Travel: Kyoto Highlights

Hi all –

Although I’ve scaled way back on my blog this past year, I’m still a bit embarrassed to have let more than 6 months go by without sharing highlights from my trip to Japan last summer!  With a new baby arriving any day now (!), this was probably our last international trip for a while, so it’s especially important to me to write down these memories to look back on.

On a two-week trip in June, we spent 4.5 days in Tokyo, 3.5 days in Kyoto, then another 2.5 days in Tokyo, using a Japan Railway pass to go between those cities.  Originally we had also planned some day trips using our Rail Passes, but had to scale back our travel plans as I was dealing with horrible pregnancy nausea during our entire trip.

At our slower pace, we still managed to have a great time and see quite a bit!  I’m starting with a recap of Kyoto and hope to eventually share a Tokyo recap as well.


Nishiki Market (left), Kamo River in Downtown Kyoto (right)


As soon as I mentioned we were planning a trip to Japan, advice from friends near, far, and virtual came flooding in – with almost all of the excitement and advice geared towards Kyoto.  I can now say that I completely understand why Kyoto is such a popular travel destination.  It may sound strange, but it reminded me of California’s wine country, except instead of visiting wineries that each offer their own unique charms and beautiful vistas, we were visiting a variety of temples that each had different features to enjoy from rock gardens to wet gardens, and overlooks of sweeping city vistas to quiet restaurants.

And all these beautiful, peaceful places are surprisingly easy to get to – just a short walk or ride on public transit from the bustling center of Kyoto which has plenty of shopping & dining to entertain between temples.

Normally, I’d devote several posts to a city with as much to do as Kyoto, however, my friend Rachael has already done all the leg-work for me.  She’s been to Kyoto numerous times and has a fantastic guide to Kyoto on her blog including a sample 5-day itinerary and a series of posts featuring Kyoto’s highlights arranged by area of the city.  These posts were instrumental in planning our itinerary and rather than repeating the same advice, I’ll be linking to her posts frequently below.


Our Accomodations

We stayed in a Ryokan (a traditional Japanese-style hotel) in Gion, the Geisha district.  To keep the tatami mat floor clean, we were expected to keep our shoes near the door and to wear special bathroom-only slippers.  I loved that we were provided with traditional pajamas (Yukatas) to wear during our stay.  And while I was nervous about sleeping on the floor, I quickly fell in love with these Japanese Style futon beds and had some of my best sleep of the trip!1 Ryokan

Each morning the Ryokan staff typically puts the futons away in the closet and then rolls them out again at night.  We quickly learned to ask them to leave the futons out all day, as there was more than enough space in the room to do so, and I often needed to take mid-day naps to keep my energy up.

Overall, we loved staying in a Ryokan and would recommend trying a few nights in one if you ever find yourself in Japan.


And now, in no particular order, here are some of the highlights of our time in Kyoto:


Just a short walk from our hotel, this was the first temple we visited and it definitely left me excited for the many more temples to come.

Kiyomizu means “pure water” and visitors can catch and drink the water, which is believed to have wish-granting powers.

Temple 1

Though we did not drink the water, we did enjoy the spectacular view of downtown Kyoto, our walk around the lovely grounds, a brief stop for a snack of sweetened shaved ice, and some shopping for lucky amulets.Temple 1 Amulets

Fushimi Inari Shrine

With thousands of orange gates heading up a steep mountain trail, this Shrine is a pretty unforgettable experience that’s both beautiful and a great workout.  It can take a couple of hours to hike to the top, and in my condition I only made it half-way up, but I loved every minute of this beautiful walk.  
Gates Temple 1

I especially enjoyed spotting the many Fox statues throughout the shrine grounds, as foxes are thought to be messengers of Inari, the god of Rice for whom the shrine is dedicated.

Gates Temple 2

Vegans Cafe

A short walk from Fushimi Inari Shrine, Rachael highly recommended Vegans Cafe for a meal.  Rachael suggests making a reservation.  We got lucky as walk-ins, but it definitely is popular with the locals and soon after we arrived every table was filled, mostly with families.

They had run out of their famous Roasted Soy Meat bowl but we thoroughly enjoyed our orders of their Cheezy Rice casserole, salad, and shakes.

