Kyoto Food- A Tasty Sampling of Assorted Dishes

Kyoto food Isobe restaurant Maruyama with tempuraI am by no means an expert on Japanese food. I like a wide variety of Japanese food, but I don’t know THAT much about some of the dishes less well known to foreigners. In the states, I enjoy Japanese steakhouses, sushi rolls, tempura, teriyaki dishes and the like. Since I started traveling to Japan, I have been exposed to different dishes that I had never heard of before. Food like kushiage (breaded and deep fried foods on skewers), shabu-shabu and sukiyaki (similar dishes- a sort of meat fondue. The only differences seem to be the medium you cook the meat, and you dip your sukiyaki meat in raw egg before eating it), and I liked everything I’ve tried so far. So I haven’t eaten anything crazy before, and I didn’t this trip during Kyoto. But I ate well, and that is always a good thing.

Food is one of the things I look forward to the most when traveling to a new location. There is such a wide variety of cuisine out there, and for the most part (with a few exceptions here and there), I tend to like most local foods I’ve tried. The first night on this trip to Kyoto, I had dinner at a restaurant called Isobe. It is conveniently located, situated in the heart of Maruyama Park. The restaurant sign is only in Japanese, but a red umbrella is depicted on the sign to help you out. For dinner I had a Maruyama with tempura meal (pictured above). The meal consisted of a pot of boiled vegetables and seafood, rice, miso soup, fish soup, and boiled tofu (a local specialty). It also included an assortment of small side dishes, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what any of them were, but I ate them anyway. The food was good, though the seating arrangement was a bit odd. I was situated in a small room right across from the entrance along with another foreign couple. There is a main dining hall, but it looked like it was reserved for a group. The cost of the meal was 3,990 yen (roughly $40 USD).

Kyoto food Ichiba Coji chicken naniban lunchThe next day for lunch, I had to sort of scramble around to find a place to eat. It’s not that there wasn’t any restaurants available. It’s just that it can sometimes be difficult picking a restaurant. Since I don’t speak or read Japanese, that can limit what restaurants I choose to eat. However, a nice quirk of many Japanese restaurants is the display cases outside. Most restaurants have very realistic looking plastic displays of some of the main dishes they offer, which helps you choose. So even if you don’t speak Japanese, it is always possible to order just by pointing at one of the plastic dishes that look good to you.

Since I was running low on time, I elected to eat lunch at Ichiba Coji, which has a couple restaurants throughout town. The one I elected to eat was in central Kyoto in the basement of the WithYou Building, near the Teramachi covered shopping arcade. I selected the chicken naniban, which is a deep fried chicken obento lunch. Ichiba Coji’s lunch service is a well oiled machine. The obento lunch boxes are pretty standard with rice (a very tasty purple rice), miso soup, boiled tofu and a small assortment of side dishes. All you have to do is pick out the main dish and it will be served within a few minutes. It was definitely tasty, and the lunch was filling without making you feel over stuffed (it’s actually rather hard to feel stuffed at most Japanese restaurants, just because most of the food is pretty healthy and the portion sizes are very reasonable).

Kyoto food Ganko Sushi sushi mixed with tempura lunchThe next day’s lunch was at Ganko Sushi. There are a couple branches of the restaurant in town. There is one located in central Kyoto, on Sanjo Dori, just west of the Kamo River. The restaurant sign is in Japanese, but the sign also has a logo of a face with glasses and a bandanna to help you out). I had dinner at that branch during my first trip to Kyoto, but this time around, I had lunch at the branch in the Kyoto Train Station.

Now is probably a good time to mention just what a food marvel Kyoto Station is. Now make no mistake, the entire city of Kyoto is filled with all sorts of restaurants. You will never go hungry in that city unless you want to, but Kyoto Station has probably the most concentrated bang for your buck eating opportunities in one location. There are around 70 restaurants in the Kyoto Station area, either in the underground arcades, near major exits, near the Hotel Granvia, or on various floors of the Isetan Department Store, which is conveniently directly connected to Kyoto Station. There are helpful maps around the station showing the location of all these restaurants. There is ample choice, though keep in mind that again many of these restaurants are only in Japanese (but they do have those helpful plastic displays out front to tempt you).

