Ok, so I’ve officially been back from Japan for a little while now, and it’s time to start giving you recommendations. First off, our first stop on this trip: Kyoto! It was not my first choice in where to start, but due to a screw up in planning on my part, it was where made most sense, and turned out to be a very chill start to our trip, even if we did have some issues in getting there which I’ll discuss at a later date.
In Kyoto we stayed in a lovely little Airbnb that was very traditional – tatami mats, futons, no shoes once you crossed the threshold. And I figured out before we got there that it was in a great part of town – close to a lot of the touristy spots, and very walkable to the subway system, but in an area of that same zone that was a lot less trafficked. It sleeps ## people, and was cheaper than we would have paid for two hotel rooms in a comparable area. It sleeps 4 big people, and is baby friendly (though does have a very steep staircase, so…) and I would highly recommend it. If you want me to send you the listing, I’d be happy to share.
Nijo Castle – On our first day (and one of Ben and Nicole’s last days) in Kyoto, we all met up to visit Nijo-jo, a World Heritage Site castle from the 17th century that was the home to Shoguns who ruled Japan until 1867. The grounds have two palaces on them, one of which (the Honmaru Palace) was closed for repairs during our visit. But the grounds are large and lovely with many old structures and beautiful gardens for exploring. You don’t want to miss walking through the main Ninomaru Palace with its gold leaf murals and nightingale floors which squeak and sing like little birds as you walk along – not originally a security feature (as we learned), but a relic of the way that the floors were made without nails! [Open daily 8:45am – 4pm; 541 Nijo-jo-cho, Horikawa-nishi-iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto City; 600¥ for adults, 350¥ for ages 12-17, 200¥ for ages 5-10, free for 4 and under]
Nishiki Market – From Nijo-jo we walked towards Nishiki Market, one of the large open markets in Kyoto which is renowned for its specialty shops and food stalls. We all stopped in one for lunch which had grilled meat on sticks, sandwiches, and delicious omelette/pancake things. We also tried a variety of other foods including takoyaki (hot fried squid balls), kobe beef, and jian dui (fried dough balls filled with bean paste or cheese, coated in sesame seeds). We also visited the shrine at the market (our first shrine fo the trip), and Ben and Nicole showed us the proper way to wash your hands and clean your mouth in preparation for visiting. We also stopped in at a sushi restaurant for a late day snack (can’t find it on the map because…Japan), and introduced E to a non-tuna kind of sushi (which she claims is her favorite food). Turns out that when you’re 10, sometimes it’s too fishy, and when we let her order tuna rolls again, she was much happier. The market is a great place to spend some time and try foods out – you spend an hour here or a day, but chances are it will be crowded whenever you visit. [Open daily 9:30am – 6pm; Japan, 〒604-8054 Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, 富小路通四条上る西大文字町609番地; FREE]
Kiyomizu-dera – One of the advantages of having a baby who wakes up at the crack of dawn, and then also of being jet lagged is that you wake up early, and can beat the crowds to the various popular tourist destinations. Case in point – we got to the Buddhist Kiyomizu Temple around 7:30 in the morning with a few other early risers, and were able to get pictures of the various buildings without masses of people being in the pictures. By the time we left around 9am, there were masses of school groups being guided by teachers up the hill to the temple. The lesson here is go early, or go with literally everyone else. It’s a bit of a hike uphill to get to the temple, but because of this, it has lovely views of the city. The temple grounds are lovely, and the spaces are so serene. The main building was under construction while we were there, so I didn’t get any of the iconic photos of it looking out over the view of the city in the background. We had to leave in a hurry when Baby B started shrieking, but again – this was just as the school groups began to arrive, so lucky timing? [Open daily 6am – 6pm, with occasional late closings at 9pm; 294 Tatsumichō, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, 605-0862, Japan; 300¥ for ages 12 and up, 200¥ for ages 5-11, free for 4 and under]
Maruyama Park – A large park on the northern end of the Higashiyama Ward, it is home to beautiful cherry blossoms, lovely park spaces, and a number of temples and shrines – most notably Yasaka-jinja and Chion-in. We didn’t have time during our trip to go in to either of these, but we did walk through on our way back from Kiyomizu-dera, and we stumbled across an open-air art exhibit by local university students, and Nicole had told us about a lantern festival which happened right around the time we got to Kyoto. There are food stalls and restaurants in the park, and it’s supposed to be a lovely place for a picnic, and I can definitely see that being true. [Open 24 hours daily; 4 6 3 Maruyamachō, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, 605-0071, Japan; FREE]
Kinkakuji (website is in Japanese, but do Google Translate) – This gold-leafed temple is located in what was once the summer estate of the Shogun just outside of central Kyoto. The grounds are lovely, and the shining temple sits on a small lake where it reflects serenely. There are a lot of tourists here, and everyone is striving to get a good picture of themselves with the beautiful temple in the background. It’s important to note that this location is not easy to get to unless you take a taxi/car, or else are willing to spend some time on a bus. But it’s a fun place to visit, and we enjoyed seeing the temple, and then learning about the grounds and some of Kyoto history and culture from our guide (more on that at the end of the post). [Open daily 9am – 5pm; 1 Kinkakujichō, Kita-ku, Kyoto, 603-8361, Japan; 400¥ for ages 15 and up, 300¥ for ages 5-14, free for 4 and under]
