T’was the most wonderful time of the year. No, I don’t mean Christmas, although Christmas is inherently wonderful; but the fact that I went on a little trip to Japan not long ago! Little, because there were so many places left unseen due to the insanely tight schedule. I was more than satisfied, though, with the places that we did get to see – in less than a week we left footprints (a lot of them, there was a lot of walking) over 3 cities.
As the job of chief researcher/itinerary planner inevitably landed upon my shoulders, I spent the month prior to the trip reading up on countless blogs, travel books, GoogleMaps and Japanese websites I couldn’t read. And after an infinite amount of typing, re-typing, adding/subtracting attractions and compromise; I finally came up with a detailed itinerary for all days except for one. Even as we left for Japan I still couldn’t decide whether to visit Nara or Uji as a day trip from Kyoto.
Day 1 – arriving in Japan. Kansai airport -> Kyoto
Upon arrival at Kansai airport, we managed to navigate the way to the JR ticket booth, as we were taking the HARUKA train to Kyoto (¥1600). We hurriedly purchased hot tea from the vending machines on the train platform before jumping onboard, as we hadn’t experienced a ‘real winter’ in quite some time. Side note: vending machines in Japan are awesome. Although it’d been an early start to the morning, I couldn’t bear to close my eyes on the scenery outside – industrial, then countryside, with mountains and fields and creeks and the clear sky. It was all very exciting and different. In a few hours, the train stopped at Kyoto Station. At that point we were starting to get hungry, but I was insistent on eating at the famous Nishiki Market, so we bought a one day bus ticket (¥500) and headed to the hotel. After what seemed like hours of getting lost in the drizzling rain, we finally made it to the hotel and checked in our luggage. We took another bus to the nearby Nishiki Market.
The market was a long street lined with small shops on both sides, mostly selling preserved food but also cooked food. Eating as we walked, we had croquettes (in curry, corn and matcha flavours), strawberry mochi, matcha egg tart and whatever else we wanted to try out along the way. At the end of the street was a small temple, the first of many we encountered in Kyoto.
Now that we were full and no longer borderline hangry, we were ready to make our way to one of the most famous, if not the most famous temple in Kyoto – Kiyomizu temple. Again we took advantage of the bus pass and got off at Kiyomizu-michi, the long ascending road on the way to the temple itself. Along the way several souvenir and touristy shops caught our attention, but as we wanted to catch the sunset, we hurried along.
I had been worried that as it was the middle of the winter and neither maple leaves or cherry blossoms were in season, the photos wouldn’t be able to capture the beauty of the area. Fortunately, the skies still looked dramatic and moody due to the time of day. I finally was visiting this place I’d only seen in postcards and books. It was, without being hyperbolic, epic and humbling in its scale and grandeur. Despite the masses of tourists, I was still transfixed by the perfect view of the architecture among natural scenery.
The sun had mostly set by the time we’d made our way around the temple and was heading back down the mountain. The lights were starting to come on in the shops, and I thought I was in a scene in Spirited Away at certain points. We bought the highly recommended oil-absorbent paper from a shop that also sold quite a selection of matcha-flavoured sweets (some of which, regrettably, I left in the hotel fridge).
On the way back, we somehow caught the wrong bus (?) and ended up in the place I was hoping to be Gion but wasn’t – it was dark and scary. After much getting lost for the second time that day, we eventually decided to just have dinner close to our hotel at a place I remembered bloggers liking. It was one of those restaurants where it was okay if you didn’t know any Japanese (like we did) as you only had to purchase a meal ticket from the machine and everything would be delivered to the table. We both ordered pork katsu with rice, it was a pretty standard but filling meal. After dinner I had to call it a day from the exhaustion, and went back to the hotel.
Day 2 – Arashiyama & Inari!
To start the day off I took a relaxing bath in the public bath downstairs in the hotel, knowing we had a long day ahead of us again with plenty of walking. As it was quite early in the morning, I had the place all to myself 🙂 We made our way to the bus stop close by the hotel, and were en route to Arashiyama. It would’ve been marginally faster by the special tram, but hey, you bet I was going to take full advantage of the bus pass. One thing we noticed about buses in Kyoto, the bus drivers, in their full train conductor uniform and fitted with a microphone, would announce every time the bus started, as well as the name of every stop. If I learned any Japanese at all that week, it was all the stop names along Shijo. Anyway, we arrived at Arashiyama, right infront of Tenryuji Temple. It wasn’t particularly early in the morning, around 9am, but I was shook to say the least, that there was barely a soul in sight near the temple. Like, it was kinda creepy. Especially since all the photos I’d seen of the famous temple indicated otherwise, that there’d be tourists upon tourists fighting each other to get a good shot of the garden. Guess how easy it was for us to take pictures of the unobstructed garden?
