Japan Trip Part 2: KYOTO (Gion, Arashiyama, Fushimi Inari, Gogyo Ramen)
Part 2: KYOTO
Before I get into what I did into Kyoto, I just want to gush over just how amazing this city was. I had heard so many good things about Kyoto and how it is superior to Tokyo in many ways, so I had high expectations. And Kyoto indeed did not disappoint. Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto was much more laid-back and traditional. It definitely did not give me the metropolitan vibes that Tokyo did, although it’s still a very big city. The food there was consistently delicious, and it had a natural beauty unlike any place I’ve ever seen before.
Day 2 cont.: Kyoto station
After leaving the hedgehog cafe in the early afternoon on my second day in Japan, I rushed back to my hotel to get my suitcase and headed to Shinagawa station, where I took the bullet train to Kyoto station. This part of my journey wasn’t too stressful, but it did require me to manually lift my heavy suitcase up a lot of steps in the station. Otherwise, the signs were easy to follow and I got on the train smoothly. The ride to Kyoto was over two hours long—but that gave me time to relax and unwind before arriving in Kyoto.
After getting to the station, I quickly found my hotel: Hotel Kintetsu Kyoto Station. I had picked this hotel because it was directly located inside the station, making it extremely convenient to access. This was possibly the best decision I made on the trip because it saved me tons of time getting to and from the hotel. I stayed in this hotel longer than any other hotel during my trip, and the hotel room was slightly bigger than the Shibuya hotel room, and styled more like a Western hotel room. Kyoto station was massive: it contained a mall and several stretches of shopping areas within the station. It also housed the metro, JR lines, Shinkansen bullet trains, bus stops, and an abundance of taxis outside. The station itself serves as an attraction in the city, with Kyoto tower located just outside the station.
That night, instead of leaving the station for dinner, I headed to the tenth floor of the mall in the station, where there is an entire floor of ramen shops. I later learned that each shop specializes in a type of ramen specific to a different region in Japan. I don’t know which region my ramen shop specialized in, but my bowl of ramen was really, really good. It was very different from any other ramen I’ve had—the soup was not greasy or thick, thinner but still just as flavorful as typical ramen soups.
Day 3: Yumeyakata, Arashiyama, Cafe Hassui, Maruyama Park, Kiyozumi Dera
The next morning, I got up early to go to Yumeyakata, a store that specializes in kimono rentals and photography packages. Shortly before my trip, I had booked a kimono rental/location photography package on the website, and was scheduled for a 9am fitting that morning. From my research, Yumeyakata is the largest kimono rental places in Kyoto and is very experienced in servicing foreigners.
When I arrived at the shop, I was quickly ushered upstairs to the kimono rental room. They have staffers who are fluent in English, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese. I was then told to choose a kimono fabric from the selection (the picture to the right is only a small fraction of how many options there were). I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of options. I’m not good at making aesthetic decisions under pressure, so I pointed to a picture of a kimono I liked. I knew I wanted to wear a red kimono because it looks a lot better in pictures compared to muted colors. The staffer picked out a similar looking kimono. She then helped me pick out a belt, rope, and inner garment to go with my kimono (I picked yellow ones to complement the kimono fabric.
After getting my hair done by a hairdresser., I was dressed in my kimono (it is a 30-minute process that requires skilled hands). I was amazed by how intricate the process is—it requires layer after layer of dress, and many stuffings underneath the actual kimono. I later learned that kimonos are worn in the colder months, whereas yukatas (thinner) are worn in the warmer months. After getting dressed, I went downstairs where my photographer met me. We then took a taxi to the Gion area. Gion is known as the geisha district of Kyoto. I learned from my photographer that there are very few geishas left, and that they are rarely seen out in public. While we were doing the shoot, we actually saw one in an empty alleyway. She was dressed beautifully with this amazing hairpiece, and she walked with such elegance and poise. After the shoot, my photographer took me to a hidden ramen store located in an unassuming alleyway. The restaurant was fairly new, and didn’t have a name (it’s name consists of two emojis). It contained a small bar, with chefs who prepare your meal right in front of you. I ordered the cherry-blossom flavored duck tsukemen—or dipping ramen. It was so good (possibly my best meal in Japan)—the noodles were aromatic and flavorful, and the sauce was salty and creamy. The small pink tear-dropped shaped sauce was the cherry-blossom sauce that added a fragrant sweetness to the noodles.
