Kyoto, Japan

Continuing on from my TokyoHakone posts…Day 6 marked our arrival in Kyoto, Japan.  Kyoto, the old capital, is full of religious sites and quaint neighborhoods.

Type of Trip: Self Planned – Part III: Kyoto (4 days, after Tokyo and Hakone)

Hotel: Guesthouse Sanjyotakakura Hibiki – very simple guest house in an AWESOME location (prepay via paypal), booked through Booking.com

Transport: JR Railpass (Odawara to Kyoto on Shinkansen Bullet Train), then taxi to guesthouse

  1. DAY 1: Arrive in Kyoto in mid-afternoon.  Our hotel was simple but the location was fabulous.  Lots of little bakeries, coffee shops and boutiques.  I tend to prefer spending less on hotels during vacations, as we are never in them.  Location is preferable for me.
    • Samurai show and class!  Based on one of my client’s recommendations, we signed up for a show and full-costume lesson at the Kembu Theater.  Worth every penny.  The show was entertaining and showed us a glimpse into traditional samurai culture.  Afterwards, we got to pick our “costume” and learn a simple routine to perform.  The teachers were patient and funny – they took pictures and video with our phones.  Seriously so fun.img_7742
  2. DAY 2: Tour eastern Kyoto by foot – the best way to explore.  The trains are not as accessible, compared to Tokyo, so we ended up taking cabs a lot.
    • Fushimi inari taisha: the famous red gateway of the Shinto (God of rice) shrine.  The torii gates are a beautiful work of art, though I am terrible with crowds and this one was slammed with people.  That made the whole experience rather
      img_7769

      Torii Gates at the Shinto Shrine

      claustrophobic for me.  My recommendation is to GO EARLY (we went around 11am).  Another observation, the area surrounding these sites offer tons of kimono-rental shops…so you see hundreds of foreigners dressed in traditional kimono dress.

    • Kiyomizu-dera Temple: the views of Kyoto are excellent from this spot (as it is at a higher elevation).  Too many people for my taste though.  Pick your arrival time wisely.
    • Shopping: in this whole area (Higashiyama), there are lots of cute shops selling tea sets, pottery, etc.  We spent a few hours exploring this part of “old Kyoto”.
    • Gion: the Geisha District.  I LOVED this neighborhood.  Lots of wood-paneled facades on the private tea houses, lanterns dimly lit in the evenings, excellent restaurants.  Walk down Shijo Avenue and then alongside the canal that runs parallel.  Go around dusk (6pm-ish) for the best chance to see a Geisha heading into one of her appointments.  We were lucky enough to see one in a taxi!
    • Though we didn’t go out after dinner, we did have a local bartender tell us that Pontecho Street is an excellent place for food and Kiyamachi Street for drinks.
  3. DAY 3: Continued exploring the sites in Western Kyoto.
    • Ryoanji Temple & Zen Gardens: This was a highlight of the trip.  We woke up early so as to arrive to the gardens by 8am, when it opens (we took a taxi).  fullsizerender-3It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.  Super peaceful and a great place to meditate and reflect.  The landscaping is something to be admired as well!
    • Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion): you can walk here from the gardens above.  Still a great idea to get there early – we arrived around 10:30am and there were tons of school tours.  Still enjoyable with the crowds though.  The pavilion is stunning, especially reflecting on the pond.  We stopped at the tea house here, paid 500 YEN to enjoy traditional matcha tea and a small cake.  fullsizerender-1
    • Arashiyama: the bamboo forest.  This place was super cool and a free tourist activity.  The overhead bamboo made you feel like you were walking through a fairy land.  It was crazy crowded by the time we got there though
      fullsizerender-2

      Bamboo Forest

      (so a lot of sudden stopping when people decided to take a photo).  If you have an additional day, I would suggest doing this first thing that morning.

    • Togetsukyo Bridge: Walk over from the bamboo forest and check this out.  Magnificent views of the mountains and river.
    • Shiatsu massage: we needed massages after all the walking over the past week so we opted for a traditional massage, walking distance from our hotel.  We found this gem: Hiyoshido.  The women at the front were welcoming and the massage was fabulous – 90 minutes for 7,500 YEN (around $70 USD).  We were able to get the massages in the same room, as you wear traditional Japanese pajamas.  Totally worth it – we thought about gong back the next day for the 3 hour option!
    • Dinner: We were hoping to get a traditional kaiseki dinner (belated Thanksgiving celebration) but had trouble finding a restaurant that could accommodate us on the spot on a Friday evening.  We realized that this is because most of the restaurants are very small (sometimes just a bar) and the meal can take a few hours.  I suggest making a reservation in advance (this was the place we wanted to try but needed a reso: KARYO)  We ended up finding a place in Gion, and ordering the expensive chef’s selection.  I didn’t particularly care for the majority of the dishes, but we did try everything (including snails).  They brought out a sushi platter as one point with a lobster head on the plate.  It was still moving, which totally freaked us out.  Totally bizarre experience, but one that I was glad we tried. fullsizerender-4
  4. DAY 4: Depart back to airport
    • Our flight wasn’t until the evening, out of Tokyo…so we spent the morning walking and shopping in our neighborhood.  We bought silk kimono robes that I am pretty sure I live in 24/7 now.
    • Our reserved bullet train from Kyoto Station to Tokyo Station left around noon.  Easy commute to Tokyo Station with views of Mt. Fuji along the way (~2.5 hours).  Once at Tokyo Station, take the local train (5 or 6) to Hamamatsucho, then catch the Haneda Airport train (<1 hour).  The JP Railpass covers these trains too.