I mean, it was literally the picture of tranquility. We even had a picnic there, admiring the wintery garden. I was completely in my habitat there, as I was most of the time in Kyoto to be honest. Anywhere besides the city centre just had this ‘zen’ vibe to it, the quietness and stillness being the ultimate stress relief.
Through the north gate of the temple, we came to the equally famed bamboo forest. #photoop
On the long way back to the Togetsu-kyo Bridge, we walked past several small shrines (even one dedicated to hair!), a railway crossing, a pond, persimmon trees and a school. We walked and walked and walked, paying no attention to the growing weight of our backpacks or the time or our sore feet. Finally we arrived at the main street that was meant to be packed with tourists. Again, we were the first in line for anything we wanted to buy (matcha latte, a dessert that had red bean paste inside a mochi parcel). Random side note, up to that point in the trip, every single toilet we went to (and it was a lot, since it was winter and we were drinking a lot of matcha) was one of those fancy automatic ones with warmed seats – Japan. After taking a few photos on the bridge (it would’ve been stunning had we gone a few weeks earlier during maple season, but it was still pretty and very clean, so there’s that).
We took a bus back to the city area, where we had the most expensive meal in the entire trip. I mean, it wasn’t like it was a 10000 yen eel bento or anything, but it was pree dang good for our budget. It was a wagyu set, with rice and soba noodles, miso soup and little side dishes. After lunch, we shopped a bit in the area, as it was full of malls and cool shops like the Disney store (where I had to exercise all the self-control I had and not buy all the plushies).
And then we came to Kyoto Station to catch the train to Inari, with the famous infinite red gates (we mistakenly took the express train which didn’t stop at Inari and had to take another back, sigh).
I knew there’d be a ridiculous number of torii gates, but I had no idea just how long it would go on for. I couldn’t really take a photo of dense rows of gates as it was pretty tourist-heavy, and my legs were too tired to walk all the way up to where there wouldn’t be as many people. But that’s okay, I’m just a tourist not a professional photographer. That day we ate bento for dinner that we bought in Kyoto Station.
Day 3 – a jam-packed day
Day three was one of the most tiring in terms of walking distance, but fun in terms of the variety of experiences. In my itinerary, the first place I wanted to go was the traditional crafts museum, as it was on the way to other attractions later that day. But when we got there in the basement of a larger building… there was zero people, not even any employees. We freaked out (lol) and decided to go to the temple opposite it.
HOW do the Japanese keep everything and everywhere so clean!? I mean, there are trees and tourists everywhere, surely there’d be at least one piece of rubbish or a leaf? But no, because this is Japan, and there’s no such thing as litter.
As if I wasn’t shocked enough at the negative signs of uncleanliness at the temple, when we decided to go to the zoo I was sure I was looking at an elementary school. With its two-storey buildings and an unassuming entrance, Kyoto Zoo is legit the cleanest place I’ve ever been, and it’s a zoo for goodness sake.
We spent a good part of the morning there, the highlight being an experiment with the chimpanzees where if they could complete a numerical sequence on a computer screen, they got a treat. We must have spent upwards of 20 minutes staring, giggling at the young male chimp banging the treats delivery device when it wouldn’t budge.
On the bus we hopped again; this time headed to our next destination: Nanzenji. A short 5 minute walk from the bus stop, we arrived at the temple, which was just as hushed and still as any you could find.
I’m sure there was more to the temple’s surroundings then we were able to cover, but I wanted to save energy for the upcoming stroll to/on Philosopher’s Path, so decided to continue onwards.
The above picture was taken on the way to the much anticipated Philosopher’s Path – a little movement from the running water amongst the vast tranquility. On the way (and it was quite a way), we passed by a boy’s school where the students were apparently having timed runs. It was interesting to say the least to see them all in short sleeves while I was in my puffiest jacket and still freezing my ass off, lol.
