leads about 4km up to the top of the mountain. There are inscriptions on one side of the torii so depending on whether you are walking up or down you either see plain red torii or red torii with black messages written on them. The torii are spaced closely together which has quite a stunning effect.

Despite starting early (we arrived about 20 minutes after it opened for the day), it was already fairly busy down the bottom. However, as we climbed higher the crowds thinned out and we even managed to snap a few photos without other people in them.

After Fushima-Inari we headed back to the station to wait for the next train to Nara. Turns out the next train was a super slow one which stopped every station. We made a particular long stop at about the tenth station which was because the train wouldn’t be continuing any further. We hopped off and waiting on the platform for the next one which was, fortunately, an express train.

We arrived at Nara station at about 12pm. We decided to grab some food from the supermarket at the station to have for lunch. The food from this supermarket was the cheapest we’ve found so far – a hand roll was 89 yen. We managed to find a little bench outside the supermarket sit on while we enjoyed our food; between us we had about 5 hand rolls, karaage, salad and two drinks for about 10AUD – bargain.

After finishing our lunch we set off for Nara park which was about a 2km walk from the station. Nara park has shrines, temples and museums as well as a resident population of about 1200 deer.

We arrived at the first temple on my list to find that it was undergoing renovations (just like the first temple we found the previous day!) so we couldn’t see anything. We did manage to find a lady selling deer biscuits who was, unsurprisingly, surrounded by deer and tourists. The deer biscuits cost 150 yen; the deer have definitely figured out the smell as if you don’t have any biscuits they are pretty quick to dismiss you but if you do have some all of a sudden they want to be your best friend. We quickly found ourselves with a few new friends and Scott started feeding them. They are pretty insistent; if you take too long to break up a biscuit they’ll give you a little head butt or start trying to eat the biscuits straight out of your hands. After about half the biscuits were gone Scott handed them to me and all of a sudden the deer wanted to be my friends instead. It was all over in about 5 minutes but it was heaps of fun – definitely worth the 150 yen!

After our biscuits were gone we made our way to the main park area and wandered around watching the deer and taking photos. We took a photo for a French couple who were trying to pose with the deer but were clearly terrified – I’m sure my face looks exactly like theirs when there are monkeys in the area.

We stopped for a little while near an older couple who had a bag full of deer food and a whole lot of friends including a stag and a mum with a fawn. The old man seemed to keep getting annoyed at the deer like he was surprised they just kept coming back for more and more…I’m not sure why he expected anything different!

After sitting for a while we continued walking through the park, past a pond full of massive Koi fish. Eventually we found another woman selling deer biscuits. The thing that alerted us to the fact that there was another deer biscuit seller in the area was a guy running around (clearly with biscuits on him somewhere) being followed by about 10 deer in close pursuit. I’m not sure whether he was enjoying being chased or was actually terrified but it was amusing nonetheless.

We bought ourselves another packet of deer biscuits and promptly found ourselves surrounded again. These deer were slightly more persistent than the other group we had been feeding. Scott divided the packet in half, put half in his pocket and passed the other half over to me. I struggled to keep up with the demands of the group as I couldn’t break the biscuits up fast enough! One deer was clearly unimpressed with how long I was taking and decided to nip me on the stomach which was absolutely hilarious. After that half of the biscuits was gone we made our way over to a seat and sat down. Scott produced a few more of the biscuits from his pocket and was surrounded shortly after – they didn’t have much interest in me until Scott handed some of the biscuits over and then stood up and took a fairly amusing video of me surrounded by deer with them head butting me and licking crumbs off my dress as I fed them. So much fun!

After all the biscuits were gone we made our way over to a couple of stags who were butting heads. We watched them fight each other for a while before they decided they would prefer to just strut around making noise and spraying / rubbing the trees to settle the argument. After it was clear there wouldn’t be any more head butting we made our way back towards the station to catch the train home.

That night for dinner we headed back to our yakitori restaurant. Unfortunately it was completely booked up for the next few hours so we made a booking for Saturday night. We decided to drown our sorrows at the little Thai restaurant on our street close to our hotel. The food was actually quite delicious and even a little spicy!

Day 4

For our fourth day in Kyoto we decided to head to the Northern Higashiyama area of Kyoto which Lonely Planet says is “one of the city’s richest areas for sightseeing”.

Our first destination was Heian-jingu shrine which was about a 30 minute walk from our hotel. As we had started our relatively late we decided to stop along the way and have lunch at a smallish restaurant with an English menu. I ordered the vegetable tempura set while Scott ordered the prawn tempura set. The meal was one of the more average ones we have had in Japan; the tempura was quite oily and not crispy at all…fairly disappointing but at least it was only about 10AUD each.