My lunch was a very tasty sushi and tempura box lunch. It was nothing crazy or out of this world. It was just tasty and filling and affordable. The lunch cost me 1490 yen, which is roughly $15 USD. It is interesting to compare the different costs of meals in Japan. On my last trip, I paid $110 USD for a 8 oz Kobe beef steak meal at a Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant (detailed in a past blog post), but I can get sushi for cheaper than what I pay in the states. When I arrived at the Kyoto Airport, I had about an hour’s wait for the train ride into town and I was hungry. Thankfully the airport had one of those fast food sushi places where all the different sushi dishes are served on a conveyor belt, and you simply eat as much as you want. I was able to get eight sushi dishes for less than $10 USD, which is not something I easily find in the states (and frankly am suspicious of any sushi restaurant that is that cheap).

Now would also be a good time to let loose a little mini rant about some Asian restaurants and the napkin situation. I’m a rather messy eater (not deliberately, but often my table setting looks like a chipmunk ate there at the conclusion of the meal. And if I’m really on a roll, I will have spilled at least once on my clothes), and I appreciate good, thick napkins. Most restaurants in America offer either thick napkins, or at least an abundance of napkins. It is a bit hit or miss in restaurants in Asia. Korean restaurants do provide napkins, but they tend to be very tiny and flimsy. The nice is thing is that there tends to be a pile of napkins. So many restaurants in Hong Kong and Japan don’t even offer napkins. I guess Asians must be dainty eaters and don’t make a mess, but that doesn’t help me out very much. Often I end up using the towel provided to wash your hands at the beginning of the meal. One of the few places I did find thick napkins was where I had dinner that night- an Italian restaurant called Ante Caffe, and is located on the 11th floor of the Isetan Department Store (the restaurant floor).

Kyoto food Kobe Gravly burger lunchMy final meal in Kyoto ended up being lunch. Yes that IS a burger you see, but I couldn’t resist. The burger is a Kobe beef blend. I had to try it. I knew it wasn’t pure Kobe beef (after all the burger lunch only cost me around $15 USD), but any burger place called Kobe Gravly had to be tried. Like the others I ate at, this restaurant is located on the 10th floor of the Isetan Department Store. Thankfully there is an English menu, though you could still have ordered from the pictures alone. I chose the cheddar cheese burger meal with sweet potato fries. It was GOOOOOOD. And messy. Thankfully this restaurant also provided an abundance of napkins, otherwise the situation would have been dire for my hands.

There are many other Japanese foods I want to eat when I go back to Japan next year. Some of them I’ve tried before (like sukiyaki), some of them I want to try (like kaiseke). But one of the pleasures of a trip to Japan is eating your way through the entire journey. You’ll never go hungry and the wide assortment of foods is a major pleasure for your taste buds.

Spectacular Autumn Colors in Takao, Kyoto

Kyoto Takao Temple title pictureTakao was my final stop on my autumn color extravaganza in Kyoto. I originally intended to visit the Jingoji Temple in the Takao area the night prior since it was open for night illuminations. However, I wussed out and decided to go shopping instead. It turns out it was a really good decision to go during the day, because Takao had the best autumn colors on this trip to Kyoto.

Kyoto Takao Temple red trees

Kyoto Takao Temple entranceTakao is sparsely populated in a mountainous area about an hour’s bus ride from Kyoto. The Takao area houses three temples: Kozanji, Jingoji and Saimyoji. Jingoji Temple is the most popular temple in the area, and was the only one I visited.

Kyoto Takao secondary temple

Kyoto Takao out temple and colorful treesTakao is pretty easy to reach from Kyoto. You can take one of two buses from Kyoto to Takao. The JR bus leaves from Kyoto Station (JR#3 stop). It costs roughly 500 yen one way. The other bus is Kyoto City Bus 8 that leaves from Shijo Karasuma.

Kyoto Takao sunlight treesIt’s a roughly 20-30 minute walk from the Takao bus stop to Jingoji Temple. The trail goes sharply downhill and crosses a river. Follow the stairs up the hill and to the temple.

Kyoto Takao valley river

Kyoto Takao colorful roof

Kyoto Takao colorful pathThe temple grounds are very wide open, and when I was there on a Monday morning, sparsely populated (I imagine it’s much more crowded on a weekend day).