That’s it for our trip!  We departed on a morning flight on 11/17 and departed on an evening flight on 11/26.  It was the perfect amount of time to see everything we were hoping.

じゃあね (See ya, Japan!)

Advertisements

Hakone, Japan

Continuing on from my Tokyo post…Day 3 marked our arrival in Hakone, Japan.  Hakone is famous for its relaxing onsen (Japanese hotsprings) and close proximity to the sacred Mt. Fuji.  We needed some downtime after all the commuting and chaos of urban Tokyo.  Hakone proved to be the exact oasis we were hoping for.

Type of Trip: Self Planned – Part II: Hakone (2 days, after Tokyo)

Hotel: Mount View Hakone – ryokan with private onsen (cash only), booked through Hotels.com

Transport: JR Railpass (Tokyo Station to Odawara on Shinkansen Bullet Train)

  1. DAY 1: Arrive in Hakone in mid-afternoon
    • Commute: First, we took the bullet train from Tokyo Station using our JR Railpass.  We got off at the Odawara stop (~45 min).  From there, exit the station to the bus stop (on the East side).  Take the Tozan Bus Route (“T”) to the “Sengokuhara-bunka-center-mae” stop (~1 hour).  It cost us around $10 USD. The buses are easy to navigate and the stops are shown in English in the front. If you are going to Hakone for 2-3 days total…I highly recommend getting the Hakone FreePass at the Odawara station.  This would cover that part of your transit (bus) and you will use it again for the tour loop.  
    • Ryokan – we reserved a Superior Twin room with a Tatami area (make sure to order the breakfast and dinner for at least one night – the “half board” option!).  The room was gorgeous and simple.  A separate big-claw bath in the room and traditional Japanese sleeping arrangements.  When you check in, they provide you with traditional Yukata (a casual kimono) to wear during your stay.  When you get the “half-board”, you also get one free private bath session for your room (45 min, great for couples).  Most go nude in the onsen…the water was SO hot, but completely relaxing!  The hotel also has a public onsen for women only, men only and coed.  You do not need a reservation for these and you can choose to go nude or with a swim suit.  This was exactly what we needed after all the walking around Tokyo!

      img_7636

      Private onsen at ryokan

    • After enjoying our private bath session, we got ready for our traditional kaiseki dinner in the hotel.  I was not expecting how awesome it was!  There were about 15 plates set up in front of each of our chairs, in a private dining room.  You serve yourself, order sake as you please, and enjoy a traditional kaiseki meal.  TRY EVERYTHING! fullsizerender-3
  2. DAY 2: Hakone Loop Tour – in search of Mt. Fuji.  Pick a clear day so you can see it!  We woke up to the earthquake in Fukushima, thankfully it didn’t result in the tsunami that was anticipated!
    • Breakfast, like dinner, was epic.  Another billion courses…including a crab claw miso soup that was boiled in front of us.  So awesome and flavors I had never tried before!
    • We purchased the Hakone Freepass (mentioned above) at a local stop near our ryokan.  We bought the 2-day for 4,000 YEN.  It covers all of your day’s transportation and comes with a comprehensive bus map that is easy to follow. fullsizerender-5From there, we hopped on the bus to Gora (where the loop begins).  LOOP
    • We loved the loop adventure…four modes of transportation in one day (bus, cable car, ropeway, and boat).  The first epic views of Mount Fuji arrived on the ropeway.  You are inside a gondola…try to sit on the right side of the car (right side if you are facing uphill).
    • We ate black hardboiled eggs in Owakudani (where the ropeway drops you off).  This volcanic site was interesting but we didn’t find it appealing to stay long.  img_7691
    • Pirate ship across Lake Ashi to end the loop – sit on the top level.  It gets crowded but the views aren’t anything new.  fullsizerender-4We found it a great time to chill out, instead of fighting the crowds of tourists with cameras. 🙂  The Fall foliage is simply gorgeous.
    • The bus took us back to the ryokan and we had a late lunch at the Petite Prince (french restaurant).  We were craving some bread after days of fish and Japanese fare.
  3. DAY 3: Depart Hakone…on to Kyoto!