After lunch we continued on our way to Heinan-jingu shrine. When we arrived they appeared to be setting up for a concert with teams of people laying out chairs and rigging up speakers…seems like a strange venue but OK! Heinan-jingu has quite a large garden which we enjoyed walking through more than we enjoyed the shrine building itself. Once in the garden it definitely didn’t feel like you were in the middle of a major city.

From Heinan-jingu shrine we headed off towards Nanzen-ji. At the entrance to Nanzen-ji was a very impressive wooden gate which you could pay to climb. We opted to admire it from the outside before wandering through the rest of the grounds.

From Nanzen-ji we walked along Tetsugaku-no-Michi (Path of Philosophy) towards Honen-in. The path runs alongside a river and is lined on either side with lovely trees. It is apparently lovely later in autumn and in cherry blossom season. It was a lovely peaceful stroll past some fairly nice houses.

By the time we arrived at Honen-in we had about 5 minutes before it closed... We didn’t hang around to enjoy the gardens as there seemed to be quite a few mosquitos.

By the time we arrived back to Shijo street it was about 5:15 so we decided to try (following the obscure instructions we found on a blog) and find Honke Owariya for dinner. Honke Owariya has been operating since 1465. It originally started off as a sweet shop, but made the transition to soba noodles at some point in time over the previous 549 years.

While we were searching we realised we didn’t have much cash so decided to try and find an ATM. Pretty much the only ATMs in Japan which accept foreign credit cards are at 7/11 stores. We spent the next hour and a half or so trying to find a 7/11..!

While searching we ventured down Hanami-kouji dori (maiko street) which was, by the time we arrived, lit up with red lanterns on either side. We aren’t sure whether we spotted any real maiko (apparently the city employs university students who are dressed up and walk around in kimonos and traditional makeup) but it didn’t really matter.

We eventually decided we weren’t going to find the Honke Owariya that evening so headed down Shijo street away from the area we thought the restaurant was in. We eventually found a 7/11 and withdrew some money before making our way to Ponto-cho to try and find a restaurant. Ponto-cho is a small street near the river lined with restaurants either side. Unfortunately, due to the location, the restaurants were all fairly pricey. We managed to find one place which took our fancy and wasn’t too expensive but when they asked for a cover charge we decided to find somewhere else.

We eventually settled on visiting another Donguri restaurant as by that stage we were both very tired from a long day walking. The food was again delicious and we were definitely happy to have a nice cold drink!

Day 5

The following day we decided, much to Scott’s delight, to give the temples and shrines a rest. We slept in and then headed off to Honke Owariya for lunch. Turns out (using the instructions on their website) the restaurant was actually about a 15 minute walk from our hotel (past two 7/11 stores) and definitely not in the location we were looking the previous night! As it was fairly early we managed to get a seat without any issues.

We ordered a soba noodle stack each. The stack consists of 5 smallish serves of cold soba noodles in stackable containers with 8 different condiments (spring onions, mushrooms, thinly sliced egg, sesame seeds, grated daikon, tempura prawns, wasabi and nori) and a soy and dashi stock based sauce. Our noodles arrived not long after we had ordered complete with instructions (in English) and I grabbed the camera to take a photo. Once again I discovered there was no SD card in the camera so had to resort to taking pictures on Scott’s phone.

The noodles were yummy but the flavours were quite simple. Once we’d finished our stacks we were both incredibly full. I had wanted to order a dessert, but was unfortunately too full (just for a change) – we’ll have to visit again next time we’re in Kyoto.

After lunch we headed home to grab the SD card then ventured to Nishiki Market which was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. The market is quite different to a normal market – in fact it is more like an undercover shopping strip with shops selling a wide variety of products including clothes, shoes and food on either side.

I managed to find some more cat socks to buy and then came across a tea shop. Scott lifted his ban on me buying more tea and I came away with a packet of chestnut tea and a packet of green tea.

After the market we caught the subway to Kyoto station to visit Yodobashi to buy a filter for our wide angle lens. We eventually found a filter which looked like it did the right thing and grabbed a lens cleaner and made our way to the register. We added a case to our purchase to push us over to the point at which tourists can buy stuff duty free.

After the electronics store Scott went back to the hotel to be lazy while I ventured into another one of the malls on our street. I’m not sure how the Japanese afford to buy clothes in Japan – everything I found in the mall was incredibly expensive despite it being a mall for younger people. I liked some shoes…865AUD and a dress…360AUD… Needless to say I came home empty handed!

