The second week of our time in Japan was spent exploring beautiful Kyoto. There were lots of elements of Tokyo that I really enjoyed and felt inspired by, but if I’m being honest, Kyoto completely stole my heart!
It’s not often that I feel completely enamoured by a place and find myself wondering what it would be like if I actually lived there. I definitely left Kyoto feeling as though I could live there – I’d love to rent somewhere for six months and spend more time exploring and creating content there. It’s forever etched in my memory and has encouraged me to make more of a ritual out of the little everyday things. Whether it’s making a cup of coffee or making the bed with some incense burning in the background. I feel like that’s truly what makes Japan special – the attention to detail and the willingness to make the mundane a little more magical…
WHERE WE STAYED + GETTING TO KYOTO FROM TOKYO!
As mentioned in my Tokyo blog post, we picked up JR rail passes before we flew out to Japan so these are what we used to board the bullet train from Tokyo station. The journey takes about two hours and in total and around 40 minutes in you might be able to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji if you’re lucky!
When we arrived at Kyoto station we just jumped in a taxi straight to our hotel because it was the easiest option with big suitcases – you should be fine with them on the bullet train (we had no issues finding space for them) but I did get informed that there’s a service you can use to send your luggage ahead to Kyoto. I was a bit sceptical but I’ve been told by a few different people that it’s very efficient (not something we are used to in England!).
We stayed at the Candeo Hotel which couldn’t have been better location wise! It’s a fusion of old meets new in terms of the aesthetic and this appealed to us because we wanted a bit more of a traditional experience once we reached Kyoto. We did throw the idea around of staying in an Air bnb but with it being our first time, we just wanted somewhere central with a reliable reception on hand if we needed anything. We also booked this hotel super last minute after researching tonnes of places and it seemed like the most affordable option at the time.
I liked the look of the spa areas online but when we got there we were told there’s two separate areas for men and women (and they are both on different floors) – I’m not sure if this is typical or not but we didn’t really end up using them as we were out and about for long periods of time and didn’t find ourselves spending much time at the hotel other than to sleep. You also need to be aware that tattoos need to be covered if you’re using the spa area – they aren’t widely accepted in Japan so the same rule applies if you’re looking to visit an Onsen or a beach etc so be concious of this if you have lots of tattoos that can’t be easily covered up!
At the end of the street (down from the Candeo Hotel) there was a little cafe called Hollie’s Cafe – it’s a no frills cafe where we could grab iced coffee and eggs on toast some mornings which was a real life saver rather than trying to find breakfast whilst out and about. We got weirdly attached to this place (I think because it cured many a hangry moments) and more westernised breakfast places were actually quite hard to come across. Sometimes we just wanted something simple and familiar to start the day with before exploring!
When we first arrived in Kyoto, we headed straight to Gion! It’s a famous geisha district that’s lined with restaurants, shops and teahouses – it seemed like a good place to start our Kyoto adventure. We arrived here late afternoon/early evening time and it was hard to tell what was open because most places have sliding doors with zero outside seating or signage on the streets so it’s very much trial and error.The most popular area of Gion is Hanami-koji Street from Shijo Avenue to Kenninji Temple – it’s a very expensive place to drink & dine, we ended up stumbled across this tiny bar and paid £60 for a glass of wine so be sure to ask for the price list before you commit ha!
On the walk home we headed to Katsukura Tonkatsu for some food (the Sanjo main location) – it seemed highly rated on Google and we wanted to have a traditional meal after being in Gion. They give you a little Pestle and Mortar to grind your own sesame seeds to make the sauce – it’s very cute! If you order one of the meal sets then you get unlimited pickles, rice & miso soup. It was all really delicious and the restaurant itself is so beautiful – I’d recommend booking as there was a huge queue by the time we got up to leave. I think we got lucky because we arrived early in the evening.
We also went back to Gion in the daytime – it’s well worth seeing at night as it feels more magical but I think there’s definitely more to see/do during daylight hours. We wandered around and ended up booking a performance at the Arts & Culture centre – it was around forty minutes of traditional Japanese performances. There was everything from flower arranging and dancing, to comedy and even a tea ceremony! I’d highly recommend visiting if you want to condense lots of things into one show whilst you’re in Kyoto. We just booked it on the website earlier the same day – I’ll link it here for you!
If you’re in Kyoto with a few hours to kill then Nishiki Market is a real treat for the senses! It’s a long street lined with all kinds of different shops and restaurants – it’s known as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’ and the perfect place to sample some local delicacies. It’s generally just a great place to people watch and soak up the unique Japanese food scene.