After the shoot, I changed back into my normal clothes (taking of the kimono only takes less than a minute) and took the metro back to the station. I quickly showered in my hotel room (to get rid of the stiff hairdo) and headed out to take the JR line to Arashiyama bamboo grove. Arashiyama is one of the most popular attractions in Kyoto, getting thousands of visitors every day. I read that the best time to visit is early in the morning to avoid the tourist crowds, but I could only go in the afternoon. It wasn’t too hard to find—around a 10 minute walk from the Saga-Arashiyama station. Outside of the grove is a long street filled with souvenir shops, cafes, and eateries. I first walked into the bamboo grove, which consisted of one long winding path down the center of the bamboo grove. Besides there being a ton of tourists taking pictures in the middle of the path, it was really serene and peaceful. The sound of the wind brushing against the bamboos gave me a certain peace I’d never experienced before. It is most definitely worth a trip if you are ever in Kyoto. At the end of the path, I asked a nice lady to take some pictures of me—that actually turned out pretty well (not too many tourists in the background).
After leaving the grove, I walked down the street towards Cafe Hassui. My friend Renee (who traveled solo to Japan last year) recommended this cafe to me. It was a little hard to find, as it is located inside a hotel. The guard almost didn’t let me in because I wasn’t a guest at the hotel.
The cafe had this beautiful view of the Katsura river, and the decor was elegant and simple. I ordered a chocolate cake and matcha tea, which I enjoyed while admiring the view outside.
After leaving the cafe, I took the JR line back to Kyoto station to rest for a bit. I then took a taxi to take me to Yasaka shrine, which is located in the center of Gion. My photographer had recommended that I go there at night because Yasaka shrine transforms into a night market at night.
The shrine itself was beautifully lit, but there were barely any food stalls left so I kept walking. It was dark outside but there were random paths lined with small lanterns that I decided to follow.
I eventually arrived at Maruyama Park (totally by accident). I found out after visiting that Maruyama Park is the most famous cherry-blossom viewing place in Kyoto (unfortunately, the cherry blossoms were not in bloom when I was there). Next to the park, was a small night market with a couple food stalls. This was definitely not the kind of night market I’m used to in Taiwan. It was much smaller, cleaner, and less busy than Taiwanese night markets.
The night market was lit by these inflatable art installations (not quite sure what they were), and there was a stereo playing sounds resembling some sort of Japanese chant.
At the night market, I had the most delicious yakitori (chicken skewer) I have ever had in my life. I got two different flavors: salt and pepper and barbecue. I also got a grilled corn (that was sweet and juicy), but it was more disappointing because it essentially a plain corn without any flavor/sauce.
After leaving the night market, I kept walking down random lantern-lit streets. They took me down empty alleyways that were flanked by traditional Japanese homes (which made me feel like I was in a movie). I then arrived at a slightly busier street with shops. There, I noticed a giant crowd of people taking pictures of a figure seated in a wagon. I got closer for a look and noticed this person (not sure if it was a man or woman, but it seemed like a young woman) dressed in white robes, wearing a fox(?) mask. She (I’m assuming) sat quietly, unmoving, while she was trailed by two rows of people also dressed in white robes carrying lanterns.
I think she was supposed to represent some sort of Shinto god, but I’m not sure. Anyway, I kept following this crowd, but eventually diverged paths. I got very very lost, and it was almost 9pm at this point. I then came to a dead-end with a beautiful, well-lit red shrine on top of a hill. I had to purchase a ticket to actually enter the shrine, and when I got to the top, I was rewarded with an amazing view the Kyoto skyline (I checked Google Maps and realized that this was the famous Kiyozumi Dera temple, which I had been planning to go to all along). After leaving the temple, I walked back to the main street and took a taxi back to my hotel to sleep for the night.
Day 4: Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Nijo Castle, Cotton Candy Coffee, Kyoto Gogyo Ramen
A friend had recommended to me a couple days prior to go on an Airbnb hike that was led by two American expats who specialize in taking guests on hidden trails to Fushimi Inari Taisha. Since I was planning to go to Fushimi Inari on my own anyway, and wanted to avoid the crowds of tourists of the main shrine path, I happily signed up for the hike (even though I am not much of a hiker).
That morning, at around 8:30am, I took the metro from Kyoto station one stop away to meet the other hikers and guides at a FamilyMart. My guide, Sawyer, had immigrated to Kyoto with his partner from Kansas City, Texas. Sawyer took the group of us (7 total) along a hidden path to the main Fushimi Inari shrine. On our way there, we passed a small private shrine, where each family has its own designated shrine area (with mini tori gates with specific prayers).
