I'm not sure what drew me to Japan the first time, three years ago, but I do know what I fell in love with while I was there. Ancient and modern are mixed together in Japan in a way that expands my mind beyond the present. Temples are tucked in between skyscrapers. After a day at work friends might gather at an onsen before having dinner at a kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi restaurant. Perhaps it is the abundant natural hot springs or the connection of the land to the water which called me back for a second visit. Maybe it's the kindness of the people, or the ceramicists throwing pottery in adherence with ways gone by. There's a lot to love in Japan.
I've been hard at work with my husband preparing our sailboat to sail around the world all of last year. We finally got to a point the week before we flew to Japan that we moved back in, christened her Blossom and took an overnight maiden voyage to Treasure Island. When we docked back at our home marina, it was pouring rain, we were exhausted and probably should not have been held accountable for our actions! So we bought flights to Japan leaving in two days. I love the feeling of buying plane tickets just before a trip. Nothing beats deciding to visit a foreign country and buying a ticket the same day.
We flew into Osaka and after a brief stop for a sushi breakfast at Endo Sushi in the Osaka Fish Market, we hopped on a train to Kyoto. As the poet Basho wrote, "Even in Kyoto... I long for Kyoto." It's streets are so peaceful in the cold of wintertime, lit with glowing yellow lanterns, just enough bustle to feel like a city but with alleyways that twist and curl like only a place constructed slowly over time, before the automobile, could. Below are a few of the places that I have visited and will likely revisit every time I find myself wandering around Kyoto.
Even in Kyoto... I long for Kyoto.
I've spent most of my life in rural lands, so cities feel novel and thrilling to me. But I do not like to stay in them for too long. Just long enough to get inspired, stock up on some things and feel the desire to head back into the countryside. I've found it is not easy to plan trips off the beaten path as a traveller. You can't just go and rely on there being a bed or a meal for you like in the city. People tend to speak less English. Transportation becomes irregular. My first trip to Japan I carried a tent and sleeping bag so I could assure a visit to the green tea growing regions of Japan. This trip, I took trains and buses into the Japanese Alps. At the end of the guide, you'll find a bit about day trips you could take into they country from Kyoto.
- Uneno (畝の) - On a quiet street you'll see a slender window through some tree branches emitting a warm glowing light. Inside is a tiny (perhaps 10 seats) counter where ancient methods of food preparation are still honored. They take great care with their ingredients, sourcing only from Japan. Their focus is udon but I tried the konabe, a hot pot of fish and seasonal vegetables.
- Spoon - We were having trouble finding anywhere to eat dinner because it was during the popular leaf viewing season and most restaurants were totally booked with reservations. Going place to place asking if they had room to seat us, this place told me they did. And lucky me! With a seasonal menu, pesticide-free rice and local organic meats, we enjoyed a wonderful traditional Japanese dinner.
- Tan (丹) - A beautiful space with a shared dining table greets you. This is one of the few places you can get a Japanese breakfast in Kyoto if it doesn't come with your lodging. The emphasis is on vegetables which are organic and of amazing quality.
- Cafe Bibliotech Hello! - Overflowing into the street with plants, this cafe is a beautiful spot for a lunch. Next door they combine Japanese ingredients with traditional pastry baking methods to push out some tasty pastries.
- Ippodo Tea House (文華堂) - Sit down for a tea ceremony to learn the proper way to brew a tea of your own selection. Ippodo has ben in the tea business for nearly three centuries. Their teas are all grown in the misty fields around Kyoto, a famous tea production area.
- STARDUST - In a room behind their shop, they serve a light lunch, teas and raw nut based desserts. You can't go wrong.
- Weekenders Coffee - Coffee became an ally for me in Japan. A cup right around lunchtime helped me to combat the time change difference. Central to everything, this is a good place to stop in as you are passing. They roast their own coffee and pour beautiful cappuccinos.
- STARDUST - This cafe + shop of beautiful things is worth the trip to the outskirts of Kyoto. My favorite little store ever. I left with a raw chamomile cake in my belly and a gorgeous leather bag handmade from a single piece of hide.
