Currency: Japanese Yen (¥)
¥1 = 0.75p. £1 = ¥133.1
Time Zone: GMT +9 (8 hours ahead of UK summer time)
26th – 30th September
Due to the manner of our arrival into Kyoto we were both super tired and Kate was a bit bruised from her daredevil antics the previous day. Our beds weren’t ready at 8am funnily enough so we went and sat in the common room and dozed off for a bit. When we woke up we gathered ourselves and somehow found the strength to leave the hostel and head back to the station (this time without Bertha) to get ourselves on a train.
Our destination was Arishiyama, a district on the outskirts of Kyoto, with some big tourist spots. Our priority was the monkey park, a 20 minute walk up a hill where, at the top, there are panoramic city views and hundreds of Japanese macaques.
There is a hut on the top that creates a kind of reverse zoo, where the monkeys run free and the humans are in the cage. For a small fee you can buy a bag of monkey nuts or banana bits and feed the monkeys. They were mostly very gentle and would pick it right out of your hand
We spent a fair while feeding them and watching them skulk about. They were clearly very used to humans and just wondered around the hilltop amongst the crowds.
After we’d had our fill of monkeying around we headed back down the hill for lunch. Arashiyama is famous for its temples, shrines and bamboo groves.
In the grove runs a train line and a level crossing. I wanted to get a picture of the train so I waited patiently for the right moment. As the train came I clicked at what I thought was the perfect moment, and it may well have been, but unfortunately I’d been taking too many bamboo selfies and I took a picture the wrong way.
We headed back to the railway station to get back to the hostel to have a proper nap seeing as our beds would be ready. We saw a sign that informed us the station we got off at was 10 minutes away but there was one further through the bamboo that was a mere 7 minutes away. When we arrived at the station we discovered it was a tourist station for a steam railway line. No use to us. So we moodily trudged the 17 minutes back to station number 1 to get to our beds.
After another refreshing nap we got cleaned up and went out for tea. We found a restaurant that supposedly did pizza, on the 4th floor of a shopping centre near our building. Once we got up there we took our shoes off and were directed to our own private room.
The menu came and there was no pizza. It was way better and everything looked gteat. We worried the prices would be astronomical but for a very reasonable ¥7000 we got 5 good sized plates between us and a couple of drinks each.
Day 2 was a slow starter. Kate’s biking injuries had damaged her knee and her ankle and all the walking the previous day had aggrevated them further. We stayed in the hostel until lunchtime and headed out to the station to find a restaurant called Chabuton for ramen and some super rare veggie gyoza for Kate (they normally have some pork in, even the vegetable ones). We had a look round the shops and decided, at 16:30, that perhaps we should see a sight. We plumped for the Fushimi Inari temple and hopped on a train. The Fushimi Inari temple is famous for its hundreds of engraved gates, which form a network of tunnels that eventually wind their way up the nearby hill.
We didn’t go up the hill due to the time and our tired legs but it was nice to see a temple at dusk, lit up by the lanterns.
After our extensive day of sightseeing we headed back to the station to find some grub. Within the station building there are multiple shopping centres with huge food courts. We went to the top of “The Cube” and tried an omelette restaurant. The outside had lots of plastic replicas of their food (a common but still weird sight in Japan) with English writing underneath, but when we sat down we were informed there was no English menu. Whereas I can point and hope for the best, Kate doesn’t have that luxury in a country where the vegetable gyozas have pork in. So instead we went nextdoor to an Italian restaurant.
After food we headed outside and upstairs to Kyoto station’s “Happy Terrace”, a large roof garden on top of The Cube with a huge set of stairs heading down into the station. The garden provides great views over the south side of the city.
I wanted to walk down the stairs and, despite Kate’s protestations we did, kind of. Well we got the escalators down the side. But we were so glad we did. The set of stairs has hundreds of thousands of LEDs that create a fantastic display of Japanese imagery, complete with relaxing music.
We thought one station based lightshow would be it for the night but we were so wrong! On our way back we stumbled across a colourful water fountain display performing to various famous classical pieces.
Day 3 was way more productive. I had planned out a route of the big attractions in the city with their corresponding bus routes and we had 5 to hit. Unfortunately, as has regularly been the case on this trip, we took a bit longer to get out of bed in the morning than we’d hoped. We figured it was best to get breakfast and caffeine so we stopped at a coffee shop about 50m from our hostel. It was a rather fancy affair with drip filtered coffee and Kate was exuberant at what she calls “actual tea”.
Our first proper stop was To-ji Temple. It’s claim to fame is possessing the Japan’s biggest pagoda. The gardens were lovely, even with the intermittent torrential downpours and the pagoda didn’t disappoint, although we couldn’t go inside.
The temples themselves were nothing that stood out. I think when you pass double figures of temples visited you have to see something pretty special for it to standout.
One such tactic was to cover the outside in gold leaf, which was what they did with our second sight, Kinkakuji Temple. Set in ample grounds it was originally some rich bloke’s house and he requested that it be turned into a temple on his death. So they did.
Again we couldn’t go inside but the grounds more than made up for it, with multiple ponds and small shrines. I was getting a bit peckish so I tried a green tea ice cream which are everywhere in Japan. It was weird, I probably won’t have another.
Sight number 3 was Nijo Castle, the former residence of the shogun of Kyoto. There had been a fair few downpours that day but they had largely been when we were inside or on the bus. As we entered the castle grounds the weather was behaving itself. We went into the first building within the castle grounds (Ninomaru Palace) and, with it technically being a residence, took our shoes off to walk round in our socks/bare feet, which was different. The rooms all had tatami mats on the floor and various painted murals on the walls. As seems to be the way, there was no furniture. So looking at 16 empty rooms got a bit dull after a while. One room had some wax models of the shogun and 2 women (the only people allowed in his room) but that wasn’t quite enough to keep us entertained.
