Oh, Japan. Where do I even start? It has been our dream destination and we’ve finally made it happen. After months and months of research and planning, we arrived at the Land of the Rising Sun.
After a 16-hr flight from the US with a 12-hr layover in Taiwan, I hopped on another plane with my husband for a 4-hour flight to Narita, Japan. I was supposed to book a one-way ticket to Osaka and from Narita, but saw a deal I couldn’t pass. So even without visas, I bought our Japan air tickets five months before the trip. They say that you have to get a visa first before buying a ticket, but I know that whatever happens we would make this trip happen. And it did! Mount Fuji wasn’t included in the itinerary, but it was a pleasant surprise to see the peak through the clouds.
After arriving at the airport, we decided to grab a sushi lunch as we were still 3 hours away from our destination. I also did the money exchange at the airport so I don’t have to worry about running out of yen. Then, we bought SUICA cards for easy travel and booked seats on a N’EX train to Shinagawa Station. The N’EX train has a designated luggage storage area, but there’s enough space in front of the seats too. From Shinagawa Station, we transferred to the shinkansen heading for Kyoto. I’ve read that Shinagawa Station is easier to navigate than Tokyo Station, and with luggages I’d go with easy.
We stayed at Ibis Styles Kyoto Station Hotel. The location is so convenient because it’s right in front of the station. The room was the smallest out of all the places we’ve stayed at, but it’s actually a norm in Japan. Besides, we will be out and about most of the day. What I’m really happy about the amenities is that they provide toiletries and towels. The first hotel I booked didn’t have towels, and I didn’t want to add another weight on my luggage, so I searched for a hotel that offers it. Having more amenities plus a non-smoking room added more $ to the bill, but we’d rather be comfortable.
Since we already arrived about 5pm, we decided to just walk around the malls inside the station. We chanced upon Tuskiji Gindaco while passing through Porta. I’ve listed it as a must try on our itinerary, but on a different location. There was no english translation on the menu, but the pictures were enough. Most of the time I base my orders on the pictures anyway. I don’t know what I ordered, but it has the largest photo, so I assumed it’s a bestseller. It’s also so fascinating to watch them make the takoyaki. I only ordered one for sharing since we’ll be eating at a conveyor belt sushi place. I didn’t expect much at first, but OMG, it’s so crazy good! Now, I understand why it’s recommended by others.
And before the malls closed at 9pm, I bought a couple chopsticks at Hashikoubou Oshita and teas at Fukujuen Tea. Then had our dinner at Sushi No Musashi, where we finished 16 plates of sushi! Gosh, we were so full. Thankfully, we only had to cross the street to reach our hotel.
After eating breakfast at the hotel, we headed to our first destination: Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine. After going down the train station, we can already see a giant Torii gate. We just followed the path passing through more giant Torii gates. There’s no admission fee, the only thing to remember is to go as early as you can before the crowd hits! We arrived about 8am, luckily it’s only 15 minutes away from where we’re staying. Before going in, people wash their hands and mouths with water fountain to purify their souls.
When they reach the main hall, believers pay their worship by ringing the bell, offering coins, and bowing to the Kami god. Fushimi Inari is the most important Shinto Shrine in the area that is dedicated to the god of rice. We also saw a lot of fox statues as they were believed to be the god’s messenger.
We finally found the trail of the thousand torii gates. Each torii gate is donated with their names written on it. The 2-3 hour trail leads up to the mountain that offers a scenic view. Due to time constraint, we just explored probably 1/4 of the trail. By the time we left at 9am, crowds were getting in! It sure pays to be early.
Riding trains and buying drinks from vending machines were easy, thanks to SUICA card. We again took the train to reach Tofuku-ji, a Buddhist zen temple that’s popular in Autumn.
It’s a few minutes walk from the train station, but it wasn’t that hard to find since there was a big arrow leading to one of the gates. Plus, we were armed with google maps and a portable wi-fi I rented out from GAC. We paid Y800 each to enter the Main Hall and the Hojo Garden. The Tsutenkyo Bridge is hard to miss as you will pass it to get to the main hall.
Even in Spring, the view was so spectacular with all the green luscious trees. We noticed a lot of small group of students with a teacher. It looked like the teacher was discussing history. How nice is it to have a mini field trip during classes. I think it’s more conducive to learning.
The Kaisando Hall was the first head priest’s mausoleum. It has a dry rock garden on the left and a pond garden on the right.
Since the temple just opened, we got to enjoy the main hall to ourselves for a few minutes.
So calming to see greens everywhere!
On the right side of the Main Hall is the Hojo Garden. Shoes were required to be removed. Slippers were available, but the size was too big for me that it kept on sliding.