Kyoto Takao Temple entrance interior

Kyoto Takao colorful temple groundsThe centerpiece of Jingoji Temple complex is a large Buddhist Temple. From the top of the stairs, the view down is quite colorful and spectacular (the title picture of this blog).

Kyoto Takao temple stairs

Kyoto Takao colorful tree roofTakao is known for its blazing autumn colors, and it definitely didn’t disappoint. The area hits peak foliage a bit earlier than Kyoto proper, so I got a much bigger hint of what Kyoto looks like when its autumn is at its peak.

Kyoto Takao colorful trees

Kyoto Takao colorful trees on groundTakao was probably my favorite stop on this trip to Kyoto. This provided everything I was looking for and more when it came to autumn foliage. Jingoji Temple is very peaceful and isolated, and that is by design. I thought it was very quiet, peaceful and well built to inspire contemplation, both inward and of the beautiful world around you.

Kyoto Takao colorful building

Kyoto Takao Temple red treesThere are two things that make me really feel like there is a creative force in this world (like a God or Goddess): beautiful art and beautiful  nature. Both of them make me contemplate in awe at how something so beautiful could be created, like the wonderment of the most elaborate Catholic cathedrals in the world, art museums, and nature. The Buddhist temple hall on the grounds was a beautiful combination of the two, with the artwork within the temple and the colorful nature spread outside before you.

Kyoto Takao colorful out building

Kyoto Takao red and orange treesIf you visit Kyoto, particularly in the autumn season, I highly recommend a visit to the Takao region to see the temples. At a minimum, visit Jingoji Temple. You won’t regret it.

Kyoto Takao colorful picnic site

Autumn Colors at Arashiyama Temples- Kyoto

Kyoto Arashiyama Arashion Temple title pictureFor my third day in Kyoto, I made my way out to the Kyoto suburb of Arashiyama. It is a short 20 minute train trip from Kyoto Station on the Sagano Line (train stop: Saga Arashiyama). This suburb was once an place of retreat for the Emperors of the Heian Period (794-1192 CE). Nowadays, in addition to being a quiet, bedroom suburb of Kyoto, it is also home to several historical temples, and is particularly known for its beautiful autumn colors.

Kyoto Arashiyama river bridge

This morning was the first day of poor weather with dark clouds and occasional rain. When I arrived at Arashiyama, I decided take the first train out on the Sagano Romantic Train. It’s a leisurely 25 minute, approximately 7 mile ride to the terminal station of Kameoka. The train chugs along slowly as you can take in the beautiful river valley and the colorful trees around you. You can disembark at Kameoka, or you can take the train back to Arashiyama (approximately 1200 yen round trip) for a nice one hour excursion. If you are also inclined, you can take a two hour boat ride along the river to Arashiyama.

Kyoto Arashiyam valley river

Kyoto Arashiyama valleyAfter returning to Arashiyama, I set off on an approximately three hour walk through the town, stopping off at three of the most prominent temples. My first stop was Nison-in Temple.

Kyoto Arashiyama Nishion Temple main grounds

Nison-in Temple was first built in 834-847 CE, and currently enshrines the two images of Shaka and Amida and are considered national treasures.

Kyoto Arashiyama Nishion Temple worship templeThe autumn colors were quite striking in Arashiyama, and the town hits peak autumn foliage a few days before Kyoto proper.

Kyoto Arashiyama Nishion Temple red treesThe combination of the relative early hour and the rain ensured that I most of the temple complex to myself.

Kyoto Arashiyama Nishion Temple colorful foliageAlso on site was a small Buddhist cemetery.

Kyoto Arashiyama Nishion Temple gravestones

Kyoto Arashiyama Nishion Temple funeraryMy second temple stop was at Adashino Nembutsuji Temple. It is located in the northwest corner of Arashiyama, and to get to the temple, you walk by a very pleasant street of covered shops.

Kyoto Arashiyama Arashion Temple entranceThis particular temple is most known for the thousands of funerary stones on the grounds, from the entrance …

Kyoto Arashiyama Arashion Temple gravestones & red tree…to the central courtyard. I thought the combination of ancient gravestones and colorful trees was particularly striking.

