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!
- 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!