Our journey from Hakone to Kyoto wasn’t so easy. We woke early in the morning, packed our suitcases, walked to the train station and boarded the first of three trains. After navigating our way through two confusing stations with all of our children and luggage, we boarded the Shinkansen from Odawara to Kyoto (the speedy bullet train that Michael and the kids were eager to try!). We arrived late afternoon, to a wet and dreary Kyoto. It was a pretty exhausting travel day and I spent much of it fighting back motion sickness and corralling restless children. It also happened to be my birthday. Ugh…
That night, without really knowing what Shabu-Shabu was, we went for dinner at Gion Kaikan, a fun, classic Japanese experience. I’m not much of a meat eater, so I mostly watched the kids enjoy cooking their own meal in the nabemono (a Japanese hot pot) in the centre of the table. I was secretly dealing with a bout of homesickness.
For the first time in our journey I longed for the familiarity of home, friends, family and favourite foods. It dawned on me half way through dinner that it would be my first birthday without a call from my Grandma to sing me happy birthday. Soobie always called on my birthday and sang in her bold, beautiful old-fashioned voice. I cried at dinner in front of Michael and the kids. Not because I felt sorry for myself on my birthday, but because there is something about birthdays that makes you look at your life and realise how quickly it’s going. I turned 35 and 35 suddenly feels quite grown-up. I’m not a child anymore – I’m a mother – and my parents are grandparents. Generations are shifting up the ladder of life.
The next day, although still rainy, felt better from the start. I awoke to birthday bunting strung across our little kitchen and pancakes on the stove. Michael had, for the first time in his life, bought pancake mix because he couldn’t decipher any labels in the Japanese grocery store. Still, we enjoyed those pancakes and the comfort and familiarity they brought.
The next four days we explored the charming city of Kyoto. As the clouds cleared and the sun warmed us, we grew to really like this city. We visited many shrines and temples (all equally beautiful), we ate soba noodles for practically every meal and we walked so much that our legs were sore.
Kyoto is the former capital of Japan but could not be more different to the current capital, Tokyo. It’s a much smaller city, less densely populated and considerably easier to navigate. The buses, for example, are a breeze to use and a lot of the city can be covered on foot. Visually it is quite different too. It has far fewer higher rises, many more individual homes and lots of traditional architecture mixed in. Unlike Tokyo, which is unashamedly modern, Kyoto retains a sense of history and tradition that we enjoyed.
We stayed in a house provided by Japan Experience, about fifteen minutes by taxi from the city centre but in a quiet, residential area. Like a lot of Kyoto neighbourhoods, ours was dotted with temples and shrines. They were lesser known to be sure, but in most cities they would have been famous landmarks–such are Kyoto’s riches.
We realized early on that there was no way we’d see every famous sight in Kyoto, so we decided to prioritise more on proximity than on fame or reputation. That meant we missed out on some celebrated sites, like Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Temple), or Fushimi Inari Shrine, with its walkway of hundreds of vermilion Torii gates, but we enjoyed everywhere else we visited.
Eating was a particular pleasure in Kyoto, and we mostly stuck to Japanese. We’ve listed our favourite restaurants below, but our favourite dish was Nishin Soba, hot soba noodles with Herring–a local speciality we’re told. The big kids also fell in love with Green Tea (or Matcha) Ice Cream (Marlow wasn’t so sure). This city is crammed with sweet shops selling every conceivable mix of sugar and matcha and we enjoyed trying them. Biscuits with matcha and white chocolate were especially nice.
Kyoto is a wonderful city with so much tradition and culture. With only five days to explore it, we barely scraped the surface. You could easily spend a week or more here. Our favourite spots were the Kodai-ji temple at nighttime, when they illuminate their amazing gardens, the Bamboo Forest walk and the nearby Monkey Park and city view. We also enjoyed strolling through random neighbourhoods, stumbling upon pretty artisan shops and tasty cafes. We’ve listed other favourites below.
On our final day we piled our kids and bags into two taxis and headed off for Kyoto station, ready for another long, but cheerier travel day. Our flight departed from Tokyo the next day so we made plans to meet our friends Phil, Ayaka, and their son Rio at the Savoy, the amazing pizza restaurant we wrote about previously. That night, Phil told us about Mirai no Mori, a Japanese charity that looks after orphans and children who have been the victims of neglect or abuse. Phil is training for a four-day, 550-kilometer sponsored cycle ride from Tokyo to Ichinoseki in northeastern Japan, as part of a group of 40 cyclists who are raising money to support children who live in orphanages in Japan. We pledged to support his ride and wanted to ask anyone else interested in his cause to learn more and donate here.
- Japan Experience rents entire homes in Kyoto and Tokyo. They provide a meet & greet service with really helpful, English-speaking, local staff they call ‘travel angels.’ Our angels, Nikki and Daniel, made us feel welcome immediately and helped us understand local transport, reserve restaurants and book taxis. Thank you Japan Experience!
- Soba noodles at Hinode Udon – a popular spot near to our house, worth waiting in the queue! So yummy.
- Honke Owariya — a Japanese noodle restaurant opened since 1465 – one of the first in Kyoto! We were introduced to it by our new friends, Audrey and Liliyo, and enjoyed a classic soba lunch.
- Café Bibliotec Hello café and bookstore — we stumbled upon this sweet café and bakery, with coffee and treats rivalling any café in London, Paris or New York.
- Shabu Shabu at Gion Gyuzen on my birthday. The kids absolutely loved doing the cooking at our table.
- Janbo Yaki Soba – we stopped by here after the Bamboo Forest. We were trying to go to another Okonomiyaki restaurant but our driver insisted this one was the best. Queues out the door! What it lacks in atmosphere it makes up for with tasty food, good portions and incredibly low prices.
- Pizzeria Solono – after eating Japanese food nearly every meal, we longed for a pizza night and thankfully stumbled upon this little pizzeria with good, wood-fired pizzas.
- Matcha ice cream from Tsujiri tea shop – there are plenty of places to buy matcha ice cream, but this speciality tea shop served the best.
- Arabica Coffee shop – we knew the coffee must be good judging by the queue outside the shop, and it was indeed coffee worth waiting for.
- Kodai-ji Temple – A beautiful temple with gardens and bamboo groves that are illuminated at night during special times of the year.
- Arashiyama Bamboo Forest – walkways through dramatic bamboo groves, adjacent to other sights and parks. We walked from here to the Monkey Park.
- Iwatayama Monkey Park – A twenty-minute walk up the side of the mountain brings you to amazing views of Kyoto and a park inhabited by a troop of Japanese Macaque monkeys.
- Kyotographie art exhibit near Tsutaya Bookstore – we were lucky to visit during this exhibition that runs through to 22 May 2016. It includes numerous galleries and sites throughout Kyoto. We especially liked the Plankton exhibit by Christian Sardet.
- Kyoto Gyoen Imperial Palace Park – we strolled through this lovely park (with playgrounds!) into the centre of town.
- Shinkyogoku shopping market/arcade – on our first rainy day we spent too much time in the B-Label sticker shop, plus found numerous traditional Japanese fabrics, slipper and kimono shops. We gave in to the girls’ request for their own yukatas!
- Finger Factory – we stumbled upon this little furniture shop (next to Café Bibliotec Hello, mentioned above). Three women sat outside the shop weaving stools and it caught our eye. Everything in the shop was beautiful! (We wished we could squeeze one of the stools in our suitcases.)
- Arts & Science – a beautiful Japanese clothing brand and shop. I took a very quick look in the shop while Michael and the kids waited for me outside. If only I had more time to try a few things on!