Kyoto Arashiyama Arashion Temple open gravestone field

Kyoto Arashiyama Arashion Temple gravestones and colorful trees

Kyoto Arashiyama Arashion Temple gravestone and a red treeMy final temple stop was at Daikakuji Temple in the northeast corner of Arashiyama.

Kyoto Arashiyama Daikuji Temple main groundsThis temple was a lot bigger than the other ones. This one also had more interior buildings. Your visit through the temple complex is a long, circuitous route on boardwalks. And since this is a Buddhist temple, you have to remove your shoes for your tour. Thankfully since it was raining outside, the entire walk was covered.

Kyoto Arashiyama Daikuji Temple entrance

Kyoto Arashiyama Daikuji Temple red outbuildingThe temple also borders a large pond, Osawa-no-ike Pond covered in waterlilies.

Kyoto Arashiyama Daikuji Temple pondArashiyama is a very easy trip from Kyoto. It’s not even quite a day trip, since you can easily see the town in about four hours. It’s just a short train ride from Kyoto proper and provides a lot of bang for your buck when it comes to both historical sites and beautiful scenery.

Autumn at Night- Kyoto Temple Night Illuminations

Kyoto Night Shorenin Temple title pictureDuring the height of the autumn season, Kyoto opens up some of its temples and gardens to night illuminations. They also happen in the spring, but I didn’t know about them when I was there the last time. But this time, I did my research before my trip to maximize my autumn foliage viewing, and learned about all the different temples open at night. Sadly for me, some of the largest temple complexes didn’t open until after I left Kyoto. But there were more than one temple I was able to enjoy.

Kyoto Night Shorein Temple lake reflection

Kyoto Night Shorein Temple lakeMy first night in Kyoto I visited two temples: the Shorenin Temple and the Kodaiji Temple. They are located in eastern Kyoto and roughly a 10/15 minute walk from each other. It’s always interesting to visit Japanese temples, because you are required to take your shoes off. But thankfully all the temples provide you with a convenient plastic bag to carry your shoes with you. These temples also have illuminated gardens of trees.

Kyoto Night Shorenin Temple lighted yard

Kyoto Night Shorenin Temple red treeKyoto hadn’t reached peak foliage during my visit, so there was still plenty of green leaves on the trees, but you could see oranges and reds as well.

Kyoto Night Shorenin Temple colored foliageShorenin Temple also has an illuminated bamboo forest.

Kyoto Night Shorenin Temple bamboo forestI visited Kodaiji Temple during my last trip and it was interesting to have a new perspective on it, with it being at night and in the autumn.  I was quite entranced with the images of reflections of the trees on still ponds.

Kyoto Night Kodaiji Temple pool reflection

Kyoto Night Kodaiji Temple orange reflection poolMy favorite part of Kodaiji Temple was the illuminated sand garden.

Kyoto Night Kodaiji Temple illuminated sandsThe second night I went to Eikando Temple. The temple is also located in eastern Kyoto and it’s about a 10 minute walk from Nanzenji Temple, so you can easily fit both temples into the same visit. I wasn’t able to visit Nanzenji at night, because the temple gardens weren’t open for night business until later in November. That is another reason why to schedule any Kyoto autumn visits for late November.

Kyoto Night Eikando foliage with moonThis is the entrance way to the temple. I went there right when it opened at 1730.

Kyoto Night Eikando temple entranceI went early figuring I would catch the temple, and then go enjoy dinner. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one who had that thought. There was a 20 minute wait to get into the temple. The line ran smoothly, though it meant there were hordes of people on site enjoying the illuminations. When I left the temple, there was no line or anything. So if you go to temple night visits, go later in the evening. Most of the temple night illuminations stay open between 2030-2130, so there is plenty of time each night to visit the temples.

Kyoto Night Eikando Temple pool reflectionsThat is another thing about a Kyoto autumn visit. You won’t be the only one with the same brilliant idea, so just be prepared to enjoy your visit along with thousands of others. But you get good at elbowing people out of the way so you can take your picture.

Kyoto Night Eikando reflection poolEikando is particularly good for enjoying night reflections of different colored trees on bodies of water.

Kyoto Night Eikando Temple main lakeLike every other temple in Kyoto, it hadn’t hit peak foliage. But there were definitely brilliant patches of red leaves.

