Following a deadly combination of commandments 9 and 12 from my Tokyo post, me and my travel companions were left with some horrendous hangovers and one of us nearly missing our bullet train to Kyoto. Having made our journey in one piece our hangovers were substantially lifted upon arriving at what would be our beautiful home for the next 3 nights. If you’re heading to Kyoto and have not yet booked your accommodation I hugely recommend using The Goldfish House as your charming base. Located perfectly for exploring the ancient delights of both the east and west side of Kyoto, it’s also the perfect back drop for photoshoots in all those kimonos you have evidently purchased.
After some post travel chill out time, we dragged ourselves from our cloud like beds and headed out to explore Kyoto. A quick sugar hit of some delicious soy milk doughnuts from a passing store, and then we were strolling east for the culinary delights of Nishiki Market.
I had headed to Nishiki Market with perhaps too much of a ambitious list of delicious things I was going to eat for the size of hangover I actually had. I did manage a selection of pickles in sake dregs, a few Takoyaki (fried octopus dough balls), a delicious steamed beef bun, and a fantastic black sesame soft serve topped with freshly ground golden sesame that I need to find in London immediately. The sea urchin and the famous octopus on a stick that is stuffed with a quail egg was just too much for me to handle in my delicate state.
After a wander around the famous Geisha district of Gion and a few cans of Sapporo sitting on the banks of the Kamo river, we became hungry again so decided to seek out some delicious Soba Noodles which we had not yet crossed off our list. We found them at Matsuba Soba across the river in Gion where we ate overlooking the chefs at work. Full from our afternoon of filling our bellies, we lazily took the metro the 2 stops home, which in its wood panelled and green velvet glory is like a Wes Anderson Japanese dream.
West Kyoto – Golden Temples, Bamboo forests and a Tofu Banquet
With only two full days to spend in a city with over 1600 temples, we had to be decisive with our agenda and split the city into two, spending one day visiting the west and the other the east. Temple fatigue is real so don’t overdo it and plan your time well. We started our first day with a early visit to the beautiful but crowded Kinkaku-ji, the famous golden temple of Kyoto. Be prepared to be pushed around the grounds of this serene Buddhist temple on what feels like a conveyor belt, but this was one of the few places in Kyoto that felt like this. A short walk down the road took us to the much more quiet Ryōan-Ji temple with its beautiful zen rock garden and one of my favourite spots we visited. If you have been to the recent Hockney retrospective at the Tate Britain or happen to just be a complete David Hockney fanboy like my self, you will recognise the temple from a photo series he did in 1983 of walking around the zen garden in his mis matched socks.
We were then going to head to the Gio-ji moss garden but we were about to be late for our lunch reservations so instead we hopped on a train to Arashiyama. Arashiyama is a busy tourist hotspot but once off the main road, taking a path down the bank off the river that turns into a dirt path and leads up in to the forest where you will eventually find one of the most serene places in Kyoto. The restaurant Shorian is a tranquil temple of tofu located up on the hillside of the famous bamboo forest overlooking the sparkling river Oi. We ate an elaborate menu of all kinds of tofu from silky and clean in its purist form to crispy tempura tofu skin topped with baby shrimp and matcha tea salt, finishing with a delicious and refreshing tofu ice cream. Yes tofu ice cream. This was one of the few places we booked for our trip to Japan and it was well worth it.
After our very long lunch of 10-ish courses (about 5,800 yen, not all tofu I promise, there was some delicious wagyu beef in there somewhere) we took a walk through the enchanting bamboo forest as the sun was beginning to set and we went back down to the river where we sat with some more ice cold beers to catch the sun in its final moments of the day.
East Kyoto – Philosopher’s walks, Egg drop Udon and the most peaceful place in Kyoto
The next day we started near the top of the famous Philosopher’s Walk at the Homen-in Temple, a magical spot. Enter through the moss covered gate and past two perfect mounds of sand. It’s a particularly enchanting place with a small moss covered garden which is found across a little stone bridge the other side of a tranquil pond. We were also lucky enough to find the place practically empty. We continued down the Philosopher’s Walk winding along the little stream passing sweet shops selling ceramics and a restaurant called Monk. With a Japanese chef trained at Noma under René Redzepi, it’s on the list for my next visit for sure as it was closed that day. Lunch today was at Okakita, a place famed for its udon. You will find Okakita next to another noodle bar which is apparently equally as good with a equally huge queue. We joined the long queue for Okakita as I was after the prawn tempura with egg drop udon I had heard so much about and it was absolutely delicious.
After our huge bowls of noodles we staggered down to the Murin-an gardens that a friend had recommended a visit to. A beautiful and peaceful garden with a tea house serving delicious matcha tea and where they also perform traditional tea ceremonies. This is my favourite place I visited here and where I finally found the calm and peacefulness I had naively expected Kyoto to be full off.
