Kyoto was part of a two week journey around Japan in November 2009, which also included travelling to Nagano, Tokyo, Yokohama and Numazu. We took the shinkansen or bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto and spent a few days there exploring the more traditional parts of the city on foot and occasionally taking the bus. Although there were plenty of tourists, it was still much more relaxing than Tokyo.
You can read more about this trip in my book a ‘traveleating’ journal: japan, which is now free on iTunes. It was originally created using Blurb to raise money for a Beijing-based charity. The text from the Kyoto chapter has been copied below:
Arashiyama is a renowned area of natural beauty to the west of Kyoto and extremely popular in the autumn for viewing the changing leaf colours. Best of all, it’s just a 15 minute train journey from Kyoto station. As the ryokan check-in time wasn’t until 2 pm, I thought it would be a good idea to arrive at Kyoto station, leave our bags in coin lockers and head out to see the famous symbol of Arashiyama, Togetsu-kyo, the wooden (and concrete) ‘Moon Crossing Bridge’, and wander through the giant bamboo forest.
I had also planned a shojin-ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) lunch at Tenryu-ji Temple ( set lunch menus cost￥3000, ￥5000 or ￥7000, plus ￥500 admission fee to the temple grounds), however they were already fully booked when my Japanese friend called to make reservations a month in advance. Arashiyama turned out to be very touristy, with coachloads of teenage schoolchildren everywhere. The best part was the bamboo forest, which would have been even more magical without the rickshaws and Japanese tour groups. I also came across an elderly lady selling a few of her possessions by the roadside and soon became the proud owner of a navy and orange vintage silk scarf that cost me the princely sum of ￥500. On the other hand, I took one look at Togetsu-kyo and was most unimpressed.
A simple but delightful lunch of kitsune udon, zaru soba and zaru udon saved the day. There are many restaurants lining the busy road where Tenryu-ji Temple is located, but somehow we managed to find one that didn’t have a single tourist, domestic or overseas – Aratozuki, (Tel: 075 882 9884) – towards the Togetsu-kyo end of the road.
Dinner had been booked at the 120 year old kaiseki restaurant Rokusei Nishimise (Tel: 075 751 6171, 71 Nishitenno-cho). Kaiseki ryori is Kyoto’s haute cuisine and should not be missed. Lunch at kaiseki restaurants, in the form of a luxurious bento box or set lunch, is more affordable. The formal meal follows a rigid structure, with multiple small dishes following each other in a traditional order. Fresh, seasonal ingredients are emphasised and much time is spent on each creation, hence the steep prices.
We settled on the Teoke Kaiseki set menu (￥ 7350 / £49) and the Hana set menu ( ￥8400 / £56). The ‘real’ kaiseki dinner menus were out of our price range (from ￥12,600 /£83.50 to ￥31,500 / £210), given that we had to stick to our two week budget. Strict instructions had also been conveyed in advance regarding the husband’s dietary requirements. It turned out that he had the better dining experience, while I was felled by a dish early on, of chawanmushi (egg custard) with suppon (soft shell turtle). It was one of the most bitter, foul-tasting dishes that I have ever eaten. However, please don’t let my experience of one dish deter you from a visit to Rokusei. All our friends, whether in Kyoto or Tokyo, had heard of it, and I would still highly recommend eating there. Just don’t nod when the server asks if you would like to try chawanmushi with suppon! My favourite part of the meal was the food served in the teoke (cedar wood pail) [previous page], which was used by Rokusei as a bento box to deliver lunch orders to customers in the old days. I also enjoyed the unusual duck in miso paste with raw duck liver.
Higashiyama or the Eastern Mountains is regarded as one of Kyoto’s most charming and well preserved areas. Although there is no escaping the swarms of tourists and schoolchildren, I rather liked Higashiyama. We certainly spent enough time in the area, eating both lunch and dinner there. The streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka on the way up to the popular Kiyomizudera temple are lined with restaurants and small shops selling specialist food products and arts & crafts. Kyoto is famous for pickles, snacks (rice crackers, cream puffs) and a million and one types of wagashi (exquisitely prepared traditional Japanese sweets) served with tea. I stocked up on shichimi togarashi, my favourite seven spice pepper, as well as a yuzu with pepper variety, at specialist shop Shichimiya (2-221 Kiyomizu). Established in 1655, it sells only shichimi togarashi and intricate, tiny containers for serving and storing it. The little packets make fantastic and easily transportable presents.
