Whizzing around Kyoto and meeting resident monkeys
Updated: Dec 12, 2019
I had finally booked my trip to Kyoto. I had been yearning to go ever since I arrived in Japan and had meticulously planned my holiday. Kyoto gets very hot in summer and very cold in winter so I had decided autumn would be my best bet and finally it had arrived.
On a Sunday evening I took a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, I was apprehensive waiting for my bullet train that day as, as Sod’s Law would have it, a typhoon had just passed, a BIG typhoon, one you might know as Hagibis. The damage left in the wake of this typhoon was devastating and I plan to write a little about it in upcoming blogs as well as how you can prepare for disasters like these, so stay tuned for that. With a heavy sigh of relief I boarded my train and it was just a 2 hour commute to Kyoto. I checked in with all my baggage (one big backpack) to a capsule hotel in Gion. Tsukimi, a minimalistic capsule hotel which covered bare necessities but came at a very reasonable price. This hotel is also located 2 minutes away from Yasaka Shrine which gave me some beautiful night shots.
After my first slightly restless night, the perks of a capsule, I began my adventure.
9 am : Fushimi Inari Shrine, or more commonly known as the famous shrine with many, many red tori gates. This certainly did not disappoint however, it was as crowded as other bloggers had warned. But as I was solo travelling I was able to quite effortlessly weave my way through the crowds. I hiked a little way up the mountain and breached the sign that warned of boars but stopped short when the warning changed to “boars sighted here” and decided today was not the day to risk my chances. I asked a nice couple to take my picture and miraculously got one with no-one behind me. Success!
11 am : The search for food and Kiyomizu-dera Temple, 11am had struck and my stomach was unhappy with my downright neglect. A lot of hiking and almost no food. I was making my way to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, a famous world heritage site when I stopped in my tracks for a bite of fried fish stick. I know that sounds strange… and before I came to Japan I would not have pictured myself salivating at a fish stick but it would seem when you live abroad, things change, like your taste buds. A small stall was serving a variety of fried fish sticks and I bought the Japanese 7 spices one. It was a small yet very much needed victory for my empty stomach. And before I finished my hike to the Temple I stopped at a cafe just before and took the ultimately wise decision to fill my stomach properly. I sat down in the small restaurant and admired the view, groups of tourists fleeted by, some dressed in kimono and the birds sang from the trees and hedgerow. I ordered Zenzai, mochi in a sweet red bean soup. This is commonly eaten around new year and I knew that I wanted this comfort food now.
I have this special relationship with food. Often eating something can trigger vivid, happy memories and bring me a warm, fuzzy feeling. This dish, zenzai, reminds me of my first winter with my boyfriend. He took me to his hometown as it was approaching new year and his family served me this. I remember feeling utterly at peace, happy and a sense of belonging.
I had the option to nibble on salted kelp to rid my mouth of the sweet aftertaste but I decided to keep it and relish in the memory. Finally, I wagered on up the rest of the hill to see Kiyomizu-dera Temple. This site I have no doubt will be breathtaking when the leaves start to turn but I was in Kyoto just before this would happen. Nevertheless, it was beautiful and it’s a great place to people watch as many arrive in colourful kimono and decorate the streets with their smiles.
1 pm : Shopping and searching the streets for a loo. Around Kiyomizu-dera Temple you could lose me for hours. It’s just the perfect place to find unique gifts for your loved ones and of course, yourself. I spent many hours after visiting the temple drifting through the streets in no real direction and with no plan. My curiosity had just taken over. There were shops to try traditional Japanese food, themed cafes such as a Totoro cafe, small shrines, gift shops and craft shops. There was quite literally something for everyone. At one point though, my bladder struck. My time was running out. I peered down the streets in search for a loo and was finally directed down an old alleyway. To my delight there was a loo but I also found a small pond with Koi fish. It was as if I were Alice and I had gone from the bustling streets down the rabbit hole (in this case the alleyway) and arrived at a small Japanese Garden. I felt fulfilled in finding my something zen and took some pictures.
3 pm : More shopping and Shiba Cafe, by 3 pm I was feeling the drowsy affects that come with being on your feet all day taking in new sights. I decided to head towards the Shiba Cafe and booked myself a slot. Whilst waiting I wandered along the high streets in central Kyoto. It seemed that I had stumbled upon the central shopping district. But my tired legs only walked so far before being enticed by a cafe that served banana chocolate crepes. The Shiba Cafe was well worth the wait though. Although the dogs were relatively shy, a couple crept onto people’s laps where they took a little nap. They were so adorable I was just so happy to be with them.