The Hojo was the head priest’s living quarters. It’s surrounded by gardens on all sides. My husband and I are amazed on how they made the patterns on the dry rock garden.
After the temple visits, we headed to Shijo Kawaramachi to grab lunch. Unfortunately, the ramen place we’re supposed to eat at was closed that day. Good thing I’ve listed several other restaurants in the area and we chose to eat at Ichiran.
We passed by the Kamo River and the Pontocho Alley, although unable to visit it that night. There’s a lot of stores along the market place. One store sells old books which cost $800 and up! They’re probably collector’s item.
We also had a quick stop at a toy store. They’re handmade so items were pricey. Husband can only take photos for souvenirs, hehe.
Finally, Ichiran! First, we had to buy a ticket for our order. There were so many buttons it was hard to choose. Then, we were directed to our cubicles. There was an english menu we had to answer for our preference. It’s funny coz it’s like a test that husband asked me what I answered. There’s also a tap on every cubicle for the water.
Now it’s time to devour our Tonkotsu Ramen! It’s so yummy! You can order for refill, but one bowl’s already filling!
After stuffing our stomach, we needed a walk. We strolled through Kyoto’s pantry: Nishiki Market. There’s so much to see and buy.
We just ate, but we had to try the baby octopus and the cuttlefish fish cake of Houkyuuan. The baby octopus was a little chewy, but not that bad as what others said. The fish cake was so good!
By 1pm, we headed to our kimono rental appointment at Yumekyoto Kodaiji. I have already made reservations online to make sure we get a spot. I also had my hair done and availed of returning the kimonos the next day via our hotel. I think our Japanese experience wouldn’t be complete without donning a kimono. The process took less than what I expected. The only bummer for me were the sandals. I have wide feet and they weren’t the comfiest to wear while walking the historic districts. But, I still enjoyed it!
Kodaiji Temple was just a few walks away from the rental shop. It was established in 1606 and a perfect place to get our photos taken. Entrance fee was Y600 each.
But the main reason I added this to the itinerary is because of it’s bamboo grove! I know it will be crowded at Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, so I researched for another grove with less crowd. And with patience, you can have the bamboo grove at Kodaiji all to yourselves (even for just a few minutes before other people walk by). It was such a lovely backdrop.
After a quick break at a small shop, we strolled along the Higashiyama district. It’s one of the best preserved districts; hence, the crowd. It’s lined with shops and small restaurants.
I’m not super fond of matcha, but I had to try the matcha ice cream in danish bread coz it looks so good in the picture. The ice cream had the right amount of sweetness and the danish pastry was good. I ended up buying one for each (coz husband stole mine).
Our feet were tired when we reached the entrance of Kiyomizudera.
The temple was under construction and we were still ways. Our feet gave up on us that we decided to just get to our dinner appointment. I was worried that I couldn’t find a commute from the temple back to Gion. Thankfully, I downloaded the Arukumachi Kyoto Route Planner. I used it to find bus stops. It was extremely helpful especially that Japanese drives on the opposite side of what I’m used to. Not once did we ride the wrong train or bus. We actually get lost from walking! Haha
Since we’re still an hour away from our dinner reservation, we stopped by the Yasaka Shrine.
This Shinto shrine is actually prettier at night with the lights, but didn’t have the strength to go back after dinner. There was a ceremony when I reached the top. No photos were allowed. Even food stalls don’t allow photographs. I wanted to try the crab stick, but I’m saving my appetite for our multi-course meal.
With all the information I’ve read, it wasn’t hard to find Gion Namba that was located in a small dark alleyway. Since it’s still early, we hanged around the walkway while people watching.
It was quarter to seven, and we decided to see if they can take us in. Gladly, they did. I reserved for bar seats through their website. There were two kaiseki chefs. The older chef was grumpy and would make faces when there’s a loud noise. The younger one was more friendly and tried to explain what’s in our food.
No doubt, this ten course meal was heavenly. Everything was so tasty and fresh. Each food was presented well. The dinner probably lasted almost 2 hours. The servings look small, but by the end of the night you will feel full. Our server tried to explain each dish, although they stopped by half of the course. I didn’t mind since I liked the element of surprise and guessing what we’re eating. The menu changes everyday depending on what’s available in the market. The meal ended with a matcha tea. This has to be the most expensive meal we’ve ever eaten, but it was worth it given it’s a Michelin starred restaurant. A pre-anniversary dinner date that we’ll surely remember.
Finding our way back to the hotel was a challenge that night. After getting off the train, I googled our hotel that was located on the other side of where we were. For some reason, google map gave me wrong turns. It may be the location setting of my phone or what, but we walked in circle. Finally, my husband lead the way and we made it back to the hotel at around 9:30pm. Time to rest for another day of Kyoto adventure tomorrow. Stay tuned!
Japan Travel Video: