May 2023

Kyoto:
where past meets
present

asia japan

It didn't take long before Kyoto earned its place as one of my favorite destinations worldwide. While planning and researching my trip to Japan, I was most excited about exploring this part of the country, and it did not disappoint. The city's seamless blend of tradition and modernity creates a unique atmosphere that instantly captivates. You can feel the attention to detail everywhere you look, from the ancient temples to the beautifully designed cafes.

I especially remember the peacefulness of wandering the charming streets early in the morning or while stepping away from the crowds in search of the next cute coffee shop. This historic city is an essential stop on any trip to Japan – I could have easily stayed for weeks and hope to return for a longer stay one day.

What to see

From the charming wooden houses of Gion and Higashiyama to iconic landmarks like Fushimi Inari-Taisha and the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, there is definitely a lot to see in Kyoto. I highly recommend spending a few days immersing yourself in this magical city, ideally starting your visits early in the day to avoid the crowds that flock to these popular attractions (it will most likely be crowded nevertheless, so be prepared). For a peaceful break away from the hustle and bustle, consider exploring the Garden of Fine Arts and the Botanical Garden which you can combine with a relaxed stroll along the Kamo river.

Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka

Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka transport you back in time to Kyoto's rich history with their narrow cobblestone streets lined with traditional wooden houses and delightful shops. I especially enjoyed watching the other visitors dressed in elegant kimonos. But the highlight was spotting a beautiful Maiko, who kindly posed for a photo, making my visit to the neighborhood even more memorable.

Hōkan-ji Temple

Hōkan-ji Temple, located at the base of Sannenzaka, stands as one of Kyoto's most beloved landmarks and is a renowned photography spot. Arriving early one morning, around 8 am, I was fortunate to experience a few moments without the crowds. With a bit of patience, I was able to capture the iconic shot of the pagoda framed against the morning sky. No guarantees though.

Kiyomizu-dera

A short walk from Ninenzaka leads you to Kiyomizu-dera, one of Kyoto's most iconic sights. Dating back to the 8th century, this historic temple is nestled in the eastern hills of Kyoto and offers great panoramic views of the city below. Visitors are invited to marvel at the majestic wooden architecture and immerse themselves in centuries of spiritual heritage.

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Fushimi Inari-Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha, situated in southern Kyoto, is a sacred Shinto shrine that should not be missed. Famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates winding through a forested pathway, it offers a breathtaking glimpse into Japan's spiritual traditions. Due to its popularity, I recommend hiking all the way to the top, as most visitors tend to linger closer to the bottom. While it is a bit of a workout, the rewarding views and serene atmosphere are definitely worth it.

Garden of Fine Arts Kyoto

While the Garden of Fine Arts turned out to be smaller than anticipated, it remains a worthy destination if you are in search of artistic inspiration or a moment of quiet. This open-air museum features modern architecture and reproductions of renowned masterpieces against the backdrop of a calming waterfall. My favorite piece was the Choju Giga — an ancient scroll depicting whimsical animal-person caricatures, often regarded as the very first manga.

Kyoto Botanical Gardens

One of my favorite activities during city trips is exploring parks and botanical gardens. If you share my love for being surrounded by a variety of plants from around the world, including charming bonsai trees and blooming roses of various colors, you'll want to combine a leisurely stroll through the Kyoto Botanical Garden with your visit to the Garden of Fine Arts. If I remember correctly there may even be a discounted ticket available for both attractions.

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Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

In the outskirts of Kyoto lies the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. While it wasn't my personal favorite stop (even though I arrived in the morning it was already quite busy and the forest was shorter than I thought) there's no denying the beauty of the bamboo grove. Next to the forest you can also explore Tenryū-ji, a stunning Zen temple, adding an extra layer of serenity to the experience.

Sagano Scenic Railway

While exploring Arashiyama, be sure not to miss out on the Sagano Scenic Railway, affectionately known as the Romantic Train. This sightseeing tour offers a picturesque journey along the Hozugawa River to Kameoka and back. The charming train ride lasts approximately 25 minutes one way, allowing passengers to soak in the gorgeous scenery. Tip: buy a ticket for a later time at Saga Torokko Station station and then head to Sagano-yu (see below) for lunch to ensure you get a good seat.

Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is a breathtaking temple in northern Kyoto. Adorned with shimmering gold leaf, its iconic facade reflects on the surrounding pond, creating a mesmerizing spectacle that made me want to stare at it for hours. Originally built in the 14th century as a retirement villa for a shogun, Kinkaku-ji later transformed into a Zen Buddhist temple and has since become a symbol of harmony, beauty, and spiritual enlightenment.

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Where to eat

It's almost like you can't really go wrong when choosing a place to eat in Japan. No wonder it's one of the world's most popular cuisines. When in doubt, you can always count on stumbling upon a sushi or ramen joint that will leave you fully satisfied. Nonetheless, here are a few of my personal highlights to complete your visit to Kyoto.