5 pm : Gion, by now I was starting to make my way back to Gion. It wasn’t so far so I decided to walk detouring so I could see the river. This turned out to be even more of a delight than I had anticipated. The river that flows through Kyoto is very serene and full of nature. There were commuters cycling along the path, families walking together and couples idling making use of the romantic setting. I found a little area beside a bridge where you could leap from stone to stone to cross. This was first brought to my attention by the group of women screaming as they warily jumped in high heels and then, amusingly a woman rather effortlessly hopped along with shopping bags as if it were her daily route to work. I too decided to skip across the river which brought me to Gion. I hunted for a dinner and found this restaurant which serves Kyoto Okonomiyaki. Rather different from Osaka’s style, it had green onion, sakura shrimp, bonito, red ginger, grilled fish paste, tempura, worcester sauce and seasweed all rolled into one pancake but it was delicious in it’s own right. I gulped it up with a side of Kyoto cocktail, a pink concoction of sorts, before retiring back to my hotel for the night.
The next day began early…
7 am : Arashiyama, I was very keen to go to Arashiyama and see the bamboo forest and the monkey park but I was even more determined to get a boat ride there. I woke up early and got a bus and a train to get to Kameoka Station where I would board the boat. Upon exiting the train station a flurry of blue signs waving in the wind guided me to the boats. I was hoping to get a 9am boat and knowing that it is rather popular and the boats only come every hour, I walked quickly to overtake a group of tourists heading in the same direction. Fortunately it wasn’t too busy but the boat was almost full and according to the company, at peak season sometimes tickets run out by 7am! I was glad to board at 9am and was throughly entertained by the boatmen who often made jokes as we drifted down the river. I soon learnt the word for big wave in Japanese as we were warned when we approached a small waterfall to lift the plastic sheet around us. Although one time water came gushing through anyway. It was a pleasant boat ride, whilst also being thrilling anytime we dipped over a waterfall. Towards the end of the ride another boat serving dango among other snacks joined us for a quick exchange. We arrived at Arashiyama at 10.15am and I went straight to the bamboo forest. The bamboo forest is beautiful but it is SO CROWDED. It is quite a short walk so I do recommend it but I think it’s worth buying a ticket to enter the gardens to the temple next door. If you walk up the hill you can talk a picture with the bamboo forest as a background and there are far fewer people there.
11 am : Monkey Park and Onsen, crossing the river from the bamboo forest you can find the monkey park. At the beginning of the monkey park before you buy your ticket there’s a sign to inform you that it’s just a “20 minute walk”. Lies. It was more like a 30 minute hike up a small mountain. However, reaching the top I was overwhelmed by the cuteness of the monkeys and glad I had hiked up the mountain. There was even opportunity to feed the monkeys which of course, I bounced upon. After the monkey park I found a small onsen that opened at 12pm and I spent a good hour relaxing there before hunting for food. It was a nice little get away from the crowds and I was one of the very few people there.
3 pm : Golden Pavilion and Kyoto Station, I knew I had to see the Golden Pavilion before I left and so I journeyed there via 2 buses. The crowds were overwhelming yet as you managed to squeeze your way through and around the grounds, it was still magnificent and peaceful. With a few hours to spare I made my way to Kyoto Station for a quick tour up Kyoto Tower and then I treated myself to Yubazen for dinner. Yubazen is a famous Kyoto dish that absolutely transforms Tofu, definitely give it a try if you visit. Finally I made my way to the Sky Garden in Kyoto Station which was alive with light displays from something that looked like it jumped out of a Disney movie to a Halloween light show on the stairs, all topped off with a bamboo garden on the roof which gave way to epic night views of the city.
9 pm : Waiting for my night bus in Gion, as my trip was rounding up to a close I was filled with an utter sense of fulfilment and joy. I had had a wonderful time in Kyoto and I was sure I would be back. Whilst I waited for my night bus I sat next to the river. Couples had gathered alongside the banks and had swung their legs over the rocks, it was definitely quite the date spot. With the sound of the river gushing in the background mingled with the noises of the city, it left me feeling that Kyoto has a perfect balance between the convenience of a city and the serenity of nature. Then upon the bridge a man broke through the noise of it all with his saxophone and it was as if the camera had flashed in my mind then, it’s a scene I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
Finally I arrived in Tokyo the next day and as for the night bus… never again. But Kyoto I’ll be sure to be back.
I hope you enjoyed my little anecdotes about my trip to Kyoto, please leave a comment if you’ve been to Kyoto or you want to go, what place do you recommend visiting?