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – So, this is really just a giant Bamboo farm, and every few years, different portions are harvested. But because bamboo grows so quickly (3-5 feet in a year), the grove doesn’t seem to be diminished ever. Instead, you wander along a path where the bamboo towers over you, and you feel so, so small. It’s become popular in recent years because of Instagram, but with good reason – it’s beautiful and awe-inspiring. Another location where you’re probably better off going early if you can manage it to avoid the crowds, but we were there mid-afternoon, and it wasn’t so bad (only difficult part was for our guide to find a place to park his car!) [Open 24 hours daily; Sagatenryuji Susukinobabacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8385, Japan; FREE]
Fushimi Inari – Remember my post saying that I was on vacation from a couple weeks back? The pathway of orange gates? That iconic photo (and the so many you’ll see like it here and everywhere online) are Fushimi Inari, which is a large complex of shrines. Nicole and I agree though – this space is exactly as amazing as you think it will be. Walking through the gates, and climbing to the top of the mountain are wonderful experiences. Though if you’re planning on climbing to the top, be aware that the large map that appears everywhere on the grounds is not to scale, and is instead meant to highlight the different shrines along the way. The summit climb is hard, but we were all able to do it, even with a grouchy 10 year old and carrying a baby. Another location to get to as early as you can – we arrived at 8:30am, and maneuvered our way in front of various school groups, which meant we could actually get pictures that seemed “empty” like the one above. But remember that this is another sacred space, and to be respectful of those who are actually visiting for spiritual reasons. [Open 24 hours daily; 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchichō, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, 612-0882, Japan; FREE]
International Manga Museum – If you have any interest in manga or anime at all, want to chill with a nice book for a while andor maybe explore the genre for the first time, this is a MUST DO in Kyoto. The museum is dedicated to preserving and promoting the manga art form as a story telling mechanism. Every book on their wall-to-floor shelves across 3 floors is meant to be taken off the shelf and read by visitors. There are several plush reading rooms and an outdoor courtyard where patrons are encouraged to take a stack of reading material and plop themselves down for a while. Highlights include the history room, detailing the surprisingly long history of the medium (and all the cultural politics that have influenced it/been influenced by it, too), professional artist demonstrations and technique highlights, and all-ages workshops where you can try your hand at manga illustration. The museum is great for kids of all ages. Depending on your interest level in manga, Nicole recommends at least 2 hours just to get through and see everything, up to half a day if you want to read and recharge or participate in any workshops. If you want to get a custom portrait done, you’ll need to check the schedule online, and sign up for a time slot when you arrive. [Open 10am-5:30pm, closed on Wednesdays; Japan, 〒604-0846 Kyoto, Nakagyō-ku, Kinbukichō, 御池上ル (元龍池小学校 Karasuma Dori; 800¥ for adults, 300¥ for ages 12-17, 100¥ for ages 5-11, free for ages 4 and under]
Gekkeikan Sake Museum – There are few sake varieties sold in the US, so if you’ve ever bought some, odds are good it was Gekkeikan. They are a sake powerhouse with a very long tradition in Kyoto. This small museum walks you through the traditional way sake was made and some of the ways sake brewing has intertwined with national history and politics over the years. The English signage can be a bit confusing but if you can figure it out, provides a good understanding of the process. The museum is interesting and worth the admission – it includes a tasting of 4 or 5 high quality sakes and a decent size bottle of mid-grade sake to take with you. You can take a tour of the actual brewery next door for an extra fee, but it requires a reservation made a day in advance, which can only be done over the phone. The receptionists have little English skills so unless you can have someone call to make the reservation for you, it’s difficult to arrange. [Open daily 9:30am-4:30pm; 2 4 7 Minamihamacho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, 612-8043, Japan; 400¥ for adults]
Did you know that Uber Eats works in Japan? We didn’t until we went looking for dinner on our first night in Kyoto only to discover that so many places were unexpectedly closed (curse you Google!) or else were so tiny and unable to accommodate our relatively large group of 4 + baby. And as we approached baby bedtime, we made a decision to try and get something delivered if possible, at which time the Boy discovered that Uber Eats worked, and that there were some not completely terrible options available to us. We ordered from a placed called Men ya Nishiki (or that’s how it was listed in the app – I think it’s this one?) and ordered udon noodles, which arrived on a motorbike (of course) in parts that we all had to assemble – noodles in a bowl, containers of hot broth, packets of different toppings. It was surprisingly good and filling. So the lesson here is that if you are stuck somewhere and can’t get to a restaurant while traveling (say, if you have a baby), doing Uber Eats is a non-terrible way to try local establishments.
