Guide to Japan: Kyoto Part 1

A two-hour ride on the shinkansen and we’re in Kyoto. It quickly became apparent on the brief walk to our hotel that Kyoto’s beauty lies within the shrines, temples, mountains, and gardens that surround the city and not in the urban fabric itself.

(Although there was something really beautiful about the bathroom mirror in our teeny, tiny hotel room that remained steam-free no matter the temperature of your shower).
We headed out to the Gion neighborhood, crossing the river that runs through central Kyoto on the way. 
Gion is full of old wooden homes that have been converted into restaurants and shops.
 It’s the place for geisha-spotting. And though we didn’t actually see any geishas, I couldn’t believe how women dressed in traditional kimonos. We strolled around until dinner.
We ate at Kiraku and feasted on okonomiyaki, savory Japanese pancakes filled with a smattering of vegetables and often meat. We ate close to the action at the counter, which had a built in warming griddle on which the okonomiyaki is served. 7bqGzAdZK8beMWe ordered one green onion pancake, a double pork pancake, and one double-sized noodle dish–entirely too much food, but delicious nonetheless. They equipped us with small spatulas, chopsticks, and a variety of sauces. Capped the meal off with soft serve cones, of course.
The next morning we woke up to the smell of okonomiyaki grill on clothes.We caught a bus (as per usual, finding the right one was a quest) and rode 25 minutes east of downtown to Ryoanji temple. I needed something in my stomach, but all we saw were kiosks selling pickled vegetables and fish. Luckily Ian tracked down a warm pork bun that hit the spot. We entered the grounds and crossed a small bridge that took us to a small shrine overlooking a pond that was built in the 12th or 13th century.
IMG_2208IMG_2209The surrounding trees and mountains were beautiful and we spotted a few cherry blossoms.IMG_2240The temple was large and white with an ornate roof.IMG_1425IMG_2248We removed our shoes before entering and placed them on a shelf in order to keep the temple’s smooth, wood floors pristine.IMG_2216Inside there was a tea room lined with the tatami mats and a zen rock garden with a series of 15 rocks arranged just so. Surrounding them was a pool of perfectly raked pebbles.IMG_2222IMG_2218IMG_2221IMG_2223IMG_2226We did a lap and admired the lovely minimalist design, the Japanese trees, and the calming water features.IMG_2225IMG_2227We visited another, smaller temple on the shrine grounds–this one built more recently and accompanied by a World War II Memorial–surrounded by pink cherry blossoms.IMG_2232The small forest housed what appeared to be grafted pine trees–Dr. Seuss-y stubby, sparse trees with full bottoms. We spied more cherry blossoms as we looped around the backside of the pond.IMG_2228This was the warmest day we had had on the entire trip so the sun on our faces felt delightful. After, we walked uphill for 20 minutes and came to Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion) that, despite having burned down in World War II, was rebuilt in the 1950’s and is now a World Heritage Site. The temple itself is set in the middle of an ancient pond that is manicured with rocks and trees.IMG_1553IMG_1549IMG_2261It’s three stories tall and each floor is a different architectural type. It’s covered in gold leaf, giving the temple its name. We strolled around the pond to explore more of the grounds. There was a small shine in which you could throw coins. Ian got his ¥10 in the hole on the first attempt. And me? Well let’s just say I had be cut off before I blew through all of our Japanese currency. The grounds were well-manicured and undoubtedly would have been peaceful had there been fewer people milling around.

At the exit there were souvenir vendors and a ton of food samples to try. We ate a bunch of Yatsuhashi (basically Japanese crêpes with tasty fillings). I would find myself sampling cinnamon and strawberry yatsuhashi more than a few times in Kyoto!

We took a bus to the Nishiki market, a five-block stretch of hundreds of food and gift kiosks.IMG_2264

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IMG_1560We tried a fried potato ball thing that neither of us loved and then consulted our phones for lunch options. Turns out we were just around the corner from yet another ramen place we had on our list called Gogyo. I ordered the burnt miso-based broth and Ian, the burnt soy sauce broth. Both bowls were filled with pork, seaweed, soft-boiled eggs, and various other yummy bite-sized items.IMG_1562IMG_1559After lunch we stumbled into a home goods store that reminded me of Heath ceramics in San Francisco. It was two floors full of cooking items, coffee accessories, and beautiful place settings. We picked up a few linen hand towels dyed with natural fruits and vegetables like blueberries and black tea. From there we walked downtown and headed into our second Tokyu Hands store. This time I spent most of my time in the beauty department searching for gifts. I found a handful of Asian facial masks. Will report back on their results.

After a short break at our hotel, we were off to Fushimi Inari, well-known for its literal thousands of vermilion torii gates that line the path up Mount Inari.IMG_2280IMG_2282IMG_2286

The gates made for some excellent photos and we had fun exploring the trails and watching the sun set over the mountains.

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Ian bellOn the way back to the train I couldn’t resist trying the infamous fish-shaped desserts taiyaki. Filled with a white custard and hot off a waffle press, it was very tasty!IMG_1599IMG_1604By this point we were famished and we’re not particularly in the mood to search around for a restaurant so we settled for a very mediocre (and that’s being generous) Italian restaurant in a mall adjacent to Kyoto station where we ordered an extremely thin margarita pizza and a shrimp salad (with just two shrimp!) and baked potato. Not our best move, but you live and you learn. We stopped to pick up breakfast at a supermarket for the next morning and ended up purchasing some fun spices as gifts. Back at the hotel Ian checked out the baths. He had the process pretty much figured out at this point: slippers, yukata, no swim suit, small towel. The spa was much smaller than the one in Hakone but was nonetheless relaxing. There was one big hot pool surrounded by several seated shower stations. Ian spent about 30 minutes there before retiring to the room for some much-needed Suntory whiskey and soda. Still not sure how I’ve managed to walk 20,000+ steps per day without its assistance!

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