At last we arrived on the Path itself, or I thought we did as there was no signs, but I recognised the stoney path alongside the creek I’d seen in pictures. As you can tell, it was completely deserted of people – we probably saw all of 5 people all the way from Nanzenji to the end of the very long Path. What’s up, supposedly touristy place? Anyway, my companion’s extreme case of hangriness whilst walking along the Path took away some of the enjoyment (I was quite hungry too, but come on, this is IT), and I had to constantly search for any signs of food/restaurant. Perhaps it wasn’t the right time to go after all, as I only found ONE open cafe near the end of the Path. It was slightly overpriced, as expected, but I was more than grateful for the warmth from the heater and matcha latte.
A little while later, we came to the end of the Path, where its name was etched onto a rock (how funny would it be if it turned out I was walking the completely wrong path next to some random river?). And what do we find there? Tons of vendors selling food. Sigh. If only we kept walking for a few more minutes/had wifi to see where we were on the path. Anyway, the reason why there were actual people now, finally, is that we’d arrived at the doorsteps of Ginkakuji, or Silver Pavilion.
In retrospect, it was probably my favourite of the countless temples and shrines we visited in Kyoto. The main temple building itself is nothing spectacular, just a neat humble thing, but together with the Japanese garden and perfectly raked sand garden: I wanted to retire there right then.
The designated path took us around and above, a little winding road with view of the temple peeking out from the dense plantation. It was deeply satisfying to the soul and spirit.
We then took a bus to Gion District, where we meant to go on the first day but got lost on the way.
*Dramatic chicken temple with weird lighting!* It was around new years’… and it’s the year of the rooster… therefore chickens on everything. Anyway, it was finally a place with lots of tourists, but we didn’t look around that much – we had our eyes on the cheesecake shop adjacent to the temple before we went in, because, priorities. It’s called Pablo cheesecake shop, its signature being the half-baked oozy cheesecake (although because of the cold it didn’t ooze when we cut into it first thing after going back to the hotel, whatever, it was still amaze).
A must-visit in Gion is Hanamikoji, a famous geisha district. Supposed to be, anyway, I don’t think we saw any real ones that weren’t tourists in costume. It was lined with what I could tell were high-end restaurants, and little craft shops. Side note: aren’t Japanese houses so aesthetically pleasing?
After that we walked around a bit in the rest of Gion, but as our legs were ready to fall off any second, we thought it best to retire to the hotel first before dinner. We still hadn’t had authentic Kyoto ramen, so I looked up the best ramen that was close to us, which happened to be near Nishiki Market, a restaurant called Kyoto Gyoto. It was apparently famous for its ‘burnt’ ramen, so we ordered one with soy, another miso.
As it was my first time having real authentic ramen in Japan, I feel like I wasn’t able to fully appreciate it. Obviously it was bomb: perfectly cooked noodles in salty deep flavourful broth; and it was just the regular (they had regular then ‘upgraded’ but I didn’t know what the difference was other than more pieces of char siu). The ramen itself was pretty cheap, I’ve had just okay ramen in Australia for more; but the service fee was… 800 yen per person, almost the same as the meal itself. I get that the waiters spoke pretty good English, and were pretty cute, so… all is forgiven.
Day 4 – all the deers!
The day we’ve all been waiting for… the day we get bombarded with 1000’s of passive aggressive deers…
That morning, I finally decided we would go to Nara instead of Uji, mostly for the deer pictures obviously. So we went on our way to Kyoto Station again, and hopped on a train bound for Nara, which is about as far as Osaka.
I’ll spare you the details, here is the cuteness:
I mean, just look at those sassy faces *cries*. We got attacked from all directions by the furry fiends, I mean, angels, whenever we were too slow with the deer biscuits. They’d headbutt us or follow us for literally kilometres (the park is huge) up the hill. I was especially partial to the young, shy ones that would hide behind the lamps and poke their heads out tentatively to test the waters/taste the biscuits. There were SO many! They were in the souvenir shops, in and around the temples, and every direction in the park. They were impossible to get sick of, I saw a blogger who said Nara isn’t really worth visiting if you’re not all that into deers. Trust me, you will be into them. How can you not be? Anyways, after a ton of walking, we made it back to the station, and from there, back to Kyoto.
As it was only early/mid afternoon, I thought it’d be nice if we visited one last temple before leaving Kyoto the next morning. Of course, it had to be the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji. Much juxtaposed to the Silver version, the temple itself was instantly impressive, with the gold foil covering its exterior reflecting the sunlight and into the pond.