Kyoto Night Eikando red trees

Kyoto Night Eikando red foliageEikando is supposed to be especially beautiful during autumn peak foliage, during both day and night. Definitely don’t miss it.

Kyoto Night Eikando Temple bridge

Searching for Autumn Colors- Kyoto edition

Kyoto Searching Ginkakuji Temple title picture

I visited Kyoto for the first time in May 2013 and really enjoyed it. The city is filled with beautiful temples, historical sites and beautiful gardens. When my planned trip to China fell through for my long weekend in November, I decided to go back to Kyoto instead. I knew that Kyoto is downright gorgeous in the autumn season when all the deciduous trees turn to blazing colors of red, orange and yellow. However, what is interesting about Kyoto is that the fall colors come in later than what I am used to in the United States, Europe and even Korea. In those places, the fall colors already hit peak foliage and are in the downward slide to winter bare branches. However Japan in general, and Kyoto in particular enter fall later, so peak foliage doesn’t hit until around late November/early December.

So I knew that Kyoto autumn colors wouldn’t be in full bloom when I was there, but I was hopeful nonetheless that there would be enough color to get my autumn foliage fix. The search for autumn colors started immediately after I landed in Kyoto.


Kyoto Searching Tofukuji Temple

My first stop was the Tofukuji Temple in Kyoto. Tofukuji Temple is a 10 minute walk (clearly marked with signs) from Tofukuji Station on the JR Nara line and the JR Keihan line.  The foliage was starting to turn at Tofukuji, but it hadn’t turned just yet. It was like a tease for autumn lovers. You know what it could look like (particularly if you have seen pictures of Tofukuji in the full thrust of autumn).

Kyoto Searching Tofukuji Temple foliage

But as a first stop, it was enough to whet your appetite for more. You just had to know where to look to see incipient autumn foliage around you.

Kyoto Searching Tofukuji autumn bridge


Later in the day, I made a stop at Maruyama Park shortly before sunset. The park is right in the heart of eastern Kyoto and a short walk from Gion and a wide variety of temples, like Shorenin, Eikando, Kodaiji and Kiyomizu Temple. While the park itself wasn’t overwhelmed with autumn color, this particular spot was perfect for a photo op or just sit and contemplate the fall natural beauty.

Kyoto Searching Marayuma Park lake

Kyoto Searching Marayuma Park foliage


The next day I got an early start for a long day of autumn color and temple hunting. My first stop was the rural town of Ohara. Ohara is easily reached in a couple of ways. The longer way is Kyoto Bus number 17 from Kyoto Station to Ohara (580 yen). Alternatively, and frankly the quicker way, is to take the Karasuma subway line to the terminal station of Kokusaikaikan Station (a roughly 20 minute ride from Kyoto Station, 280 yen). Then transfer to Kyoto Bus 19 (bus station around back; follow the signs). The ride is roughly 20 minutes and costs 380 yen). Once you arrive at the Ohara Bus station, follow the signs (truthfully most of them are in Japanese, but you should see a few English signs) or the crowds for a 10 minute walk up the hill to Sanzenin Temple, the main attraction in Ohara.

Kyoto Searching Sanzenji Temple out temple

Kyoto Searching Sanzenji garden

Sanzenin Temple is a temple of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism and was founded in the early ninth century. The temple grounds are pretty sprawling with many gardens, out buildings and walking paths. It is a very pleasant outing and you can stroll around the temple grounds and take in the budding autumn colors around you.

Kyoto Searching Sanzenji main temple

Sanzenin is not the only temple in Ohara, but it is the most prominent and the largest temple. However, there are a couple other temples just a few minutes walk down from Sanzenin.

Kyoto Searching Sanzenji neighboring temple

Kyoto Searching Sanzenji foliage bridge

I will say that if you choose to go to Ohara, go early in the morning. I was there shortly after the temple opened at 9am, so the crowds were pretty sparse. However, when I was ready to leave in late morning, I saw the hordes of tour buses and crowds of people milling about. That advice is pretty much true for all popular sites though, particularly at beautiful times of the year, such as cherry blossom season in the spring and the autumn season.


