PB Travels… Kyoto

Ideally, I would like to spend at least 6 months in Japan, spending weeks in each city and town, taking it all in at a slow and steady pace, not rushing around madly. Sadly, that was not the case this time. It was time to move on to Kyoto – the next stop on my whirlwind Autumn tour of Japan. And the best way to travel? My favourite way, the Shinkansen. I had bought a Japan Rail Pass – which you can not only use when travelling between cities and towns, but on all JR Lines, making it great value for money. There are trains every 15 minutes and if you haven’t reserved a seat, you can jump on any train – and in less than 2.5 hours, you are in Kyoto.

I absolutely love Kyoto – it has a different energy, it is FULL of things to see and do, and a great place to people watch.. All cliches? Yes. But all true! And once again – you cannot get lost here. Great train, subway and bus systems – effortless to get around.

Where am I staying?

Normally I would stay in a hotel in the centre of Kyoto, but while planning my trip, I came across a site advertising a vegan bed and breakfast which was 2 stops away from Kyoto station, a 15 minute bus ride/30 minute walk from Yasaka Shrine. I was so glad I stayed here. Vegan Minshuku Sanbiki Neko, run by Craig and Helen, a laid back, lovely couple from Australia, only opened last year. They picked me up from Kyoto station which was great as I don’t think I would have found my way there on my own. They showed me – literally guided me – to the closest bus stop and train station, and patiently gave me loads of advice, information and tips on how to get around. Their hospitality and breakfasts were second to none, and for that reason I will recommend this place to everyone. A bit out of the way, but in a good way as it was conveniently located to explore not only the sights in the centre, but also those further out, where I wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t been staying there!

Ratings:

  • Grubbiness factor: non existent – brand new and spotless, and it showed!
  • Bed = 10/10, a super comfy futon, warm duvets and being exhausted from walking around all day meant my sleep was perfect!
  • Shower = 10/10, super cute dinky bathtub and shower combo with very hot, high pressured water. Exactly what I needed.

Please stay here – it is the perfect little B&B and you will get to see a side of Kyoto that you normally wouldn’t!

What did I do?

Temple hopping! That is what I came to Kyoto for, and that is what I did. I don’t get tired of visiting temples here as they are all so different and quirky. But first – I had to get a Goshuincho. What is that I hear you say? It’s literal translation is ‘the honourable red stamp notebook’. But what is it really? An empty book with concertina pages that you take to every temple, and get it covered in stamps and beautiful calligraphy. Each temple has it’s own set of stamps, and the calligraphy – which is done in front of your eyes by very talented individuals – is essentially a prayer that you take away with you. My book was decorated with autumn leaves, perfect for the time of year I was there.

First temple, which was on the way from the B&B to the city centre was Chishakuin Temple, a Buddhist temple. I wouldn’t have visited it otherwise, and I am so lucky I did. Not only did it have maple trees dotted around the place, the buildings were massive and well maintained, there were stunning gardens with beautifully manicured greenery and zen rock gardens. So full blown autumn leaves, beautiful gardens and temple buildings – perfect combo! A highlight was the onsite museum, which housed beautifully painted panels of trees – pine, cherry, maple and plum, said to be painted by Hasegawa Tohaku. The icing on the cake was the sound of Buddhist chanting – I got to the temple around 4pm, must have been time for their afternoon prayers, which could be heard all around the complex. It was definitely a highlight for me.

Another temple that everyone visits in Kyoto is Kiyomizu Dera. I say that, but it was my first time – I hadn’t been before, and the main reason I went is because of the hype regarding the views. The temple itself is shrouded in scaffolding as it is undergoing renovation, but that isn’t the main attraction. Well, it wasn’t for me. Too many tourists, screaming and running around. BUT the grounds, the walk up to the main temple and the views are stunning – both of the city and of nature. To top it all, so many tourists are in kimono, it just adds to the magic of the temple – it was so utterly autumnal and colourful.

Other temples on the list were Kodaiji Temple and it’s sister temple Entokuin Temple, two unmissable temples. Kodaiji is as popular as Kiyomizu Dera, and although busy, it was calmer and more zen like. I spent about three hours in both temples – it was so easy to pass away the time, and they had nooks and crannies everywhere to sit and take in the stunning scenery. What I also loved was that there were dedicated rooms where one (me) could do their own calligraphy by copying prayer sutras with a calligraphy pen – I loved it, and I kept my piece of paper – a lovely souvenir of the day. A must visit, and don’t forget to get your book stamped with all the stamps dotted around the place! Walking out of the temple, I came across what looked like a geisha on a traditional rickshaw. Now I’m not sure if she was authentic or a tourist. Either case, it made for a great picture!

