After spending three days in Taiwan, we flew over to our first stop in Japan – Kyoto! After this we went up to Tokyo via the bullet train. Kyoto is definitely the more cultural and historic city of the two.
DAY 1: NORTHERN KYOTO
Kyoto International Manga Museum: We’re not huge manga fans, but still really enjoyed this museum. It’s informative, interactive and there’s tons to read/buy while you’re there.
Cafe Bibliotic Hello!: This is a super cute restaurant! It’s full of books, plants and just a cool aesthetic overall. They had vegetarian options and helped us order.
Nijō Castle: Very beautiful grounds and castle. We loved walking around the area afterwards. You can buy tickets online. The ticket line was decently long, but not unbearable.
Gyoen National Garden: Really pretty National Park with views of nature. It was a little bit touristy/crowded, but still worth a visit.
Tetsugaku No Michi/Philospher’s Path: This is a famous path in Kyoto. We had to take a bus to get to the area. It starts at the Silver Pavilion and ends in Nanzenji. We just put it into our map and easily found it. It’s a canal lined with cherry blossoms and is named for the famous Japanese philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, that used this route for meditation. The cherry blossoms hadn’t bloomed yet when we visited, but was still pretty. There are shops and cafes along the canal as well. It wasn’t crowded at all when we went – maybe because of the lack of blossoms. Everyone else online said that it gets very crowded so much so that you’re walking in a single file line.
After this we tried to find Higashiyama Jisho-ji (Buddhist temple) and Hōnen-in Temple using our map/just walking around. We did find a cemetery and some temple like buildings. We still don’t know what we were looking at, but it was pretty!
Nanzen-ji Temple: Another temple on the way back to our airbnb. It has big stairs to walk up and a pretty garden. Make sure to check the hours of all of these temples! A lot of them close at 5pm.
We got dinner at a random hole in the wall with a ticket/vending machine setup. We had to try it! You go in and punch your order in with buttons like on a ticket machine. You get a card and wait for them to call your order. There were literally like 5 bar seats in there and we were lucky to nab two by the time our food came. I love this idea because it’s less person interaction haha.
There was a decent amount of vegan/vegetarian ramen around Japan and in Kyoto. You just have to search a little bit harder for it. And there is usually just one option on the menu, which was fine with me!
Bar Rocking Chair: This is a “fancier” cocktail bar – with yes, rocking chairs! We sat by the fire in two rocking chairs and got drinks. They do have a million normal tables and chairs too.
L’Escamoteur: A very interesting, steampunk/speakeasy (?) vibe. It’s really small and upstairs. We had to wait in line to get in which was hard because there was only a small amount of room at the top of the stairs and everyone else had to wait downstairs. They spoke/understood English really well. Lots of fancy/showy cocktails. We didn’t get a seat because it was so busy so we just stood to the side.
DAY 2: FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE + DOWNTOWN KYOTO
Fushimi Inari: The famous orange gate shrine in Kyoto – it even has it’s own emoji! Depending on where you’re staying, you will most likely need to take public transportation to get here since it’s out of the main city. Buy tickets online and heed all the warnings to get there early. The shrine is open 24 hours. We got there around 8:30am and the crowds were still pretty small. There was enough space for us to have room to walk and get a few nice crowd-less photos.
Kyoto Tower: We stopped here as it was on the way back to our other activities. It’s a pretty standard observation deck, but the views are pretty. You do have to buy tickets and they’re cheaper to buy online beforehand.
Nishiki Market: We came here for an early lunch/late breakfast. There are lots of food stalls with local foods – like mini octopus!
Yasui Konpiragu: I love this shrine. You write your wish down on a white piece of paper – crawl through the hole and then back through the other way. Then pin your wish to the shrine. It’s supposed to be good for relationships. The line was super long though unfortunately so we didn’t partake. Plus I didn’t want all those people watching me squeeze through that small hole. It was fun to see though and great people watching!
Arabica Coffee: A shop known for its amazing latte art! They have many locations. I really wanted to get something, but the line was very long at this location and all others that we passed.
Ishibe-koji Alley: A cool alley that’s quiet and has a traditional Japanese street vibe. A good place to take photos!
Kiyomizu-dera: Another temple! This one has a veranda with awesome views.
You could add Maruyama Park and Shōren-in Monzeki to your list. Both are in the area.
Pontocho: We spent our night exploring this area. This is the famous spot where you can see real geishas. There are a lot of rules of how to know if they are real and how to interact with them. We don’t think we saw any real ones :(. But there are a lot of tourists in kimonos and other traditional dress. There are bars and restaurants throughout the area to stop in for dinner and drinks.
DAY 3: ARASHIYAMA AREA
We really wanted to check out the Kinkaku-ji Temple or the floating gold temple before going over to the Arashiyama area, but it was just too much transportation/travel time for us. It looks cool if you have a car or more time!
We took the train over to Arashiyama. It was pretty straightforward and easy. After you get there, everything is walkable (some walks are longer). We put everything in this order to end up back at the train station and we wanted to go to the bamboo grove early before the crowds.
Tenryuji Temple: Very pretty garden area with lots of places to sit. Again, touristy, but not too bad.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove: Walk out of the temple at the north gate and you’ll eventually get to the bamboo grove. We tried to get here early to beat the crowds, but failed. I think we got there around 10am and it was insane. Looking up was still really beautiful, but don’t expect to get those idyllic photos.
Giouji Temple: This was the furthest walk (about 25 minutes there and 25 minutes back) and we weren’t sure if it was worth it, but it 100% was. It was very quiet and serene. The temple is surrounded by a moss garden which was really breathtaking. I’m SO SO glad we made the trek. There’s a little town surrounding it with restaurants. We were intimidated since none of them looked English speaking (which is a good thing, but we get nervous). It was also harder to find vegetarian food. We stopped in a really nice place with the owner making all the food. We got green tea noodles!
If you keep walking north, you’ll find the Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple, which looked interesting via photos. It’s a temple with thousands of stone carved statues. We didn’t have time to walk up there.
Kimono Forest: I loved this area. It’s connected to a train station, which is kind of weird, but the kimonos were really pretty. There are a lot of people there wearing traditional clothing taking photos, so that alone is cool to see. The train station part has lots of food/snack options. We got green tea ice cream finally.
Arashiyama Monkey Park: A weird place for sure. You enter and walk up a lot of stairs. A LOT. Make sure you research the distance before going in if that worries you! At the top of the hill, there are just monkeys running around. There’s a house viewing station thing that was really hot and crowded. The monkeys didn’t seem necessarily happy…but I don’t know. I felt torn. The views from the top are nice.
Chao Chao Gyoza: When we got back to downtown Kyoto, we got this for dinner. It was so good! The staff were super nice and helpful. And there many vegetarian dumpling options!! I think this was my favorite meal in Kyoto.
Overall, we really loved Kyoto. We learned so much about the Japanese culture. I’m glad we went here before Tokyo because it’s more laid back and we got to learn how things work.