After relaxing in our hotel for a bit we got ready to go to our Yakitori restaurant. When we turned up they greeted me by name (apparently Bianca must be easy to write in Japanese characters) and showed us to our seats at the bar. We ordered some drinks while we decided which skewers we would like. We settled on some chicken thigh, chicken and cheese, special chicken meatballs and some rice balls to start. While we ate we watched the other skewers get prepared – clearly there were a lot of things on offer which weren’t on our English menu! We resorted to pointing at a few more sticks – Scott ordered some darker meat (possibly back meat?) while I chose some chicken breast with sesame mayonnaise, mint and nori. After we had finished these skewers we decided we had room for one more serve so opted for the wings. Everything was delicious – it’s my favourite restaurant we’ve visited in Japan.

Day 6

The following day was our final day in Kyoto. We had decided to explore the north west corner of the city so walked to a nearby train station to catch a different line. Turns out the line we had to catch was (we assume) the cheapest line in Kyoto and the train was actually a tram very similar to the city circle trams in Melbourne. Our tickets were only 200 yen each!

We arrived at Ryoan-ji station about 20 minutes later and set off on the 10 minute walk to the temple. Ryoan-ji temple was built in 1450 and is famous for its rock garden. It is one of the 17 UNESCO listed sites in Kyoto.

We bought our tickets, took off our shoes and ventured in to the temple to view the garden. To say we were underwhelmed is probably an understatement. Scott described the rock garden as looking like a gravel car park which someone had forgotten to remove a couple of rocks from. Fortunately the temple building and the surrounding (non-rock) gardens were much more impressive.

From Ryoan-ji we walked about 25 minutes to Kinkaku-ji Temple, otherwise known as the golden temple. Kinkaku-ji is another one of the UNESCO listed sites in Kyoto and is probably one of the more famous (and therefore popular) temples. The original temple was burned to the ground by a monk in 1950, and the current temple was rebuilt in 1955. The golden pavilion is surrounded by a lake and is quite impressive; though the golden temple in Amritsar, India definitely gets my vote in the golden temple competition!

After Kinkaku-ji we headed off to Daitokuji Temple which is a collection of temples with different gardens. I thought the grounds and buildings were quite nice but Scott was pretty over temples and wanted lunch so we didn’t spend much time there.

For lunch we decided to grab some food from a supermarket on our way to our next destination Nijo-jo. Scott got some sushi and fried prawns and I got some fried vegetable things and some potato salad. After we paid I realised that we must have chosen the only supermarket in Japan that a) doesn’t give excessive amounts of packaging and b) doesn’t give out chopsticks! I was reduced to eating potato salad with my hands in the gutter of a nearby alleyway while Scott laughed at me and told me when it was clear for me to shovel another mouthful in with my fingers…Possibly not my most glamorous moment but definitely memorable…

After our fancy lunch we set off towards Nijo-jo which was about 3kms away. We stopped at a supermarket along the way to buy some strawberry and cream flavoured kit-kats to add to our collection (we also have green tea and pumpkin flavours).

Nijo-jo is a castle which was built in 1603 as the official residence of the first Tokugawa shogun. It is a very grand building which was probably towards the top of my list of favourite sites we visited in Kyoto. The large wooden building had nightingale floors throughout with signs describing what the rooms were for. The screen paintings throughout were all reproductions as the original artwork was removed a while ago in order to preserve it. Despite that, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside but managed to get some nice shots from outside the building.

That night we went to the 7th floor of one of the shopping malls which Lonely Planet told us was full of restaurants. A lot of the restaurants sold either fried food or Western food. Eventually we settled on a Cantonese restaurant and ordered our food.

When our food arrived we were very disappointed with the quantity. Despite the dishes being amongst the most expensive we’ve had in Japan the serving size was absolutely tiny! The food was very nice quality and the flavours were lovely but it would have been nice to have a bit more to enjoy. We decided that since our main course was tiny we’d have to buy ice-cream on the way home. I ended up with some weird ‘blueberry’ flavoured one and Scott got a coffee one..

Kyoto was wonderful; I think we had just the right amount of time in the city. Any less and we would have had incredibly busy days or not enough time to see everything we wanted! I think I could quite happily live in Kyoto (and if I did I would visit our yakitori restaurant every day!!). While we were in the city we decided to use a pedometer to get an idea of how far we were walking each day; on day 2 we apparently took 21,600 steps; on day 3 we walked 23,000; on day 4 we took 34,000; on day 5 we had a small day of ‘only’ 16,000 steps and on our final day we took 27,700 steps.



Next stop is Hiroshima, our second last destination for this trip.


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