Kyoto, being the former capital of Japan (capital is defined by where the emperor lived, although we learned the emperor was just a figurehead. Before the modern era, the shogun ruled) as you can probably tell is a magical mix of history and youth. It’s a city of education and many universities and the home of the majority of Japan’s Nobel winners. Here’s my annotated Google map to help.
- Attractions we did
- Fushimi Inari Shrine. It’s a pretty amazing shrine. We hiked up to the lookout about halfway up the mountain. If you want to go further up the mountain it’s a circular route and the gates thin out quite a bit so we thought the main lookout halfway up was adequate. Fyi this was the inspiration for the orange Gates exhibit that came to the states about 10 years ago
- Sanjusangendo Temple. Home to 1001 human sized statues. This is in central Kyoto and quite a sight in person. You aren’t allowed to take photos so it’s disappointing that you can see it if you Google image it.
- The bamboo forest in western Kyoto. It’s a bit of a trek (over 30 min cab ride from the center of the city) but it’s a beautiful, lush area and I’ve never seen a bamboo forest. There’s also a monkey park in that area but we didn’t make it. We did see some monkeys at Fushimi though.
- I recommend tackling a number of historic sites with the guide we used. He speaks great English and lived in Kyoto his whole life. Well educated, incredibly kind. He brought handouts and even some thoughtful gifts. Just outstanding tour. Nijo Castle, and the last remaining tea house from Edo period, and several significant temples. A wealth of info, super-high yielding. Reach out to me if you want his contact info.
- Many friends highly recommended Kinkakuji. It’s the Golden Pavilion temple. We didn’t make it there ourselves.
- Walk through Gion (geisha district) at night. There are a few special historic streets and the area by the river is quiet and beautiful. For a dark, sexy bar check out Bar Aoi. Just the quiet, old streets are worth the trip at night.
- For a more energetic scene, definitely see Pontocho Alley. We became well versed in the Japanese practice of hashigo (bar hopping). From restaurants to sake and dart bars this place is teeming with action and life. No particular place stood out, but def check out the areas by the river. The alley is along an awesome creek as well. The water really defined this city for me.
- You have to try the souffled pancakes at The Happy Pancake in the equally awesome Shinkygoku shopping area. Get the original pancake and also the matcha one. I’m not a huge matcha fan and found it better than the original. We also had this style pancake in Tokyo at Flipper. So good, nothing like it stateside.
- Amazing pasta: Trattoria Macedonia Yuki It’s small, you’ll need a reservation
- Great ramen and even better karaage chicken at Ramen No Bonbo.
- Dinner at Hafuu where we had well-priced, terrific wagyu and memorably special beef sandwiches.
- Personal recommendations
- The Kamogawa river that runs through the center of the city feels like the main artery. We picked up a bunch of sushi, sake and baked goods from a supermarket and had a picnic on its bank. At the very least, walk across the river on its magnificent stones, many of which are shaped like animals. While walking on the bank we got a beautiful glimpse into locals living and leisure. Runners, bikers, picnickers, people just playing in the water and even a Pop Warner level American-style football practice!
- And here the top recommendation esp if you like sake in any way. Book a tour at Matsui Sake Brewery. Ask for Jorge Navarette. I wrote about this briefly in my weekly email. You can learn his story in person. It’s worth it. It was one of my favorite things about the trip to Japan.