We absolutely love Japan. Our holiday in Kyoto just exceeded all our expectations!
Just as we landed and the Chinese tourists pushed us off the plane, I was overwhelmed with the friendliness of the Japanese airport and train station staff. Everyone was so incredibly friendly and helpful, advised us for directions a young student even offered to buy metro tickets for us. We had booked a beautiful, small flat near the Imperial Palace which was surrounded by little boutique shops, arts and craft shops, bakeries and little restaurants. As we got in late, we randomly went into a cosy, small restaurant where we sat with other locals at the counter ordering various BBQ meals along with delicious home made sake.
The next morning we met a friend of ours, who studies Japanese in Osaka, at Nijo Castle and explored the different gardens and castle buildings together. Coming from Europe, it is a completely different picture than what we think of as ‘castle’ in the UK or Germany, as temple-like houses are surrounded by neat Japanese gardens, ponds and tea houses. We sat down at the tea house for a Japanese red bean soup, green tea mochis and some tea. Interestingly, the ‘standard’ tea that they offer in Japan is black tea – I always assumed it would be green tea.
After the castle visit we walked all the way to the Gion district, hoping to see a Geisha (supposedly this brings good luck!). On our way there we passed the big shopping street and saw so many cute stationary shops and shops with beautiful paintings, accessories and souvenirs. We went up to the Yasaka Shrine at the bottom of the big shopping street, spotting lots of Japanese dressed up beautifully in traditional kimonos. After that we realised that most locals and tourists dress up in traditional Japanese garments when visiting shrines, temples and gardens. The whole look looks very well thought of as the women get their hair and make-up made, wear a matching little handbag and the traditional shoes (that look a bit like heeled flip-flops) and accessories.
Day 2, we set off to Arashiyama which hosts lakes, UNESCO heritage sites, temples and much more. We arrived by train and just went into the first temple that we found, which is called Tenruji-Temple and later turned out to be our favourite in Kyoto. It was a sunny day and just so peaceful walking through the temple and gardens.
At the end of our walk through the garden we turned into the bamboo grove, which I’ve read about before and really wanted to go to, but it was just so crowded that it was not that enjoyable. After we kept walking a little side route, we arrived at a wonderful look-out point over the river and mountains, seeing the steam railway driving along in the distance. I wish we would have time for a romantic steam engine ride! (This is literally how they call it!)
After a short pick-nick by the turquoise coloured lake, we made our way through the old-fashioned lanes finding busloads of tourists there. Needless to say, we left that area after a 5 minute matcha ice cream stop (so delicious!). When we got back that afternoon we got onto the bikes provided in our flat and rode around the Imperial Palace gardens. Once we were on these bikes, we just couldn’t believe how convenient they are, as we could ride them on the pavements and we could just reach everywhere in town so much faster. We then drove to a recommended family-owned sushi restaurant and had the most amazing fatty tuna sashimi.
On our third day, we made our way to Kiyomuzu-dera temple, hugely raved about in every travel guide and on the internet. I don’t know if it was the cloudy weather, the construction works or the amount of tourists, but this temple just didn’t give me the same peaceful feeling as the temple we visited in Arashiyama. It was a nice walk around the premises and we stopped at another traditional tea house with great views – but then we just felt like we’ve had enough of popular tourist spots.
Being a big fan of Manga comics when I was a teenager, I suggested the Manga museum to him, expecting that he wouldn’t be interested, but he was really excited! Going there was a good decision – they turned an old, historic school building into this Manga museum where you can explore how Mangas are drawn and how the styles have developed over centuries on many floors with an additional art gallery. Unfortunately, almost all the mangas were in Japanese and locals seemed to come here to sit down quietly and go through as many mangas as they can read during the opening hours. It was almost like a library! It was a great change of scenery and felt like ‘going back to the roots’ for me, as reading mangas made me want to travel to Japan for years and years.
After the Manga museum we headed to the Hotel Monterey to try our a traditional onsen (hot spring bath). The spa area is on one of the top floors and the onsens separate men and women. After a hot spring bath with views over Kyoto, we got into our bathrobes and met again in the spa lounge where we were seated into massage chairs with drinks, tvs and great views. What a relaxing end of three full days of sightseeing! If we return though, we would prefer to go to an outdoor onsen.
For our last morning we decided not to be lazy but instead go to the famous Fushimi-Inari Shrine. Even though the first bit was crowded, it was so worth going, as the shrine is a long stretch over a forest and mountain and most people didn’t walk very far. Once we walked up hill there were more and more little temples and tea houses with great views at the sides. We walked quite far but couldn’t make it all the way as we had to head back to Kyoto station in time for the train back to Kansai Airport. The Fushimi Inari Shrine was definitely worth getting up for early in the morning and was the most impressive shrine we have seen.
Japan was simply beautiful and we are still reminiscing and thinking about when and where to go next in Japan.