A good friend of mine, John, was going to run the Tokyo marathon. A few of us said in passing that maybe we'd join the trip to cheer him on. We looked into flights, and since it's off season for Japan tourism, the flights were only $550. It was bone chilling cold at times, at least for this SoCal girl. We got some rain and even a bit of snow, but it was a great trip exploring both Tokyo and Kyoto, two very different Japanese cities.
We took the bullet train to Kyoto from Tokyo with our Japan Rail Passes. It a 2.5 hour train ride moving swiftly through the country. If you're heading to Japan, purchase your rail passes in advance. You can't purchase them once you get there. These passes are for tourists only to discount their fare to travel around the country, otherwise it gets quite expensive.
Kano Cafe is a quaint little breakfast spot we found around the corner from our Airbnb. It was perfect, coffee & eggs with a quiet cozy atmosphere and light jazz humming in the background. It sits right on the Kamo river.
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine
Fushina Inari Taisha, also know as the golden gates, is a beautiful shrine in southern Kyoto. It was also my favorite day of the entire trip. The shrine has thousands of Torii, or golden gates to pass through to reach the mountaintop. It’s quite the hike, but has gorgeous views up to the top and I hugely underestimated the beauty of all the torii lined up as a pathway up. It’s quite striking. Photos don’t do it justice.
We worked up an appetite during the hike, but there are loads of street vendors back towards the bottom where you can try all types of food. We wandered down consuming all types of deliciousness. Crab on a stick, mochi on a stick, kobe beef on a stick. Yes, everything was conveniently on a stick. We filled our bellies, grabbed a macha latte for the road, then got back on the train to ride to Nara Park.
We arrived at Nara and the weather had taken a turn for the worse. It was raining cats and dogs… and lots of deer. Nara is one of the oldest parks in Japan and is known for their wild wandering deer that roam free all over the 1,240 acres. They are literally, everywhere. We got food to feed them, and they gathered around. Some are sweet and timid, some are insanely aggressive! It was surreal to be in the massive park with swarms of them all around in the rain. We walked through the park to Tōdai-ji, a temple we saw on the map. As we walked to the temple, we had no idea what to expect, it hadn’t been on our list. We walked up to the beautiful massive wooden temple in the pouring rain, entered the structure, and the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha was there. What a wow moment! The scale is tough to describe in words, it was enormous! We were happily surprised by the discovery!
rocking chair bar
Rocking Chair Bar is a very quaint little bar with 4 rocking chairs by a fireplace, that we were lucky enough to snag. The vibe felt very 20s throwback, with waiters wearing bow-ties, soft jazz music playing, and soft lighting. Sipping Japanese whiskey in a cozy setting was a nice escape from the biting cold outside.
Chojiro in Gion is sushi in a conveyer belt. As it goes around in circles you grab whichever dish looks good to you and they are cost color coded by plate color. At the end the waiters just add up your plates to total your dinner amount. It was both delicious and a fun experience.
Hello Dolly is a bar that plays light jazz and serves fancy cocktails. It seems this is a trend in Kyoto, a throwback to 20s jazz and speakeasy vibes is really popular! We kept seeing over and over again.
Arashiyama Monkey Park
Iwatayama is a monkey park inhabited by a troop of over 170 Japanese macaque monkeys. When we arrived to the park it was snowing, and quite a little hike up to the top. Once you reach the plateau, there is a great view of the city and the monkey’s are everywhere, wild and free. You can purchase food to feed them from the inside of a building. It’s like we become the caged creatures and the monkeys climb on the outside reaching in.
Arashiyama Yoshimura Soba
Arashiyama Yoshimura is a traditional Soba restaurant on the Katsura River near the Iwatayama Monkey Park. Soba is a buckwheat noodle served with dipping sauces and various toppings. So delish!
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Arashiyama is a forest of thick green stalks of bamboo, shooting high into the sky. On the way in we caught a glimpse of some early bloom cherry blossoms!
Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)
The Golden Pavilion is even more spectacular than in photos. When I saw it online before we arrived, I imagined it was a golden yellow, when it quite literally is gold leaf, metallic, reflecting onto the lake.
Day Trip: Miyajima and Hiroshima
Miyajima, regarded as the island of the gods, is a beautiful island on the southeastern coast of Japan. There is Itsukushima Shrine, which hovers over the water at high tide, and the great Torii, which appear to be floating on the water at high tide. Miyajima is a beautiful place, but I felt it was a long trip from Kyoto to go to such a touristy place. I might be spoiled at a coastal Californian, but the views were just fair. I think if we had more time to hike the island and get off the beaten path it would’ve been a better experience, but for a quick half day it wasn’t worth it.