The next stop on my full day itinerary was Ginkakuji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion. Of course I made a bit of a blunder on my return trip. I knew that Kyoto Bus 17 stopped at Ginkakuji on the way from Kyoto Station heading toward Ohara, so I assumed that it would stop at Ginkakuji on the way back. But sorry, tricks are for kids. I realized way too late that I was nowhere near Ginkakuji. As a sidenote, the best bus stop on the return bus ride back to Kyoto is Demachiyanagi Station. According to the map, it looks to be about a 15 minute + walk east to Ginkakuji. But if you are coming from around Kyoto Station, the best buses are 5, 17, 32, 100, 102, 203 or 204. But eventually I did make it Ginkakuji (the title picture for this blog post).

Ginkakuji Temple is located in eastern Kyoto, and was established in 1482 by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. His original intent was to coat the structure in silver in imitation of Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), built by his grandfather. But he died before that could happen, so all that remains is the beautiful, simple wood structure.

Kyoto Searching Ginkakuji Temple autumn foliage

The landscapes of Ginkakuji are very beautiful and very sculpted. The garden pathway is very peaceful (ignore the crowds) and particularly lovely this time of the year.

Kyoto Searching Ginkakuji garden foliage

One of the gardens has landscaped rippled sand, with the centerpiece a small sandhill sculpted into the shape of Mount Fuji.

Kyoto Searching Ginkakuji Temple rock garden


I capped off the day with a visit to Nanzenji Temple as sunset approached. There is about a one mile walk from Ginkakuji, connected by a pretty pathway called the Philosopher’s Pathway, which is lined with cherry trees. 

Kyoto Searching Nanzenji Temple main

Nanzenji Temple is a Rinzai Zen temple founded in 1293. The temple complex is set amid a beautiful grove of trees.

Kyoto Searching Nanzenji colorful autumn foliage

During the fall season, Nanzenji Temple is one of the Kyoto temples open for night illuminations during the height of the fall season. Sadly for me, the temple wasn’t open at night until mid November after I left Kyoto, so I could only enjoy it during the day.

Kyoto Searching Nanzenji Temple main grounds

Kyoto Searching Nanzenji foliage

That pretty much capped off the first two days of searching for autumn colors. I had two more days of Kyoto fall foliage (addressed in the coming blog posts). There is plenty to see and do in Kyoto. This was my second long weekend in Kyoto, and I didn’t see the same places twice. So if you love autumn beauty, I highly recommend Kyoto. Though if you want to see it at peak fall foliage, definitely plan your trip for late November/early December.

Japanese Teppanyaki

Japanese Teppanyaki dinner

Like most Americans, I’ve been to more than one Japanese steakhouse in my time. You know the ones- with the chef/entertainer grilling up a storm in front of a crowd of hungry diners surrounding the grill. For my final night in Kyoto, I decided to splurge on dinner at a real Japanese steakhouse for teppanyaki. And “splurge” is an accurate description in this case, since dinner cost me about $118 USD. I knew this in advance, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity for the experience to indulge. I went to a restaurant called Mikaku, which is located in eastern Kyoto. The restaurant is pretty easy to find since it is a five minute walk from the Shiijo train  stop on the Keihan Main Line. Take exit to Shijo Dori and take a left on Nawate Dori. Take the first left and the restaurant is located on the second floor.

The setup is the same as Japanese steakhouses in America. There is a long countertop in the room with three grills for customers to view their dinner made in front of them. While there are other options for dinner, the main reason to come here is for the teppanyaki. The smallest cut of meat is 100g (3.5oz) and the price goes up from there.

Kobe beef Japanese Teppanyaki

The full meal will get you your choice of size and cut of Kobe beef grilled to your specifications. You are given a bib like you find at lobster restaurants. You start the meal with a soup, which for my meal was Vichyssoise. You get an assortment of grilled vegetables, along with your meat. Japanese Teppanyaki chefs don’t have the same sort of entertainment stage presence like the ones you see in America, but they are no less skilled and professional in grilling your meal to perfection.

Japanese Teppanyaki chef

This was the first time I ever eaten Kobe beef, and it was delicious. The meat was super tender and practically melted in my mouth. My teppanyaki steak cooked to medium.

Kobe beef Teppanyaki 100g

After the meat course, you finish off the main meal with a super tasty garlic fried rice.

Teppanyaki fried rice

Teppanyaki fried garlic rice

This meal was a really memorable way to end my trip to Kyoto. This is absolutely not a restaurant you go expecting a discount. Go there knowing you will be spending over $100 USD PER PERSON. But if you can swing it, know it is worth it.