It was super busy and bustling when we arrived so I’d suggest getting there early to beat the crowds!
We did a day trip to Osaka and out of everything we did during our time in Japan, Osaka was probably my least favourite! Not because it wasn’t fun or entertaining, but because I would have just preferred to continue exploring more of Kyoto and the more traditional side of Japan instead…
Osaka is a super lively and vibrant place – you’ll notice that it’s different as soon as you step outside the train station! Everything from the street signs to the people just feel brighter and more animated. If you’re a huge foodie then everyone will tell you that Osaka is the place to visit! There’s a huge street food scene as well as lots of incredible restaurants. We didn’t eat in a restaurant but we did explore the Dontonburi district which is lined with tonnes of street vendors and something Osaka is very well known for.
We also ate at A Happy Pancake because I was determined to try some Japanese Souffle pancakes before we left and this is a chain that comes highly recommended. I can confirm that they were very incredibly delicious. Like little sweet clouds of pancake goodness!
There’s tonnes of cool stuff to do and see in Osaka asides from the food and shopping scenes – we ended up getting there quite late in the day so I don’t have too much to report but I’ll link a helpful article here if you’re looking to spend a decent chunk of time there. I think if we were to go back, I’d like to see Osaka Castle and maybe Expo Park.
We jumped on the train to Arashiyama one day which was a great place to spot Cherry Blossom! I can imagine it looks equally as beautiful in the autumn time too. It’s a small town on the Oi river – such a beautiful place to walk around and you’re likely to spot Geisha here too. Theres tonnes of shops and street food etc and a real buzz about this place. We stopped at a cafe called Kumonocha which specialises in Matcha and Matcha based treats – it’s very Instagram worthy but worth it if you’re into matcha or looking to try it whilst in Japan. There’s also a Snoopy chocolate shop here which is very cute indeed!
Arashiyama is also where the Bamboo Forest and Monkey Park are situated so you could very easily spend a full day here and not get bored. There’s also some more temples to see so I’d recommend arriving here in the morning time if you want to get through everything. I’ll leave another link here with more info on what there is to see and do!
The Bamboo Forest was another real highlight for me – it was more of a cloudy/overcast day when we were there and it just really added to how atmospheric the experience was! The railway crossings on the way in are so beautiful too, everything was such a dream to shoot on film and it really reinforced why I love travelling and photography so much. There’s so many magical things to discover and each new adventure takes me out of my own head and into another world entirely…
FUSHI INARI SHRINE
Chances are this is one of the shrines you’ll have seen the most coverage of if you’ve been researching Japan via social media! Despite it being a heavy tourist spot with lots of crowds – it’s honestly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to and the setting makes for an unforgettable experience…
Everyone recommends getting to Fushi Inari early to avoid the crowds but we got there early and it was still very busy so my advice would be to expect crowds and try not to let it dampen your time there – it’s still an incredible experience and the higher up you hike, the quieter it becomes because lots of people just give up. I believe it’s a hefty climb to the top! I think it takes most a good two/three hours in total so if you want to do the full climb through the forest up to Mount Inari, wear comfortable shoes and take water etc. There are places along the way where you can pick up drinks/snacks but they will be more expensive than taking your own.
We walked for around forty five minutes – I think we reached the Yotsutsuji intersection which is the point where a lot of people stop as you get some beautiful views over Kyoto and the trial apparently doesn’t offer much variation after this. It was a super warm day when we visited so we decided to go back down after this and spend the rest of the day somewhere else.
You don’t need tickets or anything so it’s a smooth process once you get there and a few people messaged me and said they went later in the day for sunset and it was much less crowded – it all depends on what kind of experience you want!
‘Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha) is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings. The trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari, which stands at 233 meters and belongs to the shrine grounds.
Fushimi Inari is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, resulting in many fox statues across the shrine grounds. Fushimi Inari Shrine has ancient origins, predating the capital’s move to Kyoto in 794.’
There’s also a great matcha ice cream place that you absolutely have to look out for on the way back down! We sat looking out over the water and enjoyed ours – a great place to soak in the experience before you head onto the next thing…
We spent one of our last days in Kyoto visiting Nara Park – it’s a large park in central Nara where you can find the Nara National Museum and see lots of Deer roaming freely…
It was giving me Canada vibes because the trees were so different to others that I’d noticed around Japan. You can buy some crackers and feed the deer, or you can just find a nice spot to sit and have a drink. You can also have a wander down to the Todaiji Temple. It’s a beautiful temple with a huge Buddha statue and ridiculously picturesque with all the deer wandering around. I really loved our little trip to Nara, it was a nice chilled way to spend some of our remaining hours in Japan. A very wholesome day out indeed!