Inoda Coffee – I’d heard that Inoda was a fabulous place to get coffee in Kyoto, so on our first morning in town, when the Boy needed caffeine and we all needed breakfast, we made our way to an Inoda location halfway on our walk to Nijo Castle. When we got there at 8:45-ish, there was already a bit of a line, but it moved quickly. Somehow we all managed to order the same thing – french toast – but with the adults ordering hot beverages for ourselves, and the girls trying out more exotic juices, we ended up enjoying it thoroughly. Japanese french toast turns out to be lighter and fluffier, with more sugar – more like a pastry than a bread-based breakfast item, but very tasty, and a good starter. Baby B was an object of interest for the other (Japanese) diners, and even she ended up loving the vegetable juice a lot, to the point where she became very upset when it was gone. [This location open 7am-7pm, other locations with different hours; Japan, 〒604-8118 Kyoto, Nakagyō-ku, Dōyūchō, 三条下ル道祐町1 4 0 Sakai-machi Dori; locations across Kyoto and Japan.]
Grocery Store/Convenience Store Dinner – After eating all afternoon at the market, we were in no hurry to have dinner, and yet the baby would still need to go down to sleep at her regular time, so we were kind of stuck – what to do? We decided to visit the local grocery store and convenience stores, and see what kind of options we had as far as prepared or convenience meals, and we ended up all choosing instant ramen type bowls. It was amazing the kind of variety that was available in the stores there, and since none of us speak Japanese, and the Google Translate app isn’t that great with packaging we sort of just chose things based on the pictures on the package and what seemed fun. H chose a “UFO” bowl that ended up being the most complicated to make, but really yummy. The rest of our noodles were merely satisfactory, but you really couldn’t beat the price of a few dollars per bowl. The Boy and I also took advantage of single beers on sale and grabbed some Japanese beers to try while we ate. An excellent solution to a problem that many internationally traveling families may face, and one made easier by the fact that our AirBnB had a kitchenette area in which to prepare all these items!
Starbucks @ Machiya – Yes, Starbucks, but not like one you’ve seen before. Down a quiet street with older traditional buildings is a Starbucks hiding in plain site. There’s a sign on the outside, but a strange set of doors that ask you to only use them for entering, and another that are only for entering. On the inside the seating areas are more quiet and closed off, many with seating low to the ground on tatami mats, or behind a paper screen. You’ll need to get in early (or get lucky!) to get one of these traditional style seats upstairs. We weren’t lucky enough for that, but we did have sit in a lovely quiet alcove that looked over a rocky sort-of-cave area. Which – !!! If you go to Starbucks in Kyoto, make it this one. [Open 8am – 8pm; 高台寺南門通下河原東入桝屋町349番地, Masuyachō, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, 605-0826, Japan]
102 Old River – We had decided to get lunch at a restaurant across from where we were staying, but when we crossed the street found that despite the opening times listed on Google Maps, we had been foiled again, and it wasn’t open. We didn’t have time to go far since we were meeting our guide, so we wandered into the nearby market area, and walked past a restaurant which our AirBnB host had placed materials for in the home. We were a little skeptical walking in to find a very small space that seemed more like someone’s living room than a restaurant, and an English menu that seemed like it would be very bland. But it turns out only the descriptions were boring – the food itself was delicious and relatively traditional (except for the ketchup noodles (!!!) that E ordered), and many of our lunches came with both tofu and a small bowl of miso. The food was filling and tasty, and the chef and proprietor were both so kind to us – the only western people in the shop – when we were ordering. Another situation in which having an adorable baby helped break the ice. This was where we learned that B loves both tofu AND miso soup! [Open 9am – 6pm, closed Sundays; 5 6 7 Inarichō Kitagumi, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, 605-0068, Japan]
Musoshin – This was one of the ramen places that we tried to go to on our first night in Kyoto but which was too small for us, so on a night which we had planned better, we all trooped down to Gion for dinner at an early time (like, 5:15) in hopes of beating the crowds. We did, but just barely. We walked into Musoshin, and all sat at the counter (baby sitting on the Boy and my lap alternatively), and ordered using their super cool ticket system. I got this insanely delicious Black Gion Ramen, which was made black using black sesame but was creamy and delicious. If you’re going in a small group (no more than 3) or early enough, you shouldn’t have too long a wait to get in. [Open 11:15am – 11pm; Japan, 〒605-0811 Kyoto, Higashiyama-ku, Komatsuchō, 四条下小松558-2 Yamato Oji Dori;
630¥ – 1000¥ for ramen]
Street Market Outside Fushimi Inari – After you’ve visited the shrine, you’ll be hungry from all the walking. Luckily there are dozens of food stands that are set up on the walk to and from the main road you will take to get anywhere else in Kyoto. Both our group and Ben and Nicole used this as a meal option. Nicole recommends bouncing around from stall to stall buying a variety of snacks (they enjoyed takoyaki, soy roasted corn, and taiyaki). We tried a variety of flavors of bacon-wrapped rice balls, yakisoba, filled pancakes, meat on a stick, and mochi with beautiful red strawberries. Finding a place to eat all of this food can be difficult, so you’ll either want to buy from a vendor who has arranged for a space to sit or stand nearby, or else buy things in advance and take them up as you summit Fushimi Inari and eat it at one of the many resting spots along the way.