That’s easily one for the postcards, methinks. By the way, almost all the temples we visited in Kyoto had an entrance fee of 300-800 yen. Every cent (yen?) was completely worth it, as it was all invariably and impeccably clean, with stunning views to spare.
And… that’s a wrap for Kyoto! I will be back, very soon, I hope ❤
Day 5 – Universal Studios!
After spending all that time in relative nature and peace, it was time to immerse ourselves in a manmade playground. Needless to say, we were beyond hyped to be going to USJ and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.We made our way to our hotel right in front of the park, checked in our luggage, and was in line at about 10am.
I was so pleased we did decide to go on Friday, instead of Saturday, as we didn’t have to draw timed tickets to go to Harry Potter world. Also, as we found out all day, there wasn’t much of a queue in comparison to the reports I’d seen online of people lining up for 3 hours for the major rides. Of course, we raced to Harry Potter first thing, oh the power of childhood nostalgia.
After passing through a forest (not without suspenseful music) and Ron’s blue car, we were at the entrance to Hogsmeade! It was literally magical and everything I ever dreamed. We took pics with the Hogwarts Express conductor, saw the enormous lines for Butterbeer and shook our heads, and sprinted for the castle, inside which was the Forbidden Journey ride. It was the longest we had to queue all day, which was about an hour, but along the queue were cool replicas props and sets from the stories (such as the greenhouse), so it was an attraction in itself. When we finally made our way into the castle, I was buzzing. There wasn’t a line inside, so we quickly walked past the dimly lit Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore’s office, the animated portraits and the Sorting Hat on our way to the ride.
The ride itself was a 3D simulation ride (idk what else to call it, basically you move around in the seat and the visuals make it seem like you’re moving a lot faster than you really are) through the castle, forbidden forest, Quidditch field and the lake. It was a blast! At the end of the ride was the gift shop, where it was mandatory that you went crazy. I only bought a Marauders’ Map towel and sorting hat keyring. #budgetconscious
We lingered a bit more; mostly checking out each of the shops like Zonko’s and Ollivander’s – little me was crying and laughing at the same time.
Finally we did leave The Wizarding World of HP and went looking for the popular rides, the first of which being the Flying Dinosaur. Okay, so I’d only been on a rollercoaster once, and it wasn’t a particularly good one, so I was a little chicken about flying face down and sometimes even stomach up at ridiculous speeds. But it was insanely fun, even if my hair got completely messed up and my stomach felt a little weird afterwards.
Next up were the Jaws ride and the ride where you speed towards the water from a great height and get all wet. The Jaws boat tour was… interesting haha and actually scary. Then we went to see a show, because you have to see a show about horror/Beetlejuice whenever the opportunity arises. Somewhere in between was another rollercoaster ride, Hollywood Dream, which was fun also, but it ain’t the Flying Dinosaur. And then was the parade (it was their 15th anniversary), and the Spiderman ride which was 3D like the HP one, which had spiders in it too.
When it started to get dark, I decided we had to see Hogwarts Castle at night. So we went, and this time we just charged straight in, no line at all. After a second time on the ride, we went on the Ollivander’s tour where a lucky cute kid got a free wand (which otherwise cost 3900 yen).
We left USJ at closing time; it was truly a day well spent! For dinner we had hot soba noodles and went back to the hotel (which was super nice, btw).
Day 6 – Dotonbori & shopping
Up to this point in the trip we hadn’t really had much time to go shopping, so for the last day I designated most of the time to shopping in Osaka. I’d planned to visit Osaka Castle as well, but we just couldn’t stop lol. Oh well, there’s always a next time.
We spent almost the entire day at Shinsaibashi-suji, an endless row of shops selling everything from makeup, clothes, accessories, food, tea, you name it. We mostly shopped at pharmacies (crazily cooling eyedrops! foot masks!), food/snacks shops (matcha-flavoured everything!), and most importantly for us, stationery shops (cheap pens! sushi origami paper! sushi erasers!)
As if that wasn’t enough, we also stopped by Rinku Outlet prior to arriving at Kansai Airport. (Gap hoodies! Nike for cheap! Le Creuset!)
Oh, for lunch we had to have okonomiyaki and takoyaki in Dotonbori. It was made right infront of us (every table had a heated teppanyaki surface) and it was so filling and amazing.
That’s it! I’ve finally recounted in full my much anticipated trip to Japan, which I will forever hold dear to my heart. I leave with you a photo of a raccoon family huddled together: