Kyoto: Temples, Shrines, Forests, Monkeys and more

Posted on October 9, 2016

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img_2797Every blog and guidebook I have read about Kyoto tells of traditional quaint Japanese town. As I got off the train I expected a small picturesque station where you immediately fall into winding streets of wooden houses with geisha disappearing down alleys en route to appointments. I was mistaken. None of that came to view. It’s a city. In fact it was the Capital city for many many years and whilst it’s not the sprawl and madness of Tokyo, it’s still a city.

So my introduction to Kyoto was a vast, beautiful, clean, and well equipped, station. We stumbled past gorgeous little shops, and some larger high end brands such as Gucci and Prada, small restaurants, and plenty of Japanese sweet treats.

Hopping in a taxi we headed to the hotel to dump our bags. The Hyatt Regency was another of the fabulous five star hotels we’d selected for our luxurious honeymoon. Although our first impressions made us a feel more like a travel lodge. Long story short we moaned (a lot) after an hour in the hotel, considered moving, and with some fabulous negotiation from my husband, and a lot of goodwill from the manager who clearly wanted us to be happy we were upgraded. The room would be ready for us after our dinner reservation.

img_0198Luckily it was happy hour so we stopped in the low lit Touzan bar for an hour before heading to Tempura Matsu for our fourth night of Kaiseki. As we were leaving the hotel the manager came running to greet us, ensuring again that we would be happy with our new arrangement, and taking us past the queue for taxis into the hotel’s private car. You can’t fault service at the Hyatt Regency.

When we decided on Japan as our honeymoon destination, my mum bought us an incredible book: ‘Rice, Noodle, Fish‘. If you’re a foodie heading to Japan this book is essential reading. The narrative is so well written, and it contains so much about the depth and complication of Japanese food and culture that it’s an ideal briefing. Most of the chapter on Kyoto is dedicated to this restaurant, Tempura Matsu. A family run business it’s a fun, casual version of kaiseki. The food is out of this world (best tempura I have ever eaten) and roughly follows traditional kaiseki. The son trained with Alan Ducasse. And, well, just go and I buy the book. I won’t do it, or the restaurant, justice here.

So happy, with full bellies, we came home to the Hyatt Regency and our new room to find that we had been upgraded to a suite. They had even pushed the two double beds together and added a special topper as we’d told them a twin room was not good enough for our honeymoon. Not only had they listened to our compliant but they had gone all out to fix it and make sure that we had a great room that would give us happy memories of our honeymoon in Kyoto. I’ve never seen service like it. With all this we really can’t have a bad word to say about the Hyatt Regency. People we met along the way on our travels also recommended the Prince Gallery.

img_0194Our first morning in Kyoto we were ready to explore and we headed to Arahiyama to see the bamboo forests and head up to Iwatayama Monkey Park to see the snow monkeys. There is so much to see in Kyoto, and it covers a fairly large area, so it’s worth a little planning to pick off different regions and spots to visit each day. Our bible for this part of the trip came in the form of Inside Kyoto. The author is an American living in Kyoto, who also pens the lonely planet. We also enjoyed the write ups of 2 Aussie travellers. Both these sites will give you excellent tips that will help you tailor to what you want out of your time here. Frankly you’ll never see the full 1700 temples and shrines, so chose wisely.

Without these blogs we would have missed the Okochi-Sanso villa and gardens just north of the bamboo forest. A Japanese movie star spent 30 years perfecting these gardens and you see why. It’s well worth the $10 entry, especially since green tea and a delicious Japanese cookie are thrown in.

img_0193It was here that we had our first real temple visit and discovered how tranquil zen gardens really are. We particularly enjoyed Tenryu-ji and it’s gardens, but it may be because it was our first.

img_0210To get our bearings we took a one day private tour with the wonderful Tetsuo. He was warm & courteous, had excellent knowledge of Kyoto, spoke good English and did incredibly well at defining an itinerary for us based on what we had already seen. He patiently explained the difference between temples and shrines, Shintoism and Buddhism, and religion in his family. img_2691However the day we had this tour we experienced torrential rain which was the tail end of a  typhoon that was travelling through. Ugh! We still managed to get out to wander around a few temples and shinto shrines, including the red shinto gates of Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine.

img_0214To escape the rain, we stopped for lunch at another well recommended restaurant for some perfect udon noodles: Omen. Can’t recommend this place highly enough if you like udon noodles and want an authentic experience.

Later that afternoon we headed to the (covered) Nishiki market and the surrounding (also undercover) shopping streets. Don’t miss the market, so many Japanese treats and delicacies.

The next day was clearer and we headed for Kinencho, the area surrounding a Pagoda which has some lovely little streets of shops. And some excellent coffee (check out % Arabica).

img_0222And of course Kyoto is known for it’s Geisha. What I hadn’t realized is that this is still very much a tradition and the girls go through years of intensive training as Maiko, now after they have completed schooling, before they can graduate to be fully fledged Geiko (as they are known, not Geisha). Although your chances of getting in to a real Geisha house are slim to none. This is very much for the established Japanese business men. If you are willing to spend enough, it is possible to hire geisha through private tour companies. Geisha are ladies of the art (not prostitutes) and in addition to singing and dancing, they are excellent at drinking games!

There are several areas known for their geisha, the most famous of which is Gion. It’s a small area and just magical at night, lovely to wander around. If you head there early evening you may even see a Geisha on her way to an appointment. img_0219After wandering we dined at Hiro BBQ. In need of some simple food on a rainy evening, tis was a good spot. I loved the atmosphere although we have eaten better meat elsewhere.

Pontocho, just across the river is the second largest Geisha area. Effectively one narrow long street, which is now mixed with tourists and locals. It’s a nice walk through with plenty of restaurants and bars.

Kyoto is such a lovely city which would take months to explore properly. If you are there for a few days, read through Inside Kyoto and pick a few of the things you want to do.

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Posted in: Asia, Destinations, Japan