People always ask if I prefer Tokyo or Kyoto and for me, Kyoto has the edge – I think it’s the astounding history, the upholding of tradition mixed with everything we already love about Japan (food, culture, architecture). I do think Kyoto can be a bit overwhelming with so many sights and Temples and there can be more ‘touristy’ spots too (but in a cool, Japanese way, not in a Picadilly Circus kind of way!), so do try and plot in some time just to wander around and eat more leisurely, which is what we did this trip.
HOW TO GET THERE
We got the bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo (on our way back from Koyasan), it took under 15 minutes. We flew into Tokyo for our trip but it might be worth seeing if flying into Osaka works out cheaper for you – you can get a bus or regular train between Osaka and Kyoto easily. Travelling between Tokyo and Kyoto (via a bullet train) takes approximately 2 hours so both cities can be done in one trip.
WHERE TO STAY
Last trip we stayed in Hotel Mume (in the Gion district) which we absolutely loved! This time we thought we’d stay in a different area and stayed in a really conveniently located hotel (by the Imperial Palace) called Noku (Oomi Travel recommended and booked for us). It was lovely, tastefully decorated, not too fancy but had everything we needed and most importantly, it was located above a metro station (Maratumachi), which made getting around so easy.
What we mainly liked about this hotel was the surrounding neighbourhood, it felt really local – everyone was on bikes and there were so many great restaurants we discovered. We barely walked a few blocks for great food.
WHAT TO DO
On our last visit we did so many more sights on the tourist trail (Arashiyama, Golden Pavilion, Imperial Palace – read my last city guide here) and even had a private tour guide (we’ll never forget Meg!). This time, we had a few places on our agenda but other than that, we just wandered the streets and popped into shops that looked interesting! We stayed 3 nights and visited:
Fushimi Inari Shrine – the one shrine I was desperate to revisit. Sadly, we experienced our one thunderstorm of the trip whilst here but it still didn’t detract from its beauty! We walked the famous Tori gates, shopped in the local tourist shops and took photos as the sun was setting. It is free to walk through the gates and it’s quite a walk up them (they reach the sacred Mount Inari, 233 metres high) so don’t panic if you can’t get a ‘quiet’ photo at first, most people drop off halfway so as long as you walk near to the top you will get your shot!
Pontocho Alley – I remembered this ancient alleyway full of bars and restaurants as one of my highlights from last trip. It is definitely a place to visit but sadly we found it the most touristy spot of our trip this time, we felt rushed through with people stepping on our toes, it felt where everyone goes for dinner rather than a hidden gem – it was much calmer in the daytime. That said, we went back to Kappa Sushi (saved from our last trip) and it was still good.
As we had a more loose itinerary, we did a few more spontaneous visits – Museum of Kyoto had an exhibition called ‘Women Between Hopes and Fears’ which was beautiful and walkable from our hotel – the museum is free but we paid for the exhibition. We also spent a bit of time in independent stores, the area around the Museum of Kyoto (around the Kama River, Sanjo-Dori and Karasume-Oike area) has lots of gorgeous art, stationery and antique shops too. We bought a tenugui from Nijiyura, found some gorgeous vintage stores which eventually led us to the Termachi-Dori arcade where I found more gorgeous stationery shops (Tag, in particular) and Chris and I both found some pieces in Kinji vintage. We did the Manga Museum as it was nearby and there was an exhibition we were interested in but I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone outside of a megafan – most of the manga is in Japanese and it’s more a local resource centre.
We stopped in a few Lawsons along the way to top up on cold drinks and air con and lived on iced coffees from all the independent cafes. But the main reason we were shopping was to look for vintage art and we did manage to find a few pieces in the stores in this area, but also remembered a store in the Gion district we wanted to revisit.
The Gion District is a must visit in Kyoto, the home of Geishas (Maiko), ancient Shrines and traditional teahouses, it’s the ancient part of the city that still feels like walking on a film set. We headed to Shinmonzen Street which is known as the antique street, but most are more like trinket shops with bowls, ceramics and art at reasonable prices – we found some artwork for under £10.
WHERE TO EAT
Apart from sushi (Kappa Sushi and Kanazawa Maimon Sushi in Kyoto station) we mainly ate in Izakaya (traditional tavern) type places. I’d recommend walking around Kyoto main station as there were so many great affordable places there (and it was nice to get out of the 35 degree heat!). Kyoto is definitely about the sweet treats, here you’ll find lots of bakeries, matcha ice cream and mochi sweets/souvenirs (especially around the Gion shopping area).
For dinner we stayed in our local area and stumbled upon two great places:
Tsukitotage Izakaya (remove shoes when entering) – we had yakitori (meat skewers) and came to roughly £20 for 4 dishes and drinks.
Chabuya Honten – great atmosphere in a tiny bar, lots of sharing plates, yakitori and noodle dishes. The perfect end to our Kyoto stay.
For more travel tips and our Tokyo itinerary, read my Tokyo blog here.
Things I loved in Japan:
Changing tables in men’s bathrooms and often entire rooms for changing babies for both sexes.
Ometenashi: Japanese hospitality. It is unmatched, the way you are treated by everyone is incredible, we were given little souvenir salt shakers in one restaurant, we were thanked every time we went through a turnstile in Kyoto station, if you look lost someone will help you and go out of their way to take you to where you need to go.
They way they embrace both ancient tradition and futurism almost simultaneously.
Heated toilet seats – I never realised how much I braced myself before going!
The attention to detail, the perfecting of one dish (ramen, for instance) and doing it well.
Being a kid is celebrated, adults are seen in the arcades and manga stores as much as kids.
Women only carriages between certain hours of the day, and instead of just a few seats they have entire priority and disabled carriages on the metro.