Finally last post with recommendations for Japan! Thanks for sticking with me. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, I hope I’ve offered something useful. If you’re a Japan expert, I hope you’ll give me recommendations for my next trip that will definitely happen someday! Click here for my recommendations for Tokyo, Hakone, Nara, and Kobe, and Osaka, or read on about my favourite city of all:
I wasn’t sure what to make of Kyoto at first. As it was our last stop, I went in thinking I had seen all the temples I could handle, walked into all the little shops I could possibly walk into, eaten all the delicious things I could possibly eat. And then Kyoto proved me so very wrong. It became my favourite city we went to in Japan, and the number one I would recommend for anyone planning a trip. It has everything from the modern to the traditional, from the serious to the playful, and some of the best of every possible type of cultural aspect of the country.
Where we stayed: Luck You Kyoto
We had great luck with accommodation throughout our trip and we loved Luck You Kyoto as well! We arrived early to leave our luggage and were immediately presented with a cup of green tea and a couple of Japanese sweets, as well as plenty of information about the area and Kyoto in general. It’s close to public transit but also only about a 30 minute walk to the heart of the city. The rooms are beautiful and comfortable, and have en-suite bathrooms but you can also use the public onsen across the street for free as a guest of the hotel (we didn’t check this out, but we were told they’re even tattoo-friendly!). Breakfast was included and offered a delicious mix of Japanese and western foods. And the staff were absolutely wonderful, so kind and always available to answer questions, offer help, and just add a positive feeling to the stay.
What we did:
When we arrived from Kobe we were not firing on all cylinders, having been out late the night before drinking outside the local 7-Eleven after the rugby (seriously, it was hopping; we even saw a video of it on the news the next day, although unfortunately we didn’t make an appearance). However, we wandered through Nishiki Market and into the old neighbourhood of Gion, which was full of lovely, winding streets and traditional-looking buildings. From there, we walked up hills and steps to see a number of Buddhist temples, as well as take a stroll through the beautiful Maruyama Park. A big thing to do in Kyoto is to rent a kimono to take photos, so although I didn’t partake we did get to enjoy seeing a lot of people dressed up. We got an early night on the first night with the intention of starting early the next morning to arrive to some of the more popular sites before crowds of fellow tourists and tour groups.
Our first stop the next morning was Kinkaku-ji. Also known as the “Golden Pavillion,” this stunning Buddhist temple features a pagoda that impressively lives up to the temple’s nickname. Just a short walk away was Ryoan-ji. This was probably my favourite of the many Buddhist temples we saw on our trip. It was expansive and peaceful, with a stunning zen rock garden at its centre. Tenryu-ji was our next stop, although at this point I was feeling a bit “templed out” and maybe wasn’t as impressed as I could’ve been. It was also incredibly crowded by this stage, so not as nice as the quieter locations earlier in the day. However, we also went to the Arashiyama bamboo grove nearby, where it was easy to get lost on the many winding paths through the bamboo and avoid the rest of the crowds. After a quick stop at Nijo Castle we headed back into the modern part of town for food and rugby-watching.
On our final day in Japan, we went to my favourite place of all. You’ve definitely seen photos of Fushimi-Inari Shrine, and if you’re considering a trip to Japan you’ve probably read that you have to arrive around 6am if you want a photo without masses of people in it. However, the real truth is that all you have to do to get your solitary moment is to climb a mountain. The shrine features thousands of torii gates, each donated by a business offering a prayer for prosperity, and they lead up the side of Mount Inari for about an hour’s worth of hiking. Most people stop shortly after the main shrine, close to the base, or at one of the turnoffs or viewpoints along the way, so by the time we reached the summit there were only a few others around. It’s beautiful, isolated, peaceful, and unforgettable. When we came back down, we went for one more sushi train lunch, picked up our luggage from our hotel, and jumped on the bullet train back up to Tokyo.
What we ate:
I will dream about the ramen at Ramen Sen No Kaze. We tried to go on our first night but unfortunately they had already sold out for the night some 45 minutes before closing, so we went in earlier around 4pm the next day. After taking a ticket from the reservation machine at the door and then darting inside to buy a couple of “patio beers” (pints of Kirin we could drink while waiting), we relaxed for just under an hour until our number was called. Inside, we quickly ordered, a rich pork broth soup for Steve (who up until this point didn’t like ramen, but was converted by this meal) and a lighter seafood stock for me, topped with heaps of veggies and soy sauce-marinated eggs. It was noodle heaven.
The other food highlight in Kyoto was Sushi no Musashi a conveyer-belt sushi restaurant in the JR Kyoto station. It was delicious, fresh (the place had high turnover but was busy the whole time so new dishes were constantly being added to the belt) and also the cheapest sushi we ate in Japan—our 17 (!) plates came to the equivalent of about 35 US dollars. While conveyer belt sushi isn’t a high-end eating experience, it’s really fun and a great way to try some different types of fish or rolls you haven’t had before.
For next time?
It will probably be a long time before we get to go to Japan again, unfortunately. This trip happened so conveniently with getting to see some of the Rugby World Cup, happening to be only a 10 hour flight from Toyko rather than the 15+ it’ll be from Ireland, and the timing of it generally just working out perfectly. However, this visit left me with a few ideas of the places I’d like to see next time, that maybe others who are planning a visit would be interested in:
- Climb Mount Fuji: the climbing season is short and had already finished for the year by the time we arrived, but I think next time we would definitely try to schedule our trip around it.
- Visit the cat islands: Tashirojima and Aoshima are famous for their huge colonies of stray cats. Sounds like the dream to me.
- Visit Hiroshima: I saw a lot of the ancient history side of Japan, but I’d like to see more about its more recent history and for obvious reasons Hiroshima is a notable place for that. Also it’s just meant to be a pretty cool and interesting city in general.
- See the cherry blossoms: Okay, to be honest I saw a lot of beautiful cherry blossoms when I lived in Seattle so this isn’t a huge priority for me, but if you haven’t had the chance to see clouds of pink petals then spring in Japan should be on your list.
- Dive in Okinawa: I recently went scuba diving for the first time in on my trip to Cairns, and I absolutely loved it. Okinawa is meant to be a great place to dive, so maybe I’ll get the chance someday.
- Visit Yayoi Kusama’s museum: I saw her The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra a while back and loved it. Unfortunately her dedicated museum in Tokyo was between exhibitions and closed when we visited. Next time.