Not even three weeks into my one-year stay and I’m already doing a Kyoto (京都) trip. Mandatory! Although this is my fourth time in Japan (日本), it is only my second in Kyoto. It felt great to get back to Kyoto Station (京都駅), my favorite train station so far.
I went together with my girlfriend and we had 4 nights booked at a beautiful hotel in the Gion (祇園) district. It was just two minutes away from the next train station and bus stops were also not far. I was really happy with the place and it made our Kyoto trip very relaxing.
I say relaxing but in reality, we walked all day every day. Got up early in the morning, bought an onigiri at the nearby Family Mart and jumped on the train or bus. It was good exercise but my feet weren’t ready.
Even though I felt exhausted at the end of every day, the hotel’s free public bath made up for that easily. In the four days, we hit nearly every major sight in Kyoto.
Let me give you a quick breakdown of each day and some useful tips to go along with it:
We started our Kyoto trip with an early 7:30 AM Shinkansen from Tokyo Station (東京駅) to arrive a little before 10 AM. After bringing our luggage to the hotel for them to keep, we started exploring.
First, we headed to the famous Nishiki Market in the middle of the city. It was only about 10 minutes on foot to get there from our hotel. We arrived just around 11 AM where most shops open. Even then, the masses of people were already insane. Because it is such a narrow space, you inevitably bump into people sometimes.
But the food that we got was worth the struggle. A huge crab stick for 400 Yen (3,31€/$3.64; exchange rate as of December 2019) for example. It was the first crab I ever tasted and it was very delicious. Smooth and sweet. Additional food included fresh Sashimi (刺身) and freshly baked Taiyaki (たい焼き) as well as Melon pan (bread).
After that, we headed towards Nijo Castle (二条城), which is about 20 minutes by foot from Nishiki Market. Being awake since 5 AM and traveling non-stop already started to be noticeable in my feet as we arrived at the castle.
Learning about the early Edo period
The castle was great. Before entering, you can already take stunning pictures of the towers and walls of the castle grounds. Upon walking up to the ticket booth, you can choose between just the gardens and also entering Ninomaru palace. In terms of price, it is a 400 Yen difference. I would highly advise you to go inside if you have even the faintest interest in Japanese history. Even if not, there are some beautiful artworks and architecture to see. Well worth it in my opinion.
You can learn how famous shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu used to reside here and hold his meetings with political officials and the likes.
Aside from Ninomaru palace, you can take a pleasant walk through the castle grounds. There is a second palace, Honmaru palace, which is currently under construction. The gardens around it are still beautiful though. There is also a traditional tea house where you can take a break and enjoy some fine Japanese tea and sweets.
If you’re into stamp collecting like myself, there is a stamp of the castle near the entrance and in the building where the souvenir shop is located.
The most scenic alley ever?
In order not to break our feet on the first day of our Kyoto trip, we decided to take the bus back to our hotel. The evening was starting to turn in and we started looking at dinner options. Luckily, the Pontocho (先斗町) valley was very close and we decided to take a look.
There is a great variety of restaurants available and we had a hard time deciding on one. A side note to vegan or vegetarian travelers: the Pontocho area is heavily dominated by meat and fish-based dishes, so it might be hard to find something to eat. I saw a few Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) or Yakisoba (焼きそば) restaurants but not much else. But it’s very scenic and maybe I missed something so you should still give it a try.
Gyukatsu turned out to be a really great dish that we got to enjoy. And with that it was time to call it a day for the first night.
Day 2 of our Kyoto trip
We started the next day with a glorious breakfast buffet provided by the hotel. Having eaten to our full, we ventured out to day 2 of insane amounts of walking. Just 5 minutes to the east of our hotel there was Maruyama park. I love this park as it’s spacious, full of interesting features, surrounded by shrines and temples and also, free to enter.
Starting off at Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社), we found ourselves in the middle of food stands that we did not expect. Luckily, I was still full from the buffet so I couldn’t throw all my money at them. Advancing further to the shrine’s main grounds, I caught a glimpse of the shrine staff writing Go-shuin seals for other visitors.
I had heard of it before but never thought about collecting them myself, until I saw this beautiful wooden Go-shuin-cho (book where the seals are written into). It was a special piece to commemorate the Gion Festival’s 1,150th year. “That’s insane!” I thought. After some brainstorming with my girlfriend, I decided to give it a go.
I bought the book with a price of 3,000 Yen (25€/$27) and my first Go-shuin with it. Feeling proud of my newfound hobby, I said my prayers and continued along to the rest of the park. As I am writing this, I have become completely hooked with collecting these stamps and have accumulated almost 20 of them.
Getting them from different shrines and temples throughout Kyoto, Kobe (神戸) and Tokyo (東京), they all come with a special memory attached to them. I’ll leave some pictures down below. If you’re also interested in starting a collection, look into the souvenir shops of temples and shrines, they usually have the most unique designs. Be prepared that it can tax the travel budget a bit though, as every seal usually costs either 300 or 500 Yen (2,48€/$2.73 – 4,13€/$4.55). With the book and a case for said book, I have already exceeded 10,000 Yen (83€/$91) for this hobby. Very much worth it for me though.
Random Oji-san appears
Strolling through the park, we took a little break upside of a hill. There, an older Japanese gentleman just came back from a hike and sat down next to us. Suddenly, he took out a map from his backpack and started talking to us about the park and surrounding hiking paths. He suggested we visit this huge 70 ton-bell just around the corner which is supposedly the biggest in all of Japan.
We would’ve clearly missed that if it wasn’t for the kind Oji-san. We followed the path he suggested and sure enough, there it was. In the night of the 31st December, this bell gets swung around for everybody to hear. There’s also a TV broadcast of it according to my girlfriend. The old gentleman told us they would swing the thing with about 15 people to achieve the loudest sound possible. Crazy!
Being astounded by this random encounter, we continued our way north towards a special little shrine my girlfriend really wanted to visit. On the way, we passed by Heian-Jingu with a huge red torii in front of it. It was incredible to witness it so closely. At this shrine, I got my third Go-shuin (my second one was at a temple near the bell). I was starting to get really into it.
Throwback to my first trip in 2017
Then we headed to the aforementioned shrine which is dedicated to the rabbit. The rabbit is my girlfriend’s favorite animal which is why we had to visit. And it was just as cute as I had imagined. The name of the shrine is Okazaki-shrine for anyone interested in visiting.
Up until this point, it was all footwork. Our next destination was farther north near Demachiyanagi Station, a place very special to me and my girlfriend. We decided to take the bus for that though.
Relaxing near the beautiful Kamo River brought back some fantastic memories. Afterwards, we had dinner at the nearby Torikizoku (yakitori (焼き鳥) chain restaurant) which me and my friend visited at least 4 times 2 years ago. Good times.
Takeaway on Part 1
So much for the first two days of our Kyoto trip. There are two more full days of Kyoto as well as half a day of Kobe that I will pack into a separate article. It was a really great adventure that we enjoyed very much.
Especially my new-found interest in Go-shuin collecting was a welcome surprise. This just goes to show that you can try to plan out your itinerary and expenses to the last detail and still find things that were unplanned. The beauty of travel.
I hope you enjoyed the first part of my Kyoto/Kobe trip. Part 2 is sure to follow shortly in January.
It’s the end of the year again! Time surely flies by fast. I hope you all had a great Christmas and I wish you all the best in the next year of 2020. It’s a new decade too!
See you around!