After a lovely overnight stay in Hakone we took the bullet train to Kyoto where we spent the next three nights. When planning our trip we both had a traditional tea ceremony high on our list of must do’s, so when we knew we were heading to Kyoto (the center of the Japanese tea ceremony world) we booked a private one hour experience at the beautiful Camellia Garden.
The whole experience was unforgettable – both extremely fascinating and a little bit awkward. Our hostess was absolutely lovely and spoke fantastic English. She welcomed us into the house and first explained the process she would go through in the ceremony before offering us a sweet treat. Eating a small sweet before drinking the tea is meant to make it even more delicious! We were then invited into the tea room which overlooked a pretty garden and sat down on the tatami mats. The ceremony itself is like a slow-motion choreographed ritual – each move the hostess makes is graceful and meticulous, down to the cleaning of the utensils and the whisking of the matcha. It was so interesting to watch and the matcha tea was delicious. We weren’t sure if we should take photos during the ceremony but managed to snap a couple but if you want to check out the website gallery there are some lovely photos here.
Camellia Garden is conveniently located just a short walk to Ryōan-ji – a Zen temple with beautiful gardens and a pond. The Zen temple garden features one of the finest surviving examples of kare-sansui (rock-garden) thought to have been built in the 15th century. It was a lovely place but at this stage we were lugging our backpacks around so we decided it was time to check into our Airbnb. Though I didn’t realise at the time we were so close to Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), one of the top sights in Kyoto, which we missed out on seeing due to a bit of poor planning on my side.
Our Airbnb was in a great location, directly across the road from the Rokkaku-do Buddhist Temple – said to be the birthplace of ikebana flower arrangement in Japan. This small urban temple is a nice retreat from the surrounding busy streets and had lovely cherry blossoms and many adorned statues to admire. That evening we headed over to the Kamo-gawa River in Gion where the surrounding canals were lined with cherry blossoms. The streets were crammed with people enjoying the sakura and the setting sun provided a super pretty backdrop for the pink and white blossoms. The Gion area is a popular area to hang out along the riverside, spot geishas and has a great selection of restaurants. We opted for one that specialised in Kobe beef – Japan’s prized, world-famous red meat. It was damn tasty and definitely worth the price tag.
On our second day in Kyoto we headed out to see the insta-worthy red torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine. Here thousands of gates line the hiking trails up towards the sacred Mount Inari. We got about halfway up before Andrew decided he was over all the tourists and the shuffling along the path. Supposedly from the top you can get some nice views over Kyoto.
Once back in central Kyoto we checked out the Ramen Koji on the 10th floor of Kyoto Station. This indoor ramen ‘street’ has 10 restaurants specialising in different regional varieties of ramen – aka HEAVEN. We visited twice while we were in Kyoto – once at Taishoken which has dipping ramen (cold noodles are served in a separate bowl and then dipped into a hot meat bone soup) and the second time we visited Shirakaba Sanson from the Sapporo region which specialised in a rich shiokoji miso broth. Both equally mouthwatering bowls of deliciousness 😛 The food definitely exceeded our expectations. I didn’t take any photos of the food but the station itself was quite impressive.
We next headed to the Nijō Castle, where we had failed to get in the previous day because we arrived too late in the day. Alas, well worth the wait. The grounds are lovely with extensive gardens (immaculately kept of course!) and the beautiful Ninomaru Palace which was built at the start of the Edo period in 1603 for the first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Palace is now a National Treasure as it is the only surviving example of a fortified palace complex. After a day of walking we visited the well known Ippodo tea shop and cafe for a sweet treat and matcha followed by dinner at a local restaurant near our Airbnb.
The following day we headed west out of the city to Arashiyama, a tourist hotspot due to the bamboo grove, monkeys and numerous temples & shrines. We started in the south at the Hōrin-ji Buddhist temple which had beautiful cherry blossoms and a great view over the Oi River to Arashiyama village. We then trekked up Mt. Arashiyama to the Monkey Park where around 150 wild Japanese macaque monkeys hang out. The monkeys freely roam the mountainside and there is a small caged room and souvenir shop where tourists can enter and buy food to safely give to the monkeys through the caged walls. Just be careful – they can get aggressive if you try to fool them into thinking you have food! Well worth the visit though.
Down in Arashiyama we were overwhelmed again with the number of tourists. We weaved our way through the crowds and found ourselves at Tenryu-ji Temple which was built in the 1300s. We decided to skip the entrance fee to the temple and opted to enjoy the surrounding gardens instead.
The star attraction of Arashiyama is the Bamboo Grove which I was really looking forward to. However, along with the red torii gates, we didn’t anticipate the sheer number of tourists visiting at this time of year. It was absolutely packed and again we had to try to enjoy the sights while shuffling along behind the crowds and dodging selfies. I still found the Grove impressive and once we started to explore a bit off the beaten track we found some nice areas to take a breather.
In need of some zen we headed back into Kyoto and spent the afternoon in the Imperial Palace. The north side of the gardens is a great spot for a picnic (or photo shoot) under the weeping cherry blossoms – we never got sick of seeing these pretty trees throughout our trip. Also apart from our first day of snow in Tokyo we had the most amazing run of warm, sunny weather on our trip so we enjoyed a nice lie down on the grass before heading inside the Palace grounds. This was the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family until the late 1800s, when the emperor and the capital moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. You cannot enter any of the buildings here but there is a numbered guided walk which takes you around the complex including the gardens.
That about sums up our 3 nights in Kyoto! At first we found Kyoto quite tricky to get around, definitely not as easy as in Tokyo, and were a bit off-put by the number of tourists here. But its charm quickly rubbed off on us and we really enjoyed our time. Still I think I preferred Tokyo with all its craziness 😛