Lunch had been booked at Okutan, a famous yudofu ryori restaurant with a branch near Nanzenji temple and one in Higashiyama. We chose to go to the second branch (Tel: 075 525 2051, at the junction of Ninen-zaka street and Sannen-saka) as we had planned to visit Kiyomizudera temple later that day. Okutan is a veritable maze of tatami mat dining rooms, some of which are private. We were fortunate enough to be seated by the tranquil Zen garden. The restaurant attracts many visitors and celebrities, so advance booking is essential.
Yudofu is tofu cooked in a simple kombu (kelp) broth in a pot, then served in small bowls with hot soy sauce and chopped spring onion. It has become a Kyoto specialty because good quality tofu requires good quality water, which is abundant in Kyoto. We ordered the yudofu course ( ￥3150) and the special tofu course ( ￥4200). The only difference was that one consisted of a very silky-smooth tofu while the other had a slightly rougher, but still incredibly smooth, texture. Of course, Okinawan tofu is the most famous and priced accordingly. Preceding the yudofu courses were yam soup (as light as foam) [top right], sesame tofu with wasabi, grilled tofu with sweet miso and vegetable tempura. Each dish was delightfully light yet incredibly delicious and we left feeling we had eaten well but very healthily.
After that healthy lunch, we went to visit 400 year old Tenneiji Temple, which belongs to a friend’s family. We were shown around not only the spectacular gardens, which are open to the public, but also the interior, to which only relatives of people buried in the temple grounds have access.
We relaxed over a bowl of frothy matcha tea and marron wagashi (traditional Japanese sweet made with chestnut) and watched the temple owner hold a private flower arranging class. She also gave us tickets for the night opening of Kiyomizudera temple. The temple is usually closed at night, but we had arrived in Kyoto just in time for a special period of night openings at various temples to allow visitors to admire the autumn leaves in beautiful temple settings. At around 8.30 pm, Kiyomizudera wasn’t particularly packed, and the temple complex and grounds were so enormous that it was quite easy to wander around at our leisure.
The Philosopher’s Walk
The Philosopher’s Walk in eastern Kyoto is a 1.8 km tranquil stroll down a cherry tree-lined canal from Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) in the north to Nanzen-ji in the south, with various temples dotted along the route. As our ryokan was located nearer to Ginkaku-ji, we started at that end, fueling up with a couple of custard and matcha-filled brown rice cream puffs and a gigantic warm shichimi togarashi rice cracker. As we were about to start the walk, an elderly Japanese man on his bicycle approached us and proceeded to give us a lengthy description of how to find Honen-ji, with peaceful temple gardens, before apologising for his (perfect) English! Intrigued, we followed his directions and concluded that the gardens, which were free to enter, were most definitely worth a visit. The Philosopher’s Walk was one of my favourite parts of the Kyoto trip. We were lucky because it was wonderfully peaceful and we only encountered a few people along the entire route. I can imagine it’s equally pretty in spring time when visitors can admire the cherry blossom…
Nishiki Market is Kyoto’s famous food market, located one block north of Shijo-dori, running from Teramachi-dori on the east to Takakura-dori on the west. The market is entirely covered and there is just a narrow path down the middle, with stalls on either side, selling food from fish and seafood to tofu products and pickled vegetables. Kyoto’s restaurant chefs shop at Nishiki, as do the locals. The well-known Aritsugu knife shop is at one end of the market (the Kyoto friend who showed us around told us that when she gets married, she would like a set of Aritsugu knives from her father!). We spent some time in the shop but the space is small and the choices overwhelming. If you plan to buy a Japanese knife, do some research online on styles and prices before turning up.
There are also various small restaurants catering to shoppers, serving all kinds of food from noodles to sushi (I also remember researching a vegetarian restaurant that serves food cooked using the produce sold on its stall), and stalls selling tasty snacks such as okara (soymilk) doughnuts. When we visited on a Saturday around noon, locals were doing their food shopping and there were hardly any tourists around. The most crowded shop was in fact Aritsugu…
We ended up having lunch at Katsukura (Tel: 075 212 3581, Teramachi-dori), a famous tonkatsu chain, although I didn’t know this when I came across it by chance near one end of Nishiki market. It was very busy, but we didn’t have to wait too long before being shown to a table downstairs. Sitting at the modern chef’s counter on the ground floor would have been more fun though. I ordered 70g of the Yonesawa Sangen fillet cutlet ( ￥1280) and the husband had yuba (the skin by-product of tofu) and vegetarian croquettes. Fortunately, even in a tonkatsu restaurant there were non-meat options. We had to create our own tonkatsu sauce (no Bulldog brand here!) by grinding roasted sesame seeds with a pestle and mortar and adding a variety of condiments – yuzu in a thinner sauce, the standard sauce and a rich, thick one. This was then poured over the tonkatsu, which was unbelievably tender and succulent. Top ups of fresh finely shredded cabbage were available at any time, and there was a jar of delicious pickles at the table to eat with rice. This was an excellent meal, particularly because it was unplanned, and I would definitely go back. There are also branches of Katsukura in other parts of Japan.