We ended our last day in Kyoto with a visit to the breathtaking Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. What starts as a crazed and crowded tourist attraction of people trying to take the perfect selfie with the gates, quickly becomes less crowded as you work your way up the mountain where the gates span 4 kilometres (wear comfortable shoes…). We had a ‘lovely’ idea of watching the sunset from the top (233 meters above sea level) however as time ran on we ended up basically sprinting to the top to catch the sunset. When we finally reached it we discovered (out of breath and almost dead) that there is no view, and the best view is found half way up. We quickly rushed back down to a observation point we had passed and luckily managed to catch the incredible sunset.
A Temple Stay in Koya-san
After a long train ride from Kyoto that weaved up through the mountains past forests and tiny villages, we arrived at a cable cart that took us to the top of Mount Koya for our one night temple stay at the magical Koyasan Fukuchiin. This was a very special part of the trip for us, and I really recommend coming to Koya-san if you can fit it in and are up for the journey. After arriving at our temple and home for the night, we went out to explore the beautiful town full of ancient temples and lucky for us, the last of the seasons cherry blossom. That evening we dined on an elaborate ‘Shojin Ryori,’ a traditional vegetarian feast prepared by the monks of the temple. We ate it in our own private room dressed in the traditional robes we had been given for our stay that I really wanted to steal. After dinner and a relaxing soak in the Onsen (traditional hot spring bath) it was off to bed as we had a 5am rise.
After early morning prayers in the temple, where I not so much meditated as tried to deal with pins and needles for an hour without offending the chanting monks, it was time for breakfast. Another elaborate feast, and probably the most challenging meal we had in Japan, as I’m not that used to eating a) that much at 7am and b) that many different and strange fermented textures at 7am… but it was certainly a experience.
We spent the rest of the morning walking around the town, eating traditional sweets, buying souvenirs from the many Buddhist shops, buying souvenirs from the one random shop dedicated to Studio Ghibli merchandise and then finally the Okunoin graveyard. Truly one of the most incredible places I have ever been, with over 200,000 monk’s tombstones, it feels like you have stumbled upon some forgotten ancient land. After that we said goodbye to Koyasan and it was back down the mountain onto to our next journey to Naoshima.
Naoshima a island of art and Bond vibes
Five and half hours of travelling, a couple of tense train changes and near misses later we made it to the port of Uno and boarded the last ferry of the day to Naoshima. Naoshima is a remote island in the Seto Inland Sea which is full of beautiful museums and gallery spaces designed by Tadao Ando built into the landscape like Bond villain layers. Its a landscape thats exotic and beautiful, peppered with incredible installations and sculptures by some of the art world greats. Having just come from the top of a mountain and finding our selves in this exotic paradise was disorienting enough, but by the time we reached the island it was in complete darkness and we had missed our bus. Lucky for us we didn’t have to somehow cross the island in darkness, and most likely wander off a cliff, there was one last bus for us to catch an hour later and we finally made it to our magical yurt on the beach.
The next morning when we awoke we emerged from our yurt in to paradise, greated by the sparkling sea and in the distense one of Yayoi Kusam’s glowing pumpkins. The art collection on this Island is incredible and unmissable if you are coming to Japan, but it was spending the day wondering the many spaces designed by Tadeo Ando that I enjoyed the most, seeing how they sunk into the surroundings and how each space played with the natural light in a different way. A truly special and wonderful experience. Just GO… and wear suncream.
Hiroshima & Miyajima island
The final part of our travel marathon before heading back to Tokyo for our last two nights was Hiroshima. We arrived late at our hotel (and sunburnt) after the art island so didn’t get to experience the city until we woke up the next day. We started the day on Miyajima island, located just of the cost of Hiroshima. Miyajima is famous for its centuries old Itsukushima shrine which stands proudly out at sea. It’s also famous for all kinds of delicious treats, mostly that come in the form of the islands iconic leaf shape, whether it be deep fried octopus, or more of that delicious sweet Taiyaki! We spent the morning wandering the island eating everything insight and encountering the other thing that makes this place so famous, a lot of very friendly and rather confident wild deer. The best find on this island though was a small and absolutely wonderful shop stocked full of all the delicious things I had fallen in love with on the trip, wrapped up in equally beautiful packaging. Go here to taste test all the delicious soy sauces before buying some to bring home, my favourite was the one mixed with miso. I also found that fantastic matcha tea salt and that delicious moroni-miso, a chunky miso with added barley and rice, which served with cucumber sticks for dipping is like crack and I am almost out of the 3 jars I bought here.
In the afternoon we headed back to the mainland and to the Atomic bomb Peace Memorial and Museum. A friend of ours had expressed how important it was when visiting Japan to come to Hiroshima and visit the museum. It’s terrifying and moving and will probably leave you feeling pretty devastated, particularly after listening to the recorded survivors’ testimonials. However it’s such a important part of Japan’s history and is really unmissable in visiting this incredible country. It happened to be golden weekend whilst we were in Hiroshima, and when we walked out of the museum we walked straight in to the festival. With dancers, pop bands, street food and crowds enjoying them selves it was amazing to walk out and see this incredible city that has completely rebuilt its self after such complete devastation in such celebration.
For more on my Japan travels check out my post on The Tokyo Commandments