Written 9/19, posted 9/20
Greetings from Kyoto! I arrived yesterday around noon and dropped my bags off at my hostel, Ichi En Sou (more on that later). Then I was off to the infamous Nishiki food market for lunch and foodie worship. I’ll dedicate an entire post to Nishiki Market, so you’ll have to wait for the details. For most of my Kyoto trip so far, I’ve relied on the advice of fellow blogger EO, who is quite familiar with the city. Since it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number temples here, and because they all charge an entry fee of some sort, it was really helpful to know which ones to focus on and which ones to overlook. For my first temple, I headed over to Nanzen-ji, a huge Buddhist temple that EO recommended because it’s free (it only costs money to go up to the 2nd level). There was also a big Roman-style aqueduct and a secret temple in the woods that were neat.
Next on the list was Choin-in. Unfortunately, I got a little lost and it was closed by the time I got there. Sad face. I was pretty tired anyway at this point, from the travel and the hours of walking. I headed back to my hostel and met up with fellow hostellers to go out for dinner. Friendly owner Yashi took all of us out for okonomiyaki, a Japanese omelet specialty filled with miscellaneous items, depending on the region. Afterward, most of us continued on for a stroll through Pontocho, stopping for a beer en route. Then, a few of us tested our voices with a short, one-hour session of karaoke. You’ll be glad to know that yes, they had Baby Got Back, and yes, I totally killed it. After traveling by myself for the first two days, it was nice to hang out with like-minded, English speaking people. The hostel is small (only 10 people can stay here at any given time) and very clean. Yashi opened the hostel about 18 months ago, and everything is new and well designed. I am staying in a 4-person girls only dorm room, which is set up in the traditional, tatami style.
Today, I woke up super early to head west to Arashiyama, where I looked forward to beating the crowds at the bamboo forest north of Tenryu-ji. I did manage to get there early for a Saturday, but unfortunately I didn’t get the complete solitude I wanted. It was still pretty neat though – just as my guidebook had described, it was like a scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Then I walked towards the big river there (actually, 2 rivers: Hozu-gawa and Katsura-gawa), which was really scenic but also filled with Japanese tourists. In front of a kimono fabric workshop, I paid 100 yen (about $1.10) to take a photo next to a faux-geisha. Actually, the 100 yen was an entry fee to the workshop, but it was sort of understood that picture taking wasn’t free.
Since it was still fairly early, I spontaneously decided to fight the crowds at Ryoan-ji, site of the famous Zen rock garden. Yes, the rock garden was very pretty but certainly not peaceful with a throng of tourists. Luckily, the rest of the grounds, especially the pond full of lily pads, were lovely and well worth the entry fee. At this point, both of my camera batteries ran out (both my DSLR and my point and shoot. FAIL.). I headed back to the hostel, stopping by the Takashimaya Department Store for a quick lunch. What I found in the basement was amazing. It was almost more enthralling to me than Nishiki market: beautiful bento boxes, amazing Japanese and Western pastries, sushi and sashimi… I was in foodie heaven. I settled on a small tray of nigiri sushi for the cheap price of $7.50.
There’s more but I’ll stop with the recounting and switch to my recommendations/observations about being a tourist in Kyoto:
- Because there are so many tourists here, a lot of restaurants have English menus. Just ask for one!
- The public transportation network is widespread but not well consolidated. For instance, there are 2 main subway lines, a lot of private train lines that also act as commuter lines, as well as a bus system and an electric tram. None of these use the same pass, nor do they offer transfers. (I think you can by a Kansai regional pass but they are pricey and you’d have to be traveling a lot to make it worthwhile). For my money, I’d recommend the bus system. It’s easy to use – the English map from Kyoto Station has clear instructions. I also like riding the bus, even though it usually takes longer, because it helps me to orient myself and lets me see different areas of the city that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
- I’m glad I chose to stay in Gion, one of the oldest quarters in Kyoto. It’s a happening place and the buildings are really unique compared to the more “modern” parts of Kyoto. Geishas are often spotted here; unfortunately, I never saw one. Sad face.
- As I mentioned above, it doesn’t always pay to buy entry into every temple. In fact, sometimes you can see just as much for free. I suggest doing some research into each temple, and making sure there’s something special about the place before you shell out $5-$6/temple.
- Though convenient, vending machines can be a lot pricier than 7-11, am/pm, and family marts (Japanese convenience stores). In fact, the convenience stores also stock lots of cheap bento boxes and rice balls for an economical meal/snack. I bought a (cooked) salmon rice ball for $1.50, which tied me over until I was able to get a proper lunch.
- There are a lot of things hidden in tall buildings. Commercial buildings, such as department stores, will have a floor guide at the entrance or just right inside – take a look and you might find something you’re interesting in (i.e. food). This is how I found the Takashimaya food court.