After lunch, we did a spot of shopping around Shijo Kawaramachi, the shopping area located along a stretch of Shijo-dori and Kawaramachi-dori.
We discovered Eirakuya, an elegant shop dating back to the Edo period, selling wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets served with tea) and tsukudani (preserved vegetables and fish). The manager even invited us to sit down for tea and sample the products we wanted to buy, namely yuzu jam (a seasonal product which this year only started selling on 8 November), which was sublime. Eirakuya is the perfect place to select beautifully presented food gifts and souvenirs, and apart from stocking up on jam, we also bought some apple-based wagashi for friends.
I was pleased to find the main branch of Yojiya, the famous cosmetics shop at the corner of Hanamikoji-dori and Shijo-dori. Founded in 1904, its best-selling product is aburatorigami (facial oil blotting paper) dating from 1920, which actors and geisha traditionally used over their thick make-up. I stocked up on these as well as some tasty yuzu-flavoured lip balm. I also developed an obsession for tenegui and furoshiki (Japanese wrapping cloths) and must have bought around a dozen on the trip, mostly from a small chain called Raak (which includes Enveraak). Each shop sells different designs, so fans, be warned! There are a myriad of ways in which these cloths can be used, such as making tissue box covers, water bottle holders and bags. They can also be framed.
The day concluded with a stroll down Pontocho Alley, a traditional geisha entertainment area lined with tempting restaurants (to be visited on the next trip) before making our way back to Kyoto station to return to Tokyo, tired but happy…
A few things I missed
I had to drop many of the items on my wishlist, including day trips to nearby Osaka and Nara. It would also have been wonderful to spend the night at the Buddhist temple on Koyasan (a World Heritage site) and enjoy shojin-ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine). Most of all, I wanted to return to Kobe, where I had one of the most memorable meals ever, a simple and spectacular dish of buttery Kobe beef.
Owari-ya is one of the oldest soba-ya (soba restaurant) in Kyoto, having been in business for nearly 550 years. Located near Kyoto Imperial palace, it is open from 11:00-18:30 and closed on Wednesdays.
Toji Temple market is supposed to be the best for vintage Japanese crafts, and also offers street food. It takes place on the 21st of each month.
Fushimi Inari shrine (2 hour hiking trail) – located just outside JR Inari Station, the second station from Kyoto on the JR Nara Line. The train ride takes 5 minutes and costs ￥140 from Kyoto Station.
Having last visited Kyoto over 20 years ago, and with hardly any recollection of it, I decided to buy Diana Durston’s Old Kyoto, a small guide to all the traditional artisan shops, ryokan and restaurants that are unfortunately dwindling in this fast-changing city. Although the book was written in 1986, it was reprinted a few years ago and many travellers to Kyoto swear by it. I found Rokusei and Okutan through the book, as well as some of the shops I visited.
As Kyoto was added to the schedule at the last minute (six weeks is last minute for me!), I had a minor panic trying to find a hotel as most of the ryokan were fully booked for the two nights that I wanted. The ryokan I had my eye on were also very expensive, but on the other hand, we didn’t want to stay in a business hotel.
It was a relief when The Three Sisters Inn Annex informed us that they could accommodate us. Run by three sisters, it’s a five minute walk from Heian Shrine, with no meals included, plus a private bathroom (essential for us). The annex caters for non-Japanese visitors only, while the main inn has been around for fourteen generations, although I only discovered all this after making the booking. It was clean and basic with friendly staff, but if you’re looking for an authentic or luxury ryokan experience, then this isn’t it.
Two nights for 2 people cost ￥36340 (£245) in total.
The Three Sisters Inn Annex
Tel: 81 (0)75 761 6333
Fax: 81 (0)75 761 6335
For more information on Kyoto accommodation, try the useful Kyoto Visitors’ Guide. The ryokan and hotels are organised by area, which is great if you’re not familiar with Kyoto. I used this site for all my accommodation research. And book as far in advance as possible, as Kyoto is really popular with visitors.