- Naito Brush Shop (刷子店) - Go. Buy one of each and lots for your friends! This store, founded in 1818, sells only brushes handmade from natural fibers.
- Kaikado (開花度) - a gorgeous store of copper and brass tea canisters
- Bizarre Hat Atelier (奇妙な帽子店) - A friendly husband/wife duo run this shop. She was delicately finishing up a hat by hand when we popped in. I am still suffering from hat regret for not buying the unique lacy white one.
- Kyoto Pro Antiques (プロアンティークス コム) - An upscale antique store that is really good about knowing how old most things are. Amazingly, we found a nifty brass part for our sailboat door we were missing. We also dug through the seconds pile to find a personal sake cup, from the Meiji Periord, one for me and one for my love! Ceramics get better with usage. I love imagining the people and homes they graced before me.
- Ryōan-ji - a zen temple considered one of the finest examples of kare-sansui (dry landscaping"; a combed rock garden where no matter your location, you can't see every rock
- Tamanou (玉の湯) - This bath house is certainly not for everybody. This place serves as a local bathhouse, a place to meet up with a friend and catch up while relaxing in the various types of tubs. It happened to be near where I stayed on my first trip so I visited daily.
- The Philosopher's Path (賢者の道) - a winding path central to the city great to stroll after dinner
- Arashiyama (嵐山) - Here you will find the national sound of Japan - the bamboo rustling gently in the wind.
- Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) - These famous orange gates are the main shrine for the god Inari, the god of rice, sake, tea, prosperity and fertility. Look for my favorite spot, a little shrine within the larger shrine, the Little Alar to the Foxes.
- Nishiki Market (錦或r只有牛逼) - Worth walking around but go early in the day or else it gets really crowded.
We made a dire mistake here, flying by the seat of our pants and making no reservations until we arrived in Japan. The places we stayed were fine, but there are so many magical places I'd rather have been... like Veada, Toshiharu Ryokan or an airbnb. Next time! I'd recommend booking lodging at least three weeks in advance or more if it is the season of autumn leaves or spring blossoms, the two biggest travel season for most of Japan.
TRIPS FROM KYOTO
- Uji - Famous for growing green tea, this small town is a quick one hour train ride from Kyoto. Visit Itoh Kyuemon Byodoin where you can learn how to whisk matcha upstairs and pick up some great tea downstairs. A walk through Ujigami Shrine, up the hill into the misty coniferous forest will make you forget there is a town at the bottom of the hill.
- Rotemboro at Kurama Hot Spring - If you don't have time to visit a ryokan, I'd recommend a day trip to Kurama Hot Spring. You can experience a rotenburo (outdoor bath) in the morning, stroll the small town in the afternoon and be back in Kyoto by nightfall.
- Fukuji - If you have the time, my favorite place in all of Japan is the little town of Fukuji. It's in the middle of the Hida mountain range. The day we arrived happened to be the first snowfall of winter and it was beautiful. There are many natural hot springs in Fukuji and most are privately owned by ryokans. You can easily pass four days here.
- Inamori's Grass Circle of Yamazato (山里のいおり 草円) - We stayed here for three nights. The food was spectacular! The best I've eaten in my life, I think. Meals consisted of many small courses featuring local food. With a total of seven outdoor baths, it was easy to tune in to the snowy wonderland.
- Yumoto Jyoza (湯元 長座) - This was the first place we stayed. It felt a smidgen older and more traditional, perhaps because the staff spoke less English so all I could do was guess about the ceremonies taking place. It also seemed to be a bit more of the map as there was a nice mix of people from different countries. Between the two ryokans, I can't choose! I'd honestly visit both again.
- Hike the trail up Mount Yake. Ask somebody where it is. The views of the surrounding mountains are spectacular.
- Hida Spice - This sansho, a prickly ash pepper, spice mixture was on the table at our ryokan and we loved it. It's heat is most similar to a sichuan pepper. Walking through town, we discovered the pepper making shop and learned about how it is harvested, high up in the Hida mountains every summer.
Here is a google map you can use on your phone to easily find these spots if you happen to find yourself in Kyoto.
You can shop the treasures I have found in Japan here.