I joined an evening tour one night – a night walk in Gion, and it started at the Yasaka Shrine. Now I’ve visited this shrine on a previous visit, but this time I got to see it at night – less busy and with a lot more character. The tour guide lead us around Gion – 5 minutes walk from the Shrine, where we learnt about how to identify Okiyas – the houses where the geisha, or geiko and maiko live. It was fascinating to learn how old this tradition is, the misconceptions, and how they function in today’s society. The maiko, or trainee geisha, have to train for 5 years in the arts – dancing, playing instruments, singing, etc. and they are not allowed to have a phone or access to much technology! Walking in Gion at night was like being taken back in time, I loved it. And we saw (real, this time) geisha – not one but two!!! Result! Only problem? They move, rather, glide at breakneck speed, getting a photo of them is a challenge! So this tour cost less than £10 (via Get Your Guide) and it was totally worth it – a nice break from all the temple hopping.

Chion In Temple is another beautiful temple. I’ve been to it before, but what I didn’t do that time was visit the gardens attached to the temple. After walking up to the temple complex, I was pleasantly surprised to also find a tree – a plum blossom – in full blossom! Apparently there are certain varieties of blossom trees that do flower in the winter. Wow! And double wow for the gardens. Where as there is no fee to get into the temple, the gardens cost 500 yen (only) and are. so. worth. it. Autumn in full glory – and there were almost no people there which, for me, was perfect!

No trip to Kyoto is complete without a visit to Fushimi Inari. Yep, this is the one you see in all Kyoto travel guides, also made famous in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. And no, it isn’t as empty as you see in the glossy pics. It is JAM PACKED. The trick is to get there as early as possible or as late as possible, or find a different way of getting in – which is what I did. My B&B hosts recommended an alternative way of getting there – the Kyoto Trail, which was up the road from the B&B. It was a quiet walk, going through woods and greenery as opposed to walking on the main road. Clearly marked, I have to admit I thought I got off track the whole time – but I persevered and was rewarded with stunning views, community shrines, a stunning temple and great shots of Fushimi Inari without the hordes of people!

Temple hopping involved walking all around Kyoto – my preferred means of transport, which meant finding little surprises here and there – a secluded shrine, a tiny teashop selling the most amazing matcha and hojicha tea, to finding a Ghibli shop – which was massive and full of stuff that I did not see at the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo! It was a great find. And yes. I spent almost the same amount I did in Tokyo for more stuff. And the best find – a Yayoi Kusama exhibition! It was at the Forever Museum of Contemporary Art (love that name) and it was amazing – right from the giant pumpkin outside to the shiny pumpkin room to the life size pictures of all the swirls, pumpkins and flowers she had drawn. Loved loved loved it!

I saw quite a few other temples, walked around Teramachi trying the free samples of pickles, mochi and green tea and basically chilled in the amazing city that is Kyoto – if I had to choose to live in any other city than London, it would be Kyoto, I just love it!

PB Eats… Kyoto

If it was easy to find good food in Tokyo, it was even easier in Kyoto. There were so many options I didn’t have enough time or space (in my stomach) to fit them all in. I started enjoying good Japanese food even before getting there. I searched for #veganekiben – or vegan train bento box to see if any existed. Lo and behold! Not only did it exist, but I also found a website that showed were exactly I could pick one up in Tokyo station. There were multiple locations, one of them being Ekiben Matsuri – a massive shop specialising in hundreds of different kinds of bento. Like with anything that needs to be found in a Japanese train station, this was an epic task. And once again, a task that was much easier due to the kindness of strangers and station staff pointing me in the right direction. Hello Vegetable Bento! Clearly marked as meat, fish, dairy and egg free, it cost 900 yen. It was a little beauty – 2 kinds of rice, decorated with a carrot autumn leaf, bits of vegetables – lotus root, bamboo shoot, pumpkin, asparagus tips – and a lone, but gigantic broad bean. There was also tofu – fried and some other kind, and even a little cup of pickles. It was superiorly (is that a word? it is now) satisfying, adding to the authentic Shinkansen experience.

Other highlights were my breakfasts at Vegan Minshuku Sanbiki Neko, the vegan B&B I was staying in. Freshly cooked by Craig, and different every morning I was there, the food was authentically Japanese and seriously seriously tasty. Tofu with a teriyaki sauce with stir fried lotus root. Mixed rice and an aubergine soup to wash it all down. The next morning he made tofu and carrot stir fry with this stunningly good green bean and sesame dish. It came with brown rice (sprinkled with seaweed) on the side and was served with miso soup this time. Final breakfast was a beautiful buddha bowl – soba noodles and vegan sausage topped a mountain of veggies – carrots, bean sprouts, asparagus, tomatoes, cucumber, mange tout and sprouts, covered with a ponzu dressing. And I also got vegetable gyoza on the side. Bliss. All the dishes were all so filling, fresh and seriously tasty – this B&B needs to print a cookbook of all their recipes!