After trekking up many steep, slippery hills, we finally made it to the end point of one of the main Fushimi Inari paths. A little background: Fushimi Inari Taisha (or Fushimi Inari shrine) is the head shrine of the god Inari, which sits at the base of the mountain Inari. Inari is the god of rice, according to the Shinto religion, but many businessmen come to worship Inari as the patron of business. Each of the tori gates (the red gates you see below) was donated by a Japanese business (to the left is the name of the business, and to the right is the date that the shrine was erected. A fun fact that Sawyer told us is that the shrine had been a relatively quiet local attraction until Memoirs of a Geisha featured it in a scene. Then, the shrine became an extremely popular tourist destination that attracts foreign visitors from all over the world (all trying to get that insta-worthy shot).
We eventually made it to the peak of the mountain which boasts a birds-eye view of the western part of Kyoto. We then kept walking down one of the tori paths, when we came across a small shop that sold Sakura (cherry blossom) flavored soft serve. At first, I didn’t want to get one, but the other hikers gushed over how good it was and I gave into getting one.
The soft serve was really tasty, unlike any flavor I’ve had before. It tasted a bit like pink laffy-taffy (one of the hikers pointed this out), but it was very subtle and light overall.
We then kept walking down the mountain, and came across a group of cats lounging in the shade. Sawyer took out a bag of cat food and the cats came running out to nibble on the food. Japanese cats are really soft and well-groomed, despite living out in the wild. They are cared for by locals who live on the mountain, but are free to run wild.
After reaching the base of the mountain, we arrived at the main entrance of the shrine, which was packed with tourists. Most tourists only go to a small section of the tori gates at the entrance, but it tends to be way too crowded for any decent pictures. (My picture was taken in the outer shrine area where there were way less people). There, the hike ended and we said goodbye to each other and went off on our separate ways. At the entrance, there were many food stalls selling delicious eats. I happened to be pretty hungry after the hike, so I stuffed myself with: takoyaki (BEST takoyaki I’ve ever had), tofu slices, and red bean cake. I then walked to the nearest metro station and went back to my hotel for a quick break.
After taking a short break in my hotel room, I took a taxi to Nijo Castle, which my guide had recommended going to. Nijo Castle is famous for being the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). The Tokugawa shogunate effectively ruled Japan for the entire Edo period until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which restored the imperial rule to the Empire of Japan.
After entering the main gate into the castle grounds, I went into Ninomaru Palace, which was the residence and office of the shogun during his visits to Kyoto. Visitors have to remove their shoes at the entrance, and walk the guided path around the palace. The palace consists of several buildings connected by thin corridors. The floors of these corridors are called “nightingale corridors,” as they make noises similar to a bird’s chirping sounds when you step on them. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside of the palace, but to give you a sense of what it looked like: the sliding doors and ceilings were covered in beautiful paintings of exotic animals (with gold accents). These paintings were meant to intimidate visitors and express the power and might of the shogunate.
After leaving the castle, I walked to a nearby cafe, called Alpha cafe (just a short five minute walk away). I had found this cafe while researching cute cafes in Kyoto. This cafe is known for their “cotton candy coffee,” which is essentially plain cotton candy on a stick suspended on top of a coffee drink. I ordered their cotton candy soy milk coffee. What you do is you take strands of the cotton candy and dip it into the coffee, which sweetens the drink. It’s a cool gimmick but I wouldn’t say it was the best tasting coffee ever (although it was good), but nevertheless, it’s worth the experience!
After leaving the cafe, I took the bus to Ginkakugi (Silver Pavillion). UNFORTUNATELY, I arrived five minutes after the closing time (5pm), and I wasn’t let in. :( Huge bummer, but there’s always next time!
I then took the bus to Teramachi-dori Street, which is a famous indoor shopping arcade with boutique shops and restaurants open into the night. It’s a popular shopping destination for locals.
Even though I was fairly full, I still wanted to try Gogyo Ramen—which was recommended to me by my stepmom and stepsister. Gogyo is famous for their burnt ramen, which has a broth that is cooked in extremely hot lard. The queue is usually very long, but I went late enough to not have to wait. Side note: I think Gogyo is very popular among tourists but not as much with locals.
I believe I had a pork miso ramen, which had a broth that was not too fatty (I’m actually not sure if I had the famous burnt broth, but oh well). I found the meat a little tougher that I would’ve liked but the broth and noodles were very good.
Afterwards, I took a taxi back to my hotel and collapsed at the end of my extremely long day. Stay tuned for my next (and last) post on my trip to Osaka/Nara!