Kyoto Nightlife

Kyoto canal night view

I’m not big on nightlife in most of my travels. It’s not that I don’t like to go out at night. It’s just that I’m usually alone, and bars and clubs aren’t my thing when I’m on my own. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like walking around my city of choice just to see the city at night. Kyoto is no different. It doesn’t have a hip, happening nightlife like you would find in Tokyo. There are plenty of restaurants and there are bars, but it’s much more low key.

The two more traditional nightlife areas are often identified as Gion and Pontocho. Gion in particular is the the more traditional nightlife area that was the center of geisha culture. I walked around there briefly late at night, and it was remarkably dark, because there wasn’t a lot of streetlights. For obvious reasons, it’s much easier to see the district during the daylight.

Gion Street Kyoto

Gion Street, Kyoto

Gion is easily reached by the train. The closest train stop is Shijo on the Keihan Main Line. Walk east on Shijo Dori and then take a right on Hanamikoji Dori. The district is small and filled with narrow streets that are filled with people during the day, but are relatively quiet at night.

Another nightlife district is Pontocho, which is also nearby. Pontocho is a narrow alley that parallels the Kamo River and stretches from Shijo Dori north to Sanjo Dori. There are numerous train stops on either side of this district. Pontocho is filled with bars and restaurants of all varieties for enjoyment.

Pontocho, Kyoto

Ponotoco street lanterns

Many of these restaurants have terraces set up overlooking the river, and customers can pay a surcharge to enjoy the view in the cool night.

Kyoto canal-side night restaurants

Kyoto is a not a city to go for super modern, insane nightlife like you find in large cities. Though it does have plenty of bars and restaurants, it’s much more laid back with hints of Kyoto’s traditional past.

Kyoto Gardens

Nijo Castle beautiful garden view

Kyoto is an extraordinarily beautiful city with many, many beautiful gardens. I visited Kyoto in May, so while it was beautiful with lush, green foliage everywhere, it was sort of like the lull time between the full blooming of cherry blossoms and azaleas in the spring, and the explosion of color that happens every fall. I couldn’t quite figure out if I was there at the tail end of the azalea blooming season or right at the beginning of the season. Based on the azalea blooming season in Seoul, I was there to see the season off for another year, not welcome a new one. Like the photo above, I saw enough azaleas to see how extraordinarily beautiful it would be to be there for the full bloom season. That photo, and the photo below, is from the garden at Nijo Castle and it was so peaceful and beautiful on that bright, sunny afternoon.

Nijo Castle garden azaelas

All the Kyoto temples, castles and shrines have at least a small garden to enjoy. Kodaiji Temple has some beautiful foliage while walking through the temple grounds, including a small bamboo forest.

Kyoto interesting tree

I kept imagining what this tree will look like in the fall. I’ve seen pictures of amazing Japanese trees during autumn, and the rainbow of colors is awe inspiring to behold. I want to see Japanese foliage in the full thrust of autumn at some point in my life.

Kodaiji Temple complex

Kodaiji Temple garden window view

This view looks almost like a  painting, but rather it is framed by a door.

Kodaiji Temple bamboo forest

Ryonanji Temple also has a garden, but it is not the typical garden you expect. Sure, the temple is located on a woodsy grounds, but the centerpiece garden of this temple is a famous Zen rock garden. It was created in the 15th century during the Muromachi Period, and consists of 15 rocks set in waves of neatly organized white temples, surrounded by clay walls. Visitors aren’t able to walk in the garden obviously, but there is a wooden veranda visitors can contemplate the garden.

Ryoanji Temple Zen rock garden

Another beautiful garden is the Shinen Gardens located at the Heian Shrine. This was another place replete with azaleas in partial bloom, and I kept imagining what it looks like during the height of blooming season when it would be a riot of color. It was also full of fledgling iris flowers and waterlilies, which just started their blooming season.

Shinen Gardens irises pond

me at Shinen Gardens waterlily pond

Shinen Garden waterlily pond overhead view

The waterlilies were starting their summer blooming season. At times, it almost felt I was in a hidden world somewhere in Narnia.