Gion Tanto – On our last full night in Kyoto, we wanted to do something nice, and so we took the recommendation of our guide to visit a specific okonomiyaki restaurant in Gion. Another man on the flight to Japan had told us to get okonomiyaki – a kind of filled savory pancake – in Kyoto, since that’s the region (near Osaka, specifically) from which they originated. We ate seated on the floor with a hot griddle in the middle of the table, which made keeping the baby both controlled/safe and entertained was a challenge. Luckily this was another time when the waitstaff seemed entranced with her, so we were very lucky. Especially since the dining room is very small, seating only about 18 people total? The food was AMAZING and so filling, and there was something for everyone in our group – from a more basic “meat and cheese” option for unadventurous E, to a kimchi flavored one for me, with lots more traditional styles in between. A fun meal, and one we are so glad we made the effort to do! [Open 12pm-3pm, 5pm-9:30pm; 3 7 2 Kiyomotocho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0084, Japan]
Beer Komachi – Inside the Furakawacho Market, which was very close to our AirBnB, the Boy stumbled across a brewpub. Like, an American style bar with beer and snack-type foods. And since we are beer people, we made it a mission to visit at least one night while we were in Kyoto. Thanks to the baby falling asleep, big girls distracted with screen time and access to an ipad with which they could make a facetime audio call to us, we ventured out. And guys – it was worth it. The space is very low rent, with the building kitted out in plywood and metal chairs and tables. But the service was fast and friendly, and while it was packed with a good mix of Japanese and foreigners, we didn’t feel cramped or unwelcome. We didn’t stay long – just long enough to get a couple half pints (in order to maximize tasting Japanese beers!) and enjoy a piece of chocolate cake, but it was a delightful end to our day and our time in Kyoto. Highly recommended, especially if you too love beer. [Open 5pm-11pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends, closed Tuesdays; 444 Hachikenchō, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, 605-0027, Japan]
CoCo Ichibanya (CoCoCurry) – This is one of the few restaurants Ben and Nicole planned to visit ahead of time. They learned about it through YouTubers Nicole absolutely loves, Simon&Martina, who vlog about life and food in Japan. CoCo Ichibanya is a curry chain that stretches across Japan so it’s not a Kyoto must do, per se. First of all, it looks bizarre: everything from the décor to the employee uniforms to the dishware looks like a bad leftover from a wood-paneled/Formica tabletop bygone era. But the food is good, cheap, and comforting. This is a choose-your-own-adventure curry casual dining restaurant- choose your rice amount, your curry ingredients (vegetarian and halal available in some locations), add any extra toppings, and choose your spice level from 1-10. Japanese curry is sweeter than and not as spicy as some other Asian curries. Most options run 600¥-900¥ and portions are generous. There are also mini-sizes for children! [Over 1,000 locations]
While we were in Kyoto, my sister had highly recommended using a tour guide that she and her family had used. Mr. Hiro turned out to be a delight – he’s a Kyoto native who speaks excellent English, and is a font of knowledge on the history of various tourist sites. He will take you wherever you want to go in his car, and so we chose the two out-of-the-way (for us) locations of the Golden Temple and the Bamboo Grove. We would have done more with him, but Baby B had a meltdown in the car, and we cut the tour short. If you’ve got a group, it’s well worth the investment. If you’re interested in his contact information, let me know, and I can send you details.
In two weeks time I’ll be back with another Japan travel…Okinawa!!!