SANNENZAKA & NINENZAKA
These are beautiful sloping streets in Kyoto lined with historic Japanese style buildings! There are probably the streets you’ll have seen lots of photographs of if you’ve been researching Kyoto. I’d recommend spending a full day/afternoon here if you can as there’s tonnes of little shops and stalls to see. It’s the perfect place to people watch and pick up any last minute souvenirs. It’s also a popular route up to the Kodaiji Temple and Yasaka Shrine.
If you carry on walking you’ll also find the Kiyomizu Temple which was a serious highlight for me and really cemented my love affair with Kyoto! I would recommend getting tickets for the extra part that’s cut off as it’s well worth it for the most spectacular views. It’s one of the most celebrated temples in Japan and set amongst the most incredible woodland landscape. Whenever I’m feeling stressed out or overwhelmed, I’m going to close my eyes and try to visualise being back here…
Things I noticed about Japan in the short time we spent there!
It’s so clean! Coming back to Manchester was a shock to the system – Manchester is such a grungy city and Japan was the cleanest place I’ve ever been to. The streets look like they have been jet washed whilst you were sleeping and it’s rare to find any rubbish bins out on the side walks. You sometimes find them in the train stations or at the FamilyMarts or 7/Elevens so just something to bare in mind. I took a tote bag out with me each day and just got rid of any rubbish back at the hotel when we returned.
The toilets are way more advanced – they are also extremely clean, even all of the public ones I encountered were sparkling!
You’ll also rarely see anyone smoking in public because it’s widely restricted – there’s no cigarette butts on the ground because of this and we saw very few designated smoking areas whilst we were there. I think this adds to how clean everything feels because you just never really smell cigarette smoke! Nobody jaywalks either – you have to wait until the traffic lights change to cross the road and this is something we noticed people doing even at night time when there were barely any cards on the road.
It’s frowned upon to eat or drink whilst walking! I didn’t notice this at first because it’s something that’s so natural here but eating whilst walking is seen as rude in Japan so make sure to find somewhere to sit if you’re picking up street food etc. Normally there will be a little sign posted area!
There’s vending machines on every street corner! This sort of contradicts the above because it makes it seem as though eating and drinking is encouraged whilst on the go. The vending machines are really fun though so definitely try a few different things if you get the chance! Most of them supply both cold and hot drinks which is cool.
The public transport is extremely efficient! People in Japan queue in neat lines whilst waiting to board the trains, everyone still wears masks and there’s just generally no pushing or shoving to get anywhere. It seems like living harmoniously and patiently is something that the Japanese really have down. I hate to generalise but (on the whole) everyone just seems very patient and respectful of others around them. We encountered so many kind and helpful people that really went out of their way to ensure that we had the best time. It really made me heart swell!
It’s generally more of a quiet place! This surprised me the most as it’s quite a noticeable thing – especially at night time. You don’t really hear people talking loudly or shouting over one another which takes some adjusting to when you’ve spent your whole life growing up in the north west of England.
What I’d love to do if we go back in the future…
As I mentioned in my Tokyo blog post – Japan is a mammoth country to tackle! I think I read somewhere that its three times as large as New York, so try not to feel like you need to cram everything in because it’s just impossible to do it all. Plus, it’s always nice to leave somewhere you’ve enjoyed visiting with a little list of things you want to return there for! It keeps the wanderlust alive and means you might have new experiences of the same place to look forward to in the future…
Next time we go to Japan I’d love to see more of Mount Fuji – we did catch a glimpse of her on the bullet train but she’s infamous for hiding behind the clouds. I’d read lots about Hakone (a beautiful national park with incredible views of Mount Fuji) so I think this is somewhere I’d love to spend a day or two if we are lucky enough to go back.
Thank you for reading as always & I hope these blog posts will be useful if you’re planning a trip to Japan!
You can find my Tokyo blog post here & please let me know in the comments if there’s anything you’d like more information on – happy to help as much as I can 🙂
Photographs taken on a Contax T2 with Portra 400 film!
For more Japan recommendations you can check out my saved highlights over on Instagram!