Shinen Garden waterlily pond stepping stones

water snake at Shinen Gardens waterlily pond

A water snake slithering through a waterlily pond.

Shinen Gardens waterlily pond closeup

Shinen Gardens waterlily pond overhead wide view

I only saw a few gardens, and what I did see made me want to come back to the city during the fall. Sure I’d also love to see the city during cherry blossom season, but that blooming season only lasts seven to 10 days. So it is hard to coordinate a vacation during cherry blossom season, and it’s easier to catch if you actually live in Japan. But autumn is my favorite time of the year, and I’m always on the lookout for beautiful, colorful nature. Kyoto would probably be the ideal place in Japan to experience the height of all. I’m seriously considering coming back on one of my fall long weekends.

Kyoto Temples- May 2013

Kinkakuji- Temple of Golden Pavilion

Memorial Day weekend I visited Kyoto. It had been on my travel list for a while since it is the cultural capital of Japan, and is one of the few Japanese cities to escape Allied bombing during World War II. So there are more historical structures and neighborhoods still in existence, even though they reside right along and among modern day Japanese architecture. If you love temples and shrines, this is definitely the city for you. I didn’t even see all of them, but focused on some of the larger, more famous and more beautiful temples.

The first one I visited was Nijo Castle which is pretty centrally located in the city. The external building of the main castle,, Ninomaru Palace, is very beautiful.

Nijo Castle entry

The one thing about many (though thankfully not all) Japanese castles/temples is that photographs are not allowed inside of most of these structures. So you just relax and enjoy the view and you don’t worry about jockeying for position to take photographs. Asian castles, palaces and temples are set up very differently than their counterparts in the West, which is no surprise. The most interesting feature of this castle is the nightingale floors. Every time someone steps on these floorboards, you hear a squeaking sound like a nightingale bird. They were installed to protect the shogun from enemies, and the sound can be rather loud when tour groups are shuffling through.

The entire castle complex is encircled by thick stone walls. There are other buildings located throughout the castle grounds, along with a very peaceful garden.

Nijo Castle walls

The next main temple I visited was the Sanjusangendo Hall. This is another temple that prohibits photography of its interior.

Sanjusangendo Hall

The interior of the temple is rather spectacular. The entire hall stretches nearly 120m  and is filled with 1,001 wooden statues of the thousand-handed Kannon surrounding a huge seated Kannon status in the center of the hall. It’s rather awe inspiring to realize that these wooden statues date from the 12th and 13th centuries and still exist. It’s rather hard to describe and should be something that is taken in to appreciate the artistry of the statuary.

After that temple, I continued my day long walk of eastern Kyoto with Kiyomizu Temple. This temple was initially built in 798 CE and rebuilt in 1633.  It too is a temple complex filled with other entry buildings and pagodas to enjoy.

Kiyomizu Temple entry

Kiyomizu Temple Pagoda

One of the most popular buildings in the temple complex is Jishu Shrine. This shrine is considered to be the home of the god of love and matchmaking. One can purchase charms for all sorts of desires, and even leave your own wishes.

Jishu Shrine

The main hall of the temple complex is constructed over a cliff and has a large wooden veranda supported by 139 pillars.

Kiyomizu Temple complex

The temple grounds were rich in green, because it was the height of spring. I can only imagine how beautiful the grounds look in the fall when the leaves turn into explosions of reds, oranges, and yellows. As you can see in the picture, this is a very popular place to visit, not only for foreign tourists but also school groups. I visited on a Saturday, and there were literally busloads of schoolkids running through the grounds.

Probably one of the most aesthetically beautiful temples in Kyoto is Kinkakuji Shrine (Temple of the Golden Pavilion). The original temple was constructed in the 1390s and was covered in gold leaf. The original structure was burned to the ground in 1950, and the temple was rebuilt in 1955.

me at Golden Pavilion

Golden Pavilion pond

I visited this temple on Monday, and not surprisingly, there were hordes of school groups visiting the site (seriously is that all school kids do every day-visit beautiful sites?) But still, the pavilion itself is very beautiful to look at (you can’t go inside the structure), and the surrounding green parklands was very beautiful.

It would be easy to overdose on temples and shrines and palaces in Kyoto, just because there are so many in the city, many of them original. But if you like beauty, they are certainly not to be missed in Kyoto.