Originally my itinerary for this trip included several day trips (to Nara, Hiroshima and Miyajima), but once we arrived in Kyoto we decided that we’d rather stay put and just explore this city. It’s my preferred way to travel anyway – reduce the number of destinations and spend more quality time in each of them. I’d much rather get to know a handful of places instead of racing around, constantly packing and re-packing, and barely scraping the surface of a much longer list of destinations.
I really love Kyoto. I loved wandering around its beautiful streets, the incredible abundance of fantastic vegetarian meals, and perhaps most of all I really loved feeling completely foreign.
Sleep. Kyoto gave us the chance to try out a Japanese Machiya style inn, without requiring us to sacrifice modern conveniences. We could not have asked for better than staying in the Sakura Room of Sakara Kyoto. Located in a busy little shopping arcade and close to the subway, we felt like we’d entered the real Japan. Our apartment was cosy and well-equipped, and I loved leaving the windows open at night to hear the sounds of the arcade below.
Top tips – Staying in an apartment rather than a hotel is a great way to feel a little more like a local.
See & Do. Much like the time we spent in Tokyo, we didn’t explore too many parts of Kyoto beyond our immediate location (which in this case was Higashiyama). We spent our days wandering about – sometimes with a particular destination in mind, but often not. We criss-crossed streets, wandered down alleyways and took regular shopping and eating breaks. On an unfortunately hot and humid day we decided to walk to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple via Higashi-oji-dori Street, and while the temple was beautiful and the view back across Kyoto stunning, it was just way too crowded for our taste. The walk up towards the temple was lovely though, and we stopped at several little handmade boutique stores to make a few purchases, and got to meet some really lovely shopkeepers and artisans.
I much preferred the time we spent at Nijō Castle (Nijojo) – the grounds were expansive enough to lose the crowds, and the fortifications and gardens are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Wandering inside Ninomaru Palace and walking across the nightingale floors was a particular highlight (with the boards being so much louder and squeakier than I’d expected). On our way back to our apartment we wandered through the grounds surrounding the Kyoto Imperial Palace – the gardens are picturesque and peaceful, but perhaps not worth making a special trip to see.
We really enjoyed visiting the Kyoto International Manga Museum – the staff are lovely, most displays have English language translations, and it’s located in a beautiful building (if you’re artistically minded they also offer lots of practical workshops on weekends). Most nights would see us hanging out with all the cool kids down by the Kamo River (where I also based by early morning runs).
Top tips – Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many temple visits – there’s so much more to see. For runners, there are some fantastic paths right next to the Kamo River (which is also a popular spot for local exercisers).
Eat. While it was definitely possible to find vegetarian food in Tokyo given a bit of persistence and a lot of patience, I have to say that Kyoto is a vegetarian’s dream – there are so many dedicated vegetarian restaurants and cafes (just in our immediate area) that I didn’t even get a chance to try them all. Cafe Matsuontoko serves up the most amazing range of vegan goodies including delicious burgers (the avocado burger was my favourite), amazing onion rings and fantastic chocolate brownies. Songbird Coffee (located near Nijō Castle) is just about the sweetest little eatery I’ve ever seen – with a beautiful minimalistic interior, indoor garden and perfect comfort food (the cheese toast was AMAZING!).
My favourite snack places were Floresta Nature Doughnuts and Yami Yoghurt Hawaiian – go to the former for amazing healthy doughnuts (salted caramel and strawberry coconut were my favourites), and go to the latter for delicious frozen yoghurt sundaes (the banana version was our favourite). Your most eclectic vegetarian dining experience will most definitely be found at Mikoan – but you’ll need lots of good luck to find the place (it’s notoriously hard-to-find, but well worth the effort – the set meals are great value for money and the decor is unlike anything you’ve ever seen … trust me).
The place I found myself eating dinner at more often than not was Togaden – a restaurant whose menu is based completely around Tofu dishes … in other words, heaven for me … just writing about it now is making me hungry… If you’re in need of coffee there’s lots of choices – our favourite was the beautifully fitted out ‘Ogawa Coffee’ (and their cream cheese bagels make a pretty great breakfast too).
Top tips – I stumbled across so many great places by accident, so exploration is the key to some wonderful dining experiences. If you find yourself at Togaden my pick is the tofu karaage set meal.
Shop. Unexpectedly warm weather during our Kyoto visit meant that some shopping really needed to be done (the prices and clothing range are both excellent). The Teramachi Shopping Arcade fulfilled all of our needs – and we found a great mix of retail stores, including those specialising in quality secondhand / vintage items (like Kanful). I also really loved browsing (and buying) at Urban Research and The Kitano Shop. I also couldn’t resist adding to my t-shirt collection, and came away with two awesome printed tunic tops from Design Tshirts Store Graniph.
Top tips – Be sure to remove your shoes before entering a change room. Oh, and learn to ignore tag sizes … you’ll probably have to wear a size drastically different to what you’re used to.
Speak & Read. The majority of cafes and restaurants had translated menus, so eating shouldn’t be much of an issue from a language perspective. We found that English was less widely spoken here than the other parts of Japan we travelled in, but we were able to communicate without difficulty. While people on the street felt a little less openly friendly than Tokyo and Takayama, the people we dealt with on an individual basis were so very lovely.
Top tips – English was generally less prevalent here, but a lack of Japanese language skills presented us with no barriers.
Transport. Kyoto has a fantastic subway system which is a quick and easy way to get around the city. There are two lines – Karasuma (north-south) and Tozai (east-west) – sometimes it’s necessary to switch between the two lines, but maps are easy to find at all subway stations. The minimum fare is 210 yen, and it increases in accordance with the distance you travel.
Top tips – Aside from walking, the subway is a brilliant way of travelling around Kyoto (but you won’t be able to use your JR Pass).