Japantastic Adventures: Kyoto-A-Go-Go

After an hour huddled alongside fellow late-night commuters on the Keihan Train, we arrived safely in Kyoto. It was just before midnight by the time we rolled into our hotel, so we didn’t realize at first what a perfect location we picked. Our new home base was smack in the middle of downtown Kyoto, and within walking distance of some of the city’s most popular attractions. That meant that we were able to hit the ground running during our first full day in the city.

Day 1: Sights to See at Nishiki

In addition to being the cultural capital of Japan, Kyoto is also known for a number of culinary specialties. Being the foodies we are, we made a beeline for a restaurant known for one of our favorite dishes: unagi.

We headed down to the banks of the scenic Hamo River, which wraps around the eastern part of downtown Kyoto. It’s a popular spot for strolling and sightseeing in the summer, but it’s also home to a number of restaurants and bars, perfectly situated to give diners a sweeping view of the water as they eat. Ponto-cho Izumoya is one such restaurant that came highly recommended online. We spent our first morning in Kyoto brunching on some of the most delicious unagi donburi (barbecued eel over rice) and egg we’d ever had, watching the river out the restaurant’s wide windows.

After that, we took a walk through the Nishiki Market, one of the most popular downtown destinations. It’s an alley packed with vendors, shops, restaurants, and even cultural landmarks, perfect for spending an afternoon strolling, shopping, and sightseeing. It also feeds into the Teramachi and Shinkyogoku Shopping Districts, both hotspots for evening shopping and nightlife in their own right.

We made a day of wandering the market streets, visiting the famous Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine, tucked away in a blink-and-you-miss-it corner of the market, snacking, shopping, and finally settling in for another famous Kyoto dish called okonomiyaki.

This incredible dish is a savory pancake served teppanyaki-style. Diners are given their own batter and fixings, and you cook the pancake yourself right at your table. For dinner we headed to Nishiki Warai, a late-night restaurant known for being the best place in town to get okonomiyaki. We can see why the dish is so popular! It was as delicious as it was fun to eat.

After our hectic day of travel, good food and a relaxing afternoon exploring our corner of Kyoto was just what we needed to get our feet back under us. The next day was sure to be much busier!

Day 2: Temple Trek

For our second day in town, we prioritized two things Kyoto is famous for: temples and matcha!

We started off the day at the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, one of the most famous in the country. It’s a sprawling complex of Buddhist shrines, halls, and monuments, offering stunning views of the surrounding forest and city from its vantage point high on the hillside.

The place is packed full of unique traditions and legends: a sacred waterfall visitors allows visitors to drink from different streams for luck in love, school, or money; a shrine to the god of love where you can discover the fate of your future relationships; and a number of halls dedicated to Buddhist deities.

We took our time wandering about the grounds, inspecting the less-trafficked corners, and even making some unexpected new friends!

When we’d seen all we could see, we wandered back down through the Higashiyama District—a winding, stone-paved road full of vendors and souvenir shops—and stopped for some light refreshment on the way. That’s where the matcha comes in!

The Kyoto region is one of the world’s biggest producers of matcha, and the matcha you can sample here is said to be among the best too. Not far from the temple, we ordered a delectable matcha sundae and truly massive matcha-dusted cotton candy.

The perfect way to fuel up before our next stop: the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Fushimi Inari Taisha is set along the slopes of Mt. Inari, and it’s one of the most visited spots in all of Kyoto. The main hall of the shrine itself is gorgeous, but the site is best known for its thousands of (extremely picturesque and Instagrammable) gates leading up to the peak.

The hike starts out slow, a level path enshrouded by closely clustered gates, but if you trek further, you’re led through deep forest, up steep steps and past dozens of smaller shrines set into the trees. It’s an intimidating hike once things get steeper, but we decided that we’d made it this far, might as well commit and make it to the top!

It was a long, difficult hike, but well worth it for the views spotted along the way—not to mention the satisfaction of braving such a stunning, historic trek!

Day 3: Avenues of Arashiyama

We dedicated our final day in the country to exploring Arashiyama, a district in the far west of Kyoto known for sightseeing and tourism.

It’s something of a tradition to wear kimonos and traditional wooden sandals when visiting Arashiyama. While the two of us didn’t participate, there was something really special about seeing so many people out and about, soaking up the sun in this incredible, brightly-colored silk. It also made it easy to know which train to take and where to go—just follow the kimonos!

Arashiyama is home to a number of historic sites and tourist activities, but we started with its most famous destination: the Tenryu-ji Temple.

Tenryu-ji is a gorgeous Zen temple with sprawling gardens and incredible architecture—it’s also a UNESCO world heritage site, and the hub of visitor activity in the Arashiyama area. We wandered the temple grounds, enjoying its world-famous garden, before taking a stroll through the Bamboo Forest, a grove of towering bamboo just behind the temple.

We took it easy on our afternoon in Arashiyama, enjoying some of the smaller temples and shrines hidden around the district as well as some attractions along the main road. The “Kimono Forest”—a path of lanterns made of brightly colored cloth—and stalls selling one of Kyoto’s famous delicacies, a mochi-treat called yatsuhashi, were some particular favorites.

After a dinner of some of the best tempura we’ve ever had, we ended our time in Japan with perhaps my favorite event of the week: an owl café!

Going to an owl café is one of those dearly-held, distant dreams I’ve had for years that I never thought would actually come true. But as we were heading back to our room to pack up and prepare for the next day’s journey, we noticed an owl café less than two blocks from the hotel. So, the next morning we bolted down some breakfast and headed to the café, where we met (and pet!) a whole room full of these beauties.

A memorable end to a memorable trip!

Of course, during our week abroad we found dozens more things we would have loved to do and see in Osaka and Kyoto, not to mention tons of other cities we’d love to explore in Japan—but that will have to wait for our next adventure. For now, Taiwan is calling us home, and we’re ready to begin a new chapter of our time there. The new semester is starting and we’re going to be moving from Toucheng into the heart of Taipei, where we hope to do lots more discovering, exploring, and learning about our home away from home.

Until our next Japantastic Adventure, we’ll have plenty more Taiwanderful Tales for you all to look forward to!

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