Vegans Cafe

Matcha Green Tea Soymilk Shake, “Milan Style” Cheesy Rice Casserole, Banana Black-Sesame Shake


This Gold-Leaf covered Shrine is one of the most popular attractions in Japan.  We enjoyed a brief walk around the grounds and conversations with several student groups eager to practice their English.  While it was certainly beautiful, it was also very crowded so we opted not to stay long, instead opting to walk to another nearby temple Rachael recommended…
Golden Temple

Ryoanji Zen Temple

I was so glad we followed Rachael’s advice to check out this temple.  It’s home to one of the most famous dry-landscape gardens in the city (the Sand & Rock formations pictured below, left), but the expansive park-like grounds – and especially the temple’s restaurant – are also not to be missed.

Tofu Temple 1

Several temples have restaurants serving Shōjin Ryōri (“Devotion Cuisine”) meals which are traditionally free of animal products.  Rachael tipped that while many such restaurants require reservations, the Yudofu restaurant at Ryoanji typically has plenty of seating for walk-ins.

This was by far one of the most memorable meals of our trip, both for the atmosphere (floor seating with a beautiful garden view) and for the food.  We’d tried other Shōjin Ryōri meals while in Japan but at other places the flavors did not agree with my western taste buds.  Here, the food was authentic yet prepared so well I believe it would have universal appeal.

Tofu Temple 2

Mike and I shared one order of their lunch set which came with a huge pot of tofu that I think may have been too much for one person.  The tofu was simply prepared but was so fresh it melted in our mouths and was so delicious with its accompanying sauce.

The sides were also delicious, especially the sesame tofu square with its rich tahini flavor.  I even had a few tastes of the pickled veggies and veggie/seaweed salad which normally are not items I’d want more than one bite of.

Tofu Temple 3

Cat Cafe Nekokaigi

As a kitty lover, I really wanted to visit a Cat Cafe during my time in Japan.  Not only did I miss my kitties terribly by this point in our trip, but also I was curious to check out this trend that is just beginning to pop up around the US.

Unfortunately, many Cat Cafes can be exploitative, featuring kittens (who don’t stay kittens forever) or exotic breeds.  Luckily, JoJo had done quite a bit of research and we followed her path to Cat Cafe Nekokaigi where all the kitty residents are rescues.

 We enjoyed a relaxing hour at the Cat Cafe, though sadly the cats didn’t seem too interested in us and we were only able to get a few pats in.

(Note: one of the kitties is wearing an outfit for health reasons, as she would over-groom herself otherwise)

Cat Cafe

Kyoto Station

A centrally-located travel hub, you’ll probably wind up at Kyoto Station at one point or another.  The station could be a worthwhile destination of its own as Mike and I spent a couple of hours wandering around the department store, mall, and food court portions of the station.  With its 15-story tower, I’m fairly certain this is the largest train station I’ve ever been in, though remarkably its just Japan’s 2nd largest station.

Kyoto Station

Mumokuteki Cafe

Despite the long wait for tables, Mike and I found ourselves dining at this popular cafe twice.  I especially loved the ambiance here with lots of windows, wood, and greenery.  With my temperamental stomach, I stuck to their comforting Pumpkin Soymilk Soup with Bread and Salad on both visits, while Mike enjoyed their larger meal sets.

We also each got a soy shake (Root Veggie for me, and Pumpkin for Mike), though I so wish my stomach had instead been up for some of their beautiful desserts.



Philosopher’s Path

Lastly, just before heading back to Kyoto Station to catch the Bullet Train back to Tokyo, we took a walk along the Philosopher’s Path.  I’m not sure if it was the extreme heat this day, or if we just picked the wrong portion of the path, but I thought this walk was just OK.

Philosophers Path 1

However, our sweaty trek became entirely worthwhile when I spotted this cart parked along the trail, full of cuddling kitties.  I could have sat by this cart philosophizing for hours if Tokyo weren’t beckoning us back.

Philosophers Path 2

And that completes the highlights from our Kyoto trip.  I’m hopeful it won’t take me another 6 months to compile our Tokyo highlights!

I’d love to hear from you!

What Highlight looks the best to you?

Or if you’ve ever been to Kyoto – what are your favorite sights?