Ain Soph Journey – now I intentionally didn’t go to any of the branches in Tokyo as I knew there would be one in Kyoto. I know everyone raves about the pancakes but I just wasn’t in a sweet mood so instead went for the tofu rice and a pot of tea. First impressions? I thought oh well, just a mound of salad and a ball brown stuff. But the flavours were really good and the salad surprisingly tasty. It was a massive portion! Only downside, it was a bit cold – I think it would have tasted better at room temperature. My chosen dessert, the chocolate cake with soy cream made up for it though – super dense, fudgy and oh so chocolately – it was excellent.

Mimikou – was an unexpected find. I had literally spent hours walking from temple to temple and was pretty hungry. Looked on Hungry Cow and found a place minutes down the road. It serves meat but has clearly marked vegetarian dishes – and and English menu! The service was so so friendly and they were so chatty and lovely. I got to practice my (limited) Japanese and learned a few more words. I went for the kitsune (literally means fox, but in this dish, it means bit of fried tofu) curry udon with kakiage – fried carrot, onion and cabbage. I knew when they gave me a paper bib and a tray of chilli powders to sample that this meal was going to be good. O M G. It was epic. The udon was thick and chewy, the curry sauce was thick and full of umami. The kitsune tofu soaked up the sauce and added another dimension to the dish. The tempura was also excellent. And the chilli powders – excellent (and they were also for sale). Excellent Excellent Excellent. This is one of those dishes that I still think about – I would eat it again and again.

Coco Curry – this is the same chain restaurant that I visited in Tokyo. I had the same – vegetable curry and rice (smaller portion) with extra sweetcorn and aubergine. Just as tasty and filling as the last time. I LOVE this place!!. I have also found out that they recently opened a branch in… wait for it… London!! WHOOO! I will be going to check it out soon…

Mumokuteki – Now this is one of the most popular restaurants that vegans/vegetarians visit in Kyoto, and rightly so. It is an omni restaurant, but with excellent options for all. Once again, I got there pretty late in the day (4pm, after temple hopping), and there were no queues, and no waiting for a table (contrary to what I read on the internet). The English menu was extensive and clearly marked – what had fish, what hadn’t. The set meals were what I had my eye on – and they all looked so good I took a while to decide which one I wanted. I chose well. Panko encrusted seitan fillets coated with a miso sauce (crispy and delicious), red rice (nutty and filling), cold mushroom salad (tasty, albeit a bit slimy), tomatoes (sugar bombs), pumpkin (comforting), pickles (nice and pickle-y) and really good miso soup. I couldn’t eat more even if I wanted to – it was so filling and super tasty and oh so Japanese tasting. I could live on this stuff.

Temple watching in Kyoto is serious business and takes up a lot of energy. Thankfully Kyoto is a city of snack lovers – including vegetarian friendly ones – and they are everywhere! Each temple has a tea house, and for a modest amount – between 500 – 1000 yen, depending on the popularity of the temple, you could bag yourself a cup of green tea and snack. Kiyomizu Dera’s green tea was mild and their snacks were 50/50. The mochi ball was yummy, the other sweet looked, felt and tasted like a sponge you use to wash dishes with. Horrible!.

Kodaiji Temple’s offering was so so much better. A cup of strong, tasty green tea and a beautiful adzuki bean mochi, embossed with an autumn leaf. I was sitting in a garden surrounded by autumn leaves – so corny, it but was the perfect setting, one of those ‘It can’t get any better than this’ moments.

Another very memorable snack was a matcha parfait from Kyo Cafe, down the road from Kiyomizu Dera. A combination of matcha and vanilla ice cream, pieces of matcha and vanilla cake, topped with a cinnamon flavoured roof tile cookie (seen all around Kyoto). This was a dream to eat, the matcha strong and the ice cream creamy. YUM!

Still on the search for a matcha ice cream to beat the one I had in Tokyo, I bought another one when I had finished trekking up and down the Fushimi Inari Shrine – it came close – it was super creamy – and oh so pretty! Loved it! Don’t think there is bad matcha ice cream in Japan, especially in Kyoto!

Another really great stomach filler was just outside Fushimi Inari station – Senboninari, selling inari sushi. They were little monsters (the biggest inari I’ve ever seen), and once again, there were clearly marked vegetarian/ vegan options. With the risk of sounding like a broken record – oh, so delicious, so tasty and this is another thing I still think about..

All the other foods I tried were excellent and perfectly suited to the cold weather – it was at least 5-7 degrees colder than Tokyo, at around 15 degrees. I had Dango – freshly grilled soft mochi. Warm chewy goodness with this with this sticky, miso sauce. Perfect. I also had a freshly baked doriyaki stuffed with azuki bean paste – anko. More perfect. And finally, the go to Japanese snack this is available everywhere – sweet potato. It comes in all forms – steamed, roasted, fried, sweet, salty. My version – plain, fried chips with nothing else – they were excellent again.

As ever, I could have gone to so many more restaurants, eaten so many more snacks, but I ran out of time. But if anyone ever tells you that there isn’t anything for vegetarians and vegans to enjoy in Japan, Do Not Believe Them!!!!!!