Nishiki-Markt

Undoubtedly, Nishiki Market should be the first stop on your culinary journey through Kyoto. This vibrant market offers an array of stalls, where you'll find everything from fresh seafood to local delicacies. My standout experience was at Kimura Fresh Fish, where I had the most exquisite sake sashimi I've ever tasted – I'm still not over it. And before you leave, be sure to indulge in a Taiyaki, a delightful fish-shaped cake filled with either custard or red bean paste. So good!

Yuzugen - Ponto-cho

I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say I'm slightly obsessed with Yuzu flavor. So, you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled upon a Yuzu-themed restaurant while searching for a lunch spot in one of Kyoto's most atmospheric dining areas, Pontocho Alley. Not only was this restaurant tastefully designed with cute lemon illustrations adorning signs and menus, but the food was also absolutely delicious. I indulged in Yuzu ramen and dumplings that resembled little lemons – couldn't ask for more.

Katsukura Tonkatsu

Katsukura Tonkatsu Sanjo Main Shop is a renowned destination in Kyoto, celebrated for its exceptional tonkatsu, a beloved Japanese dish comprising breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets. A short wait in line may be necessary, but this is quite common in Japan and usually a good sign.

Sagano-yu

This was another delightful discovery as I found myself with some time to spare while waiting for the Sagano Train and was starting to feel hungry. Sagano-yu is located just a few steps from the station and was originally an old bathhouse, that has been repurposed and reopened as a restaurant. The space is beautifully designed, and I thoroughly enjoyed the delicious salmon pasta they served.

Gyoza Hohei

Gyoza Hohei is a popular spot in Kyoto known for its delicious gyoza, Japanese pan-fried dumplings filled with savory ingredients. Like many Japanese restaurants, the space is cozy, and while the gyoza are exceptional, be prepared for potentially long wait times. However, for gyoza enthusiasts, this spot is not to be missed.

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Coffee shops

While I wouldn't label myself a coffee connoisseur, I do appreciate the care and creativity that goes into crafting a captivating café atmosphere. There's a certain magic to spending hours in a café, you almost start to feel like a local. And in Kyoto, you'll find plenty of charming coffee spots just waiting to be explored.

Wife & Husband

Stepping into Wife & Husband feels like visiting a charming, rustic retreat. This cozy café, run by a delightful couple, offers a unique experience with its vintage-inspired decor and welcoming atmosphere. The warm ambiance and attentive service make it no surprise that it was featured on the popular Netflix show Somebody Feed Phil. Their cheesecake is a standout, easily the best I've had in a while.

% ARABICA

The Kyoto Latte at % Arabica quickly became a new favorite for me. This renowned coffee chain, born in Kyoto, is celebrated for its high-quality coffee. With its minimalist design and commitment to sourcing the finest beans, % Arabica invites coffee lovers to experience the perfect cup in Japan's ancient capital. Can't make it to Kyoto anytime soon? No worries, you can find branches worldwide.

Walden Woods

Walden Woods offers a unique coffee shop experience in Kyoto. Instead of traditional tables, the interior features an open space where visitors sit on steps, creating a relaxed, communal atmosphere. The minimalist white decor, accented with natural wood elements, enhances the peaceful environment. While their coffee is renowned, I opted for their soft serve ice cream, which was creamy and delicious. A cute spot to take a break.

WEEKENDERS COFFEE ROASTERY

Hidden away in a quiet alley, Weekenders Coffee is a gem known for its exceptional brews and laid-back vibe. The outdoor seating area, surrounded by greenery, provides a calm escape from the bustling city. Their espresso-based drinks are a highlight, showcasing the rich flavors of their carefully selected beans. Whether you're a coffee connoisseur or just looking for a great cup, Weekenders won't disappoint.

Starbucks Ninenzaka

While I'm sure a Starbucks wouldn't make it onto most coffee enthusiasts' must-visit lists, this one is quite unique. It stands out as the only Starbucks featuring traditional Japanese architecture complete with tatami mats. Undoubtedly a tourist spot, but since I'm a tourist myself, I couldn't resist. Plus, I absolutely adore the Starbucks Matcha Latte. Don't judge.

Café Kitsune

For fashion enthusiasts, Café Kitsuné is a must-visit destination in Kyoto. While Maison Kitsuné's Japanese French fashion may be a bit pricey for some, the adjacent Café Kitsuné offers a chic and modern café experience that won't break the bank. With its stylish ambiance and contemporary brand design, it's the perfect place to indulge in both delicious coffee and the brand's iconic merchandise. Plus, its location in the Shinpuhkan outdoor mall allows you to explore other cool shops nearby.

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