Traveling from Ito to our next destination – Kyōto – brought with it our first Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) ride. This was highly anticipated. I really like traveling by train and was super excited to partake in this holy grail of rail.
We were not disappointed. This and subsequent journeys really hammered home how convenient and pleasant train travel can be. It’s so much more comfortable than flying, and in the case of the bullet trains, faster for Japan-scale distances (especially considering the hassles of airports). It’s so quick and easy that it feels as if you’re simply being teleported to your destination. It’s not cheap – a typical hour long journey might be something like $50 – but considering the value, well worth it. At the recommendation of many we got a Japan Rail Pass for the duration of our stay which lets us hop on and off nearly all trains at will which was great. (This pass was also expensive, but I can say we at least broke even and it was very nice not to worry about getting tickets or whether we should pay to do a particular day trip.)
So we clicked our heels, said “there’s no place like Japan”, and poof – arrived in Kyōto, the richly historical former capital of Japan. It’s chock full of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, classy restaurants, and surrounded by low rolling hills. Elaine had snagged us a great hotel quite close to the train station so we dropped our luggage and grabbed a lunch of pork katsu (fried cutlet – I loved it and Elaine was a good sport). Then we took the local rail a couple stops over to Fushimi Inari-taisha.
This complex is one of the more famous (and busy) collection of shrines winding its way up a hillside, the highlight being the walkways framed by countless torii gates. Our expectation was to find a section or two of paths that have this iconic scene, but in fact there are kilometers of trails between different shrines all with this tunnel-like feel from ten thousand total gates (I had to look it up).
Kyōto brought us to our first sushi conveyor belt meal which was a lot of fun! The sushi isn’t spectacular, but with each plate only being about $1 we could afford to try out some different stuff and eat our fill. Plates are color-coded so you can tell which ones have wasabi, and there are hot water taps in front of you for topping off your cup of green tea.
We ate well during our 5-night stay in Kyōto. Huge bowls of ramen, fresh udon noodles, and even torisashi (chicken sashimi!). The massive train station was well-stocked with easy food options for us as we were heading out on day trips. The tastiest lunch was some grilled wagyu beef; the best dinner was at Gion Yata, a small Japanese place serving a seasonal menu. We wanted a nice evening at a solid local place that wasn’t over the top (there are plenty of Michelin-star restaurants here) and this fit the bill perfectly. We had a lovely fish-centered tasting menu accompanied by fine local sake for a really reasonable price.
Aside from the torii-laden Fushimi Inari-taisha we visited a few other temples while strolling around the city. One of the favorites was Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji on the northeast fringe of the city. This is a beautiful wooden Buddhist temple, really a series of small buildings, wrapped around a nice garden. Another favorite was small Gio-ji which has a cute and verdant moss garden. We visited the latter on a trip to Arashiyama for a famed bamboo grove, near Kyōto. Though we didn’t find the bamboo forest as captivating as advertised (possibly due to the crowds of tourists) we did enjoy the subsequent walk around the peaceful neighborhood.
Downtown Kyōto is a fun place to walk around after dark. It’s not nearly as energetic as Tokyo but there’s still a lot going on. The river is flanked by stone walkways and steps where locals hang out and talk or play music; nearby are a couple historic districts (now primarily restaurants) called Gion and Pontocho. Walking through the latter we had a rare sighting – an actual geisha! (There are plenty of folks who dress up in imitation but fewer than a thousand of the real thing and they aren’t out in public much). She popped out in front of us on the narrow street wearing a blue kimono, hair up, white makeup, and quickly shuffled away on tiny feet in wooden sandals off down a side alley. I don’t know how she could possibly move that fast. Elaine was thrilled – check that box!
We made a couple day trips by rail from Kyōto during our stay. First we went to Himeji to visit the famous (and recently renovated) Himeji-jo “white crane” castle. This is one of the few original castles in Japan, with many having been destroyed over the years due to fire or bombing in WWII. This was a truly stunning visit. The moat-surrounded castle complex is beautiful, and the interior of the tiered keep is an impressive example of wooden construction using massive interlocking beams. We managed to arrive just as the castle opened (it was easy to get here, with Himeji being right on the bullet train line) and the first part of our day before the crowds showed up was blissfully serene.
Just outside the castle walls happened to be one of our favorite gardens as well: Koko-en. This is a restored samurai housing area and the walk through follows a sculpted stream through several different styles of gardens and types of plants. The ponds are populated by the most vibrant koi we’ve seen, each one looking like a watercolor painting. All in all our visit to Himeji was one of our top days so far in Japan!
Another great day trip went the opposite direction into the foothills of the Japan Alps. There we wanted to do a recommended walk between two traditional hill towns (Magome and Tsumano). The journey out took over 3 hours from Kyōto, by bullet train, local train, and then bus. We were by no means certain it would be worth going all this way, but we wanted to go hiking and the train rides were free so why not! Fortunately our efforts were well rewarded. This 10km walk, bookended by adorable towns, wound through beautiful hills, rice fields, cedar and cypress trees, and across streams. Midway through we picnicked next to a pair of picturesque waterfalls. Rain threatened but held off. Another great day trip!
This wrapped up our 5 night / 4 day stay in Kyōto. We left with much still unseen – there are so many famous sights in this area that I think you’d have to live here for a while and slowly take it all in. We certainly could have hit more of the beautiful religious buildings but we like to have some variety (and some escape from tourist crowds) so… until next time, Kyōto! Next stop: Hiroshima.