When we came outside the weather was being very naughty indeed so we headed for the cafe. We had been on a tight schedule and had eaten a big breakfast so were ready for lunch at what was approaching 3pm. However, I must report I give a massive thumbs down for the cafe. They had coffee and ice creams but the savoury selection was limited to a cheese muffin, of which they had sold out. So I drank my coffee and ate my ice cream and remained hungry.
We walked round the gardens briefly once the weather had improved but slowly got fed up of getting soggy feet. Kate took shelter while I had a wander up to have a look at the second main building (Honmaru Palace).
Our next stop was the Imperial Palace (via a convenience store to grab some proper food and prevent further crabbiness). The palace itself can be visited somehow but you can’t just walk in (I think you need to go through a tourist agency). We decided to walk around the grounds hoping the weather would hold. It did not. The palace grounds are huge and have a plethora of themed gardens but when you just want to get out the other end for the bus, you start to resent the giant expanse of gravel in front of you.
We made the decision to get the bus back to the hostel instead of sight number 5. It was getting late, our feet were soggy and our legs were tired. The weather was still grim so we thought we would save the last one for another day.
That night we made a trip out to get Japanese curry from a chain called Coco Ichibanya. It’s similar to a Subway for curries, you pick your base sauce flavour, the amount of rice (300g being the standard), choose your toppings (meats, veg, egg etc) and pick your spice level from the levels below:
I went for 3. It certainly did the job! I had researched this place before and had found they had introduced a veggie curry base in most restaurants, but we managed to pick one that didn’t. But Kate had an egg salad with sweetcorn. She didn’t have to pick a spice level.
Day 4 was day trip day. Once more we got up too late and once more we got brekkie and coffee/tea at the place across the road. We were on our way to Nara and we got ourselves some tickets to get us there on the JR line. When we went to the ticket barrier the Nara line board showed 2 kanji characters and no times. We found the information desk and they said we needed a refund and to use another company (Kintetsu) as the rain overnight had cancelled all their trains to Nara. So we got some other tickets to Nara (that were also a bit cheaper) and set off.
Nara was the first capital of Japan and so is full of amazingly old buildings. And an incredible amount of deer for some reason!
They were everywhere and had apparently been in Nara for over 1000 years. They were also very well behaved. Unless of course you made the mistake of buying deer cookies to feed them…
Kate bought two lots. The first lot got gobbled up by a hungry chap with big antlers who refused to believe when Kate had run out.
But the second lot was thankfully a more civil affair with two little ones getting in on the action. Although it didn’t start out promisingly…
After having our fun with the deer, we decided we would try and learn something about Nara. Ok, one more cute deer!
The museum itself is over 120 years old and has been the home of varying amounts of historical buddha statues. The numbers built up around WWII to try and protect them from destruction in the big cities. But after the war they started to ship them back to the temples. When the numbers were dwindling they decided to form a kind of foundation and they started storing them at the museum once more. The oldest one is over 1200 years old and many more weren’t far off.
After the museum we headed for Todaiji Temple. On the way we were stopped by two young schoolchildren who were working on their English by talking to English speakers. Mid-conversation a deer poked his head round and proceeded to eat his homework. Not sure if the teacher will believe that one…
The museum may have had numbers but the temple had the big guys!
The temple itself and associated grounds were also rather large.
Behind Todaiji and up the hill was another smaller temple called Nigatsudo with incredible panoramic views of Nara. Unlike Todaiji, which had been invaded by every school in Japan, Nigatsudo was relatively quiet and we actually got a feel for how tranquil and serene these places are supposed to be.
After that nice surprise it was time to go back to Kyoto. But in the station I spotted a karaoke box shop. I had no idea what to expect but I had read it was where Japanese business folk would come after work to unwind, often on their own, in a private booth. Kate wasn’t big on it but I had a great time! The videos were often completely unrelated to the song and occasionally the lyrics were a little off but they had a huge selection of songs, thankfully in English.
Once Kate had dragged me away from the super fancy jukebox we headed back for tea and drinks at the hostel. We met one of our new roommates and I shared my sake with him. He informed me of a new Japanese craze (Pen Pineapple Apple Pen) and I informed him that Wales exists.
Our final day we only had the one thing to do before we caught our first Shinkansen (bullet train) which I was super excited about. We were off to see Kiyomizu-dera, a big temple with a massive veranda overlooking Kyoto. On the bus on the way our hostel buddy jumped on halfway along the route, completely by chance, so we walked round the temple with him.
With it being on a hill it was a 10 minute walk to the top, past a huge number of touristy shops. At the top we were greeted by a huge throng of people but the views from the veranda were worth fighting off the coachloads of pensioners and school trips to get to!
Once finished with the temple we headed back to grab food then our bags before we headed to get our first ever bullet train!
Hana Hostel Kyoto is another chain hostel situated 5 minutes from Kyoto station’s main entrance. The dorms were small (ours was 4 beds) and the floors were traditional tatami mats, which I thought was nice. But these came with traditional futon beds (think half a mattress, possibly less) which aren’t the most comfortable. The common area was nice, the guests all spoke to one another and the staff were lovely.
This post is dedicated to Kate’s pet snail Colin who sadly passed away during our time in Kyoto, whilst staying with his Aunty Janet in Edinburgh. He was quite possibly Britain’s most well-travelled snail, having spent time in Wales, England and Scotland. Mind you he was always too busy partying on the